State nets $7M from five companies in Slope lease sale

The State of Alaska’s North Slope oil and gas lease sale netted only about half of the bid revenue that the Bureau of Land Management’s sealed bid auction for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain did, but interest from industry was still far greater. The Division of Oil and Gas collected approximately $7 million across 115 bids from five companies, officials announced Wednesday afternoon following the morning bid opening. The state’s North Slope and Beaufort Sea lease sales are traditionally a minor annual event with a small audience of industry representatives, reporters and others present to watch the bid opening. COVID-19 precautions prevented that this year. BLM generated about $14 million in its ANWR sale in which bids were opened a week ago; however, the individual coastal plain leases are many times larger than the state tracts that are usually about 2,500 acres or less and 11 tracts were leased to three bidders. Most of that bidding was from the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. Oil and gas officials said in the statement announcing the sale results that the bid activity is encouraging despite the rough conditions of oil markets over the past year. “This is good news for Alaskans. We look forward to working with these companies to ensure Alaska’s future in energy development,” Oil and Gas Director Tom Stokes said. The state oil and gas lease auctions have typically been held in late fall. The December 2019 sales netted generated nearly 70 bids totaling about $7.5 million, while more than $28 million was spent on state land by explorers in 2018. The five bidders collected 191,248 acres of state land and near shore areas of the Beaufort Sea and are a mix of small explorers and larger, established producers. Hilcorp Energy was the only bidder on Beaufort Sea acreage and won three tracts along the north edge of the Prudhoe Bay Unit. Per usual, there were no bids for the North Slope Foothills area. Oil Search, the Papua New Guinea-based producer that is developing the large Pikka oil project on the Slope, collected 48 tracts primarily to the south of its current work. The vast majority of the sought-after acreage between the producing fields near the coast is currently leased. Great Bear Petroleum Ventures II also picked up 47 tracts largely to the south of the producing fields as well, spending more than $100 per acre on some of the leases to do so. Great Bear was originally founded as an Anchorage-based independent explorer and held significant North Slope when it was purchased by British Pantheon Resources in 2019. Lagniappe Alaska, an offshoot company of Bill Armstrong, who’s namesake Armstrong Oil and Gas led discovery of the Nanushuk oil formation that is the main source Pikka prospect in the mid-2010s, also won 13 leases mostly on the eastern portion of the Slope near ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson gas field. Explorers have shown more interest in eastern Slope areas in recent years; the area was partly explored in the 1980s and some oil was found but for several reasons was not developed. New North Slope player Arctic Circle Exploration — a Kansas-based independent, according to state business records —also acquired seven leases south of Prudhoe. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

GUEST COMMENTARY: Alaskans must stand against reversing four years of progress

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America. For Alaska’s energy community, the next four years are certain to look quite different from the previous four. Before we look forward, let’s remind ourselves of how important the last four years have been. Under conservative leadership, ANWR was opened. That, in and of itself, was a monumental achievement made in concert between the administration and our congressional delegation. But that was just the beginning of successes in the energy arena. NPR-A lease sales were held, Tongass timber harvesting was initiated, wind and solar projects began, and mining opportunities were advanced. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s “Save Our Seas” initiatives will help keep Alaska’s pristine waters clean. A polar class icebreaker will patrol the Bering and Chukchi seas, providing for security and opportunity alike. Alaska’s been blessed to have pro-responsible development energy policy under Republican leadership these past four years. American energy dominance, increased energy jobs, and lower energy costs for consumers were all major achievements. Which brings us to the next four years. If President-elect Biden is to be believed, things sure will change that on Jan. 20. According to his campaign website, Biden plans to “permanently protect” ANWR from development, via a day-one Executive Order. He also promises the same action to ban permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters, as well as to require permitting decisions to account for climate impacts. From there, his hand-picked team of eco-warriors, ahem, Secretary-designees for the Departments of Energy, Interior, and Transportation, along with the Director-designee of the EPA, will work to roll back the regulatory progress made over the last four years. Add the administration’s dual “climate czars,” former Secretary of State John Kerry and former EPA Director Gina McCarthy, who will work outside of congressional authority to implement some of the most radical aspects of Biden’s agenda, and you have an eco-left “dream team.” To that end, Power The Future sent a letter to the Biden/Harris transition team and inquired about any recent Alaska visits by Secretary-designees Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., (Interior), former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich., (Energy), or EPA Director-designee Michael Regan. The vast majority, 62 percent, of Alaskan lands are federally managed. If none of the nominees have ever set foot in our state or seen first-hand the projects and opportunities they will be impacting on a daily basis, they won’t be able to represent the best interests of Alaskans. Their actions will have an impact on real people, existing and future jobs, and rural and urban communities across our state. Some Alaskans are excited about this transition. The environmental warriors who espouse a “wildlife-above-human-life” philosophy are most likely thrilled with Biden’s choices to lead Interior, Energy, Transportation, and the EPA. After all, each has backed radical elements — if not the entire plan — of the Green New Deal. That overreaching set of initiatives would cost Alaskan households over $84,000 in the first year of its implementation! That would be a direct threat to Alaska’s energy economy. So as Jan. 20 approaches, let’s celebrate our state’s advancements under the outgoing administration, and stand together as Alaskans to stand up to new policies that will hurt our state. The thousands of Alaskans who balance environmental stewardship with responsible development each and every day deserve that support. They haven’t stopped working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to bring reliable, affordable energy to market. Let’s ensure they aren’t forced to do so under the crushing reforms of the Biden/Harris administration. Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska State Director for Power The Future, a nationwide non-profit focused on supporting energy workers, while pushing back on radical green groups and the ideologues who fund them. Contact him at [email protected]

Stocks ended year with records as other parts of economy limped

Thousands of people are still out of work, many restaurants and retail stores are fighting for their lives and the service industry may never be the same. But the U.S. stock markets set records to finish 2020, despite volatility produced by the coronavirus pandemic. The S&P 500 Index is up about 70 percent from its March lows. The market performance could be a sign that the economy will improve over the next six months. It also could just be a result of economic sectors being unequally represented, financial experts said. In addition, not all Americans share in the wealth of the stock market. A pre-pandemic survey by Pew Research Center found 55 percent of working Americans had retirement accounts grounded in the stock market or other investment vehicles; only 35 percent had personal investments. Mansco Perry, the executive director and chief investment officer of the Minnesota State Board of Investment, sees a story in the disconnect between the overall economy and the markets. The markets have benefited from the stimulus provided by Congress and the Federal Reserve. Interest rates remain low, and during the mandated economic shutdowns this spring, public companies moved quickly to cut discretionary expenses and preserve their liquidity. Plus, success isn’t spread evenly across the S&P 500. If you look at some of its sectors there are some still suffering. “Energy is still awful, airlines are awful, real estate is awful, hotels awful. I mean, they’re all still down by double digits,” Perry said in early December during the Star Tribune’s annual Investors Roundtable. The recession this year also was unlike any other, said David Royal, executive vice president and chief investment officer of Thrivent, in an interview this week. It was not fueled by cyclical excesses, rapidly rising interest rates or systemic breakdowns that were hallmarks of past recessions. The economy was in relatively good shape at the start of the year, and investors were generally bullish about the year ahead, he said. “We just voluntarily shut down the economy in the interest of public health,” Royal said. So the recovery doesn’t follow patterns of the past either, partly because of the way initial governmental relief was targeted. “There will be times when there seems to be a disconnect because the market is looking at where things are going to be six months or a year from now — particularly in a situation like this where pre-vaccine people are still hurting right now,” Royal said. “But yet we can see light at the end of the tunnel so the market is pricing in that light at the end of the tunnel. But people are looking at this week’s paycheck and saying this isn’t what I’d like.” So the stock market gained points and optimism on each new vaccine development and each new federal stimulus announcement. However, a September Pew report found that 46 percent of working lower-income Americans had trouble paying bills since the pandemic hit the U.S. And 4 in 10 workers evaluate the economy on wages, availability of jobs and the cost of health care, while only a quarter look to the stock market’s health, last year’s Pew survey found. Unemployment numbers show jobs being added back since record low unemployment levels in the spring but a deeper look into the numbers show Main Street continues to struggle. Martha Pomerantz, a portfolio manager at Evercore Wealth Management, noted that the stock market doesn’t represent the whole economy. The S&P 500 Index, the widest-watched indicator of the stock market, by definition doesn’t represent the entirety of the economy or even the whole market. It approximates the 500 largest public companies, each measuring their annual revenue in billions of dollars. “The segments of the economy that were most affected represent 19 percent of GDP and 20 percent of employment, but only 7 percent of the operating earnings of the S&P 500,” she said. “So many of the companies in the market are actually the ones that are benefiting in this COVID period where they have been able to leverage their technology and they have been able to grow their company at a much faster rate.” Some of the actions taken this spring by the Federal Reserve also tended to help the largest companies first and fastest. “If you think about large companies there is a built-in infrastructure if the Fed and the Treasury Department want to get liquidity to those companies and do it really, really quickly,” Royal said. “There is no similar mechanism for small businesses.” Policymakers tried some new things to help those small companies including the Payroll Protection Program and some other things but there were no established ways to get money to those small businesses quickly, the experts said. Under the PPP program, a small company was defined as one with less than 500 employees. That generous definition still left a big gap of midsize companies that were not targeted for aid. “These midsize companies are not companies accessing the public debt market so the Fed activity doesn’t help them and they may or may not be eligible for PPP,” Royal said. So as long as large corporations continue to recover, the stock market will likely continue its upward run, financial experts said.

North Pacific pollock fleet preps for season after tough 2020

Skipper Kevin Ganley spent most of the summer and fall pulling a massive trawl net through the Bering Sea in a long slow search for pollock, a staple of McDonald’s fish sandwiches. The fish proved very hard to find. “We just scratched and scratched and scratched,” Ganley recalls. “It was survival mode.” Ganley’s boat is part of a fleet of largely Washington-based trawlers that have had a difficult year as they joined in North America’s largest single-species seafood harvest. Their catch rates in 2020 during the five-month “B” season that ended Nov. 1 were well less than long-term averages. They also encountered more skinny, small fish — fit for mince but not prime fillets — than in a typical year, according to a federal review of the season. Meanwhile, COVID-19 greatly complicated the essential task of keeping crews healthy as one company, Seattle-based American Seafoods, was hit with outbreaks on three vessels. The pandemic also resulted in the cancellation of some research surveys that help scientists measure fish stocks in a body of water that has been undergoing climatic changes as temperatures warm. This has added an unwelcome element of suspense as crews start their COVID-19 two-week quarantines before the Jan. 20 start of the “A” season. Though the weather often is rough, these winter harvests typically offer prime fishing as the pollock come together in the southern Bering Sea before spawning. But the disappointing fishing in the last half of 2020 has put Ganley on edge about what he and his four crew members will find when they drop their nets. “This is the best time of year,” said Ganley, who captains the 123-foot American Beauty. “If they are not there, we’re in trouble.” Ice platform During the past decade, the fleet’s average annual haul of pollock has tallied more than 2.88 billion pounds. The huge fish populations that sustain such harvests result from the remarkable Bering Sea productivity, which has been driven — in part — by seasonal ice that can act as a giant platform for growing lipid-rich algae at the base of the maritime food chain. In 2018 and 2019, amid a warming trend, there was scant winter ice, and summer Bering Sea temperatures — even on the ocean bottom — soared by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. In those two years, fishery scientists noted all sorts of ecological changes, including pollock and Pacific cod migrating in much greater numbers to the northern Bering Sea and into Arctic portions of the Chukchi Sea. Biologists and Alaska Native villagers also observed increased die-offs of some sea birds and marine mammals. In 2020, an initial cooling trend enabled ice to form across a broad swath of the Bering Sea, and by March exceeded long-term averages. But the ice was thin and quickly fell apart amid storms and warmer temperatures. By early April, when longer spring days help spur algae blooms, it was gone from much of the sea. “That was the time of year when ice should have been near its maximum, and we had this dramatic fall off,” said Rick Thoman, a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher who tracks the ice formation and movement. During the rest of 2020, sea temperatures continued to rise. Though the warming was not as intense as in 2018 and 2019, it still was well above long-term averages, and some sea bird die-offs continued, according to a federal ecosystem report. COVID-19 disruption In a typical year, a series of surveys by federal fishery scientists help assess the algae bloom, the distribution of commercial fish species and the abundance of copepods — small crustaceans that are a key source of food for young pollock. But as the pandemic took hold in the spring, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, headquartered in Seattle, canceled five of six research cruises amid concerns about the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks at sea. “After much deliberation we determined that there is no way to move forward with a survey plan that effectively minimizes risks to staff, crew, and the communities associated with the survey,” said a statement released in May by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But scientists still found innovative new ways to collect some data. Fishermen, for example, helped in taking bottom temperatures with equipment they brought on board their vessels. And scientists figured out a way to roughly measure the pollock abundance through acoustic sonar mounted in three Saildrones, which are remote-controlled 20-foot boats. They were developed by Alameda, California-based Saildrone, and are powered by a mix of wind, solar and hydro power from turbines turned by the motion in the sea. The crewless vessels left California in mid-May and traveled 2,200 nautical miles to the Bering Sea, where they spent much of July and August conducting the pollock survey. Alex De Robertis, a NOAA Fisheries scientist, said the Saildrones had previously been used for survey work in the Arctic, and he was able to quickly develop the survey plan for pollock when the pandemic took hold. He comes up with the survey instructions for the Saildrones, and then the development company directs their movement. “The whole thing worked liked clockwork. It’s amazing,” De Robertis said. Ganley said he twice spotted the craft — bright orange in color and with distinctive fins — as they crisscrossed the fishing grounds. Initially, he thought they might be piloted by some adventuresome sailors until he drew close. “I think it’s brilliant,” Ganley declared. “That’s our hope: scientists like that.” Information gap The Saildrones’ data made a significant contribution to the annual federal assessment of pollock stocks that helps determine the harvest level for the upcoming year. But the Saildrones did not have any trawl nets. So they could not replicate another part of survey work that involves netting fish and assessing their size, weight and age. That information gap means there is more uncertainty about what’s happening to the pollock stocks and why many fishermen struggled to find older, bigger pollock during the summer and fall harvest. Some of these fish may have moved farther north in a continuation of trends of recent warm-water years. But a planned trawl survey of the U.S. portion of the northern Bering Sea was canceled. Fishermen’s experiences of the past year also pointed to other ecological changes, perhaps resulting from the warming trend that has benefited some species that have moved into traditional pollock harvest zones. Ganley said he noticed far fewer humpbacks and other whales in the area where he searched for the scarce large pollock. And sablefish, also known as black cod, turned up in the nets of pollock fishermen in much greater quantities. The final fleet tally of these fish — prized for their rich, oily fillets — was 3,459 metric tons, which was more than 34 times the quantity caught just three years earlier. This was a problem because the tonnage far exceeded the pollock fleet’s allocation. Therefore, much of it — under federal rules — had to be discarded. “It’s tough. There were a lot of small ones that we were catching, and you had to pick them out of the nets and throw them overboard,” Ganley said. The pollock fleet’s dramatically higher take of sablefish enraged other fishermen who make a big part of their livelihoods from catching black cod with longlines set along the bottom with baited hooks. “This is unacceptable by any standards and threatens the health of the sablefish resource throughout Alaska,” wrote Raymond Douville, an Alaska longliner, in testimony submitted in December to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “The trawl fleet is being allowed to trash one resource in order to profit for themselves.” Fewer shore leaves The pollock fleet started 2020 in a kind of splendid isolation as they worked the winter Bering Sea harvests with crews who left their shoreside homes before the COVID-19 pandemic had gained much momentum outside of China. But the risks of the novel coronavirus were demonstrated in May when an American Seafoods factory trawler, fishing for hake off the Washington coast, had one crewmember report feeling sick. Subsequent testing then indicated 85 out of 126 crew were infected with the virus. In the months that followed, the owners of most pollock boats — both the larger factory ships and smaller catcher boats — were able to prevent COVID-19 infections from coming aboard their vessels. That was accomplished with 14-day quarantines, which became the standard for all crews. American Seafood vessels initially had opted for quarantines of as few as five days, but after the spring outbreaks switched to the 14-day quarantines. The company continued to have problems in the summer fishing season in the Bering Sea when 85 of 119 crew members tested positive for COVID-19 during a stopover in the Unalaska port in the Aleutian Islands. That vessel then had to temporarily stop fishing and docked in Seward where infected crewmembers disembarked. COVID-19 also created new tensions in the fleet’s relationship with shoreside communities that are ports-of-call. Alaska public health officials were concerned about the potential for infected crewmembers to spread the virus in remote areas with few health facilities. Meanwhile, boat operators were wary that their crew might pick up the virus onshore and bring it to sea. This made port stops, once an opportunity for crews to savor a rare restaurant meal, far more austere. Ganley required his crew to stay aboard the vessel through most of the 2020 fishing season. He is hopeful that sometime this winter his crew can get vaccine shots. Until then, he plans to repeat the prohibition on shore leaves.

Carnival CEO: Enough cash to endure 12 more cruise-less months

Carnival Corp. has enough cash to survive a cruise-less 2021, CEO Arnold Donald told investors Jan. 11. The company reported a net loss of $2.2 billion during the final quarter of 2020 but ended the year with $9.5 billion in liquidity, enough to endure at least 12 more months without cruises, Donald said. To tighten supply, the company has divested of 15 ships from its pre-pandemic fleet of 105, and plans to bid farewell to four more in the coming weeks. “I’m glad to put 2020 behind us,” Donald said. “It proved to be a true testament to the resilience of our company.” The company has returned 30 of its ships to U.S. waters since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its months-long no-sail order in October, replacing it with requirements cruise companies need to meet in order to resume passenger cruises. Carnival Corp. had removed all of its ships from U.S. waters — and CDC oversight — in June. Ships in U.S. waters are required to test crewmembers for COVID-19 weekly and report results to the CDC. Donald said the company is still awaiting guidelines from the public health agency about when and how it will operate test cruises, one of the next requirements. Last year Carnival Corp. cruise lines Costa Cruises and AIDA resumed passenger operations in Europe; both canceled sailings late last year as COVID-19 cases spiked and countries went back into lockdown. Donald said he hopes all of Carnival Corp.’s ships will be operating by the end of 2021. While details regarding cruising’s resumption are still unknown, Donald said demand from past cruisers remains strong. Cumulative advanced bookings for the second half of 2021 are within the historical range, according to the company, and the cumulative advanced bookings for the first half of 2022 are ahead of 2019. “Whether we start sailing in April or March or June or whenever, the real value in this business extends for many years,” Donald said. “Eventually we will all be back to the great days of growth in our industry, earnings growth and cash generation. A matter of a couple of months here and there are not determining the future value of the industry.”

Act signed to aid young fishermen

After years of refinement and hearings in Congress, the Young Fishermen’s Development Act was finally signed into law on Jan. 5. The act lays out funding and a structure for workforce development and education programs for young commercial fishermen across the country. Rep. Don Young, the original sponsor of the House version of the bill, noted that young fishermen face more obstacles than in the past, including new barriers to entry, limited training opportunities and a global pandemic. The bill directs the National Sea Grant Office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a matching grant program specifically for training, education, outreach and technical assistance for young fishermen. Recipients would have to be collaborative state, Tribal, local, or regionally based networks or public-private partnerships, according to the bill. The grants won’t be able to be used for purchasing licenses, permits, quota or any other harvesting rights. “Our legislation is about supporting the livelihoods of fishing communities across the nation by making the next generation aware of the opportunities available in the commercial fishing industry,” Young said in a press release. “This is a tremendous victory, but my work on behalf of our fishing fleet is not done. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our fishermen, processors, and countless others who depend on a thriving seafood industry. Now that the 117th Congress has begun, I want our fishermen to know that I will continue fighting for a safe and prosperous future for this vital sector.” In 2016, Alaska’s average commercial fisherman was older than 50, and rural resident permit holdings had fallen by more than 30 percent. That movement away from locally owned fisheries and the aging of the fishing fleet drew concern from groups like Alaska Sea Grant and the Alaska Marine Conservation Network, prompting the groups to form committees on policy reform to help bring more young people into the fishery. High on their list of concerns was the cost of entering limited-entry fisheries like salmon or halibut, where permits or individual fishing quota, or IFQ, are expensive, in addition to boats and equipment. A report published by a group of fisheries policy researchers in 2017 provided a list of recommendations to help reverse these trends. The first three recommendations all had to do with finding nonmarket-based solutions to facilitate new entry into the fisheries, such as community trusts that could hold permits or establishing apprenticeship programs. The bill does allow the grants to be used for “mentoring, apprenticeships, or internships,” but the other uses are primarily education in topics like vessel and engine care, maintenance and repair, sustainable fishing practices, business practices and direct marketing. Grants are for up to three years and $200,000 each. The bill indicates appropriations to begin in fiscal year 2022. The bill’s signing was overshadowed by the chaos of the invasion of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, but the act was hailed by the Alaska commercial fishing fleet as a step in the right direction to reverse the aging of the average fisherman in the state, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While commercial fishing crews remain relatively young compared to the overall population, permit holders and vessel operators are among the older demographic, and younger fishermen are not moving into the fleet as permit and quota holders to replace them. The Marine Fish Conservation Network, a national sustainable fishing advocacy group, praised the passage of the bill as a step in the right direction for young fishermen. Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and co-chair of the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s Policy Council, said there is plenty of other work to do to help young fishermen, but the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is a win. “It’s a piece of what needs to be done, not all of it,” she said. “It’s not an end-all-be-all, but it is an important step.” Industry group the Fishing Communities Coalition — of which ALFA is one member — essentially wrote drafts for the act, Behnken said. Initially, there was interest in including help for fishermen seeking to buy into fisheries through quota or permits, but quickly found that there was little support for that among industry or in Congress. In the interest of moving the bill forward, the provisions were dropped. But training is an important need, too, she said. The grants will help organizations cover costs for trainings that may help aspiring fishermen work their way into the industry, such as workshops on regulations and vessel repair and maintenance, Behnken said. In fisheries, which are naturally subject to the forces of nature, the establishment of training programs and a sort of ladder to climb may help offer some stability, she said. As to helping with the finances of getting into the industry, Behnken said the industry is looking to sources outside the federal government to help. The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, a Sitka-based organization, runs an deckhand apprenticeship program to connect interested young fishermen with a small-boat skipper to introduce them to the industry. The program helps teach the apprentices how to approach the job and how to avoid certain pitfalls, such as negotiating a contract before getting aboard and how to negotiate all the gear required in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The trust also runs a Local Fish Fund, which helps finance some of the cost of a down payment for quota, which is notoriously expensive. Since launching in 2019, the fund has helped provide $1.5 million in loans. Since the introduction of limited entry fisheries, permits have gradually been siphoned away from rural and local fishermen, impacting communities. Behnken said the goal of efforts like the Local Fish Fund is to help reverse some of that movement. “The escalating cost of entry has really marginalized rural communities, native communities—anybody with limited access to capital,” she said. The text of the act does not give a specific timeline for the development of the program or the first distribution of grants. Young’s office did not return a request for an interview. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Peter Pan deal increases Alaskan fisheries ownership

One of Alaska’s largest fish processors is officially back home as part of a deal that makes it a “vertically integrated global seafood company,” according to the new owners. The new Peter Pan Seafoods ownership group of McKinley Capital Management, RRG Capital Management and Rodger May of Seattle-based Northwest Fish Co. took control of the once Alaska-based fish company Jan. 1. The new company merges Peter Pan’s commodity-based processing business with Northwest Fish’s expertise in fresh and value-added seafood processing and trading into one domestically owned company. McKinley Capital CEO Rob Gillam said the transaction is the Anchorage-based private equity firm’s way of “betting on Alaska.” For decades Peter Pan — founded in Dillingham — had been owned by the Japanese seafood giant Maruha Nichiro Corp. “We’re excited about the Bristol Bay fishery. We’re excited about Peter Pan Seafoods and we’re excited about the acquisition,” Gillam said. The new company’s vision is to “produce sustainable seafood for the benefit of oceans and people”; May and Gillam said in separate interviews that a major key to Peter Pan’s future success will be the company’s ability to adapt to changing markets because it is now a more complete, integrated fish processing and selling business. “It’s not just about selling fish, it’s about the ability to adapt and tilt your selling operations towards demand,” Gillam said. May, who leads the company’s operations, said the former Northwest Fish plants in the Puget Sound area will largely continue to operate as they have, processing fresh and value-added seafood for retail and food service customers. In Alaska, they want things at Peter Pan’s plants in Dillingham, Port Moller, King Cove and Valdez to be much busier. “The goal is to add more pounds to those plants and do more with those pounds in those plants,” May said. The company’s headquarters will remain in Bellevue, Wash. The specific terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed, but Gillam said his firm and Los Angeles.-based RRG Capital financed the acquisition in an equal partnership. RRG’s expertise “is the dinner plate,” he described. “They do food, agri, water, seafood. That’s they’re specialty and specifically focused on sustainability of your dinner plate.” Gillam, May and RRG co-founder Ari Swiller have known each other for years, which also helped the complex transaction come together, they said. “We believe that sustainably managed, vertically integrated seafood companies are attractive investments and create environmental and social benefits,” Swiller said in a statement about the closing. “By focusing new Peter Pan on its customer and fleet services, we’re confident we can create tremendous value for our customers and our stakeholders.” Gillam said one of the most fruitful ways create that value is to simply operate one’s plants more efficiently, which he believes will be possible with the workforce they have. “We’re very fortunate to have inherited a great group of people,” he said. Peter Pan representatives have already started working to improve the company’s relationship with its fishermen, according to Gillam. Multiple Bristol Bay-area fishing industry representatives working said they are encouraged by what bringing a large processor under local control could mean for fishing in the region. “We’ve made a massive outreach to the Alaska fleet to say, ‘hey, be blunt, let us know,’” Gillam said. “Fishermen are not known for their shyness so we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback.” According to May, Peter Pan leaders have plans for significant growth over the next three-to-five years. “It’ll benefit the fleet; it’ll benefit Alaskan workers. It’ll benefit local communities with more tax revenue,” May said. Slightly more philosophically, he added that he believes avoiding further consolidation among Alaska processors will help the industry also help the industry as a whole. “The simple fact that we were able to keep Peter Pan intact is huge,” May said. Communities buy crab quota With the help of local development groups, 30 Western Alaska communities have bought further into Bering Sea crab fisheries. Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. and Coastal Villages Region Fund announced a complex transaction in which 30 communities across the Bristol Bay and Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta regions purchased snow and red king crab quota valued at approximately $35 million from the Seattle-based Mariner Cos. that collectively totals about 3 percent of the total crab fishery. As part of BBEDC’s role of the deal, the community development quota, or CDQ, group will increase its ownership share in Mariner crab vessels and take outright ownership of four of them. “Owning boats quite frankly is a headache,” CEO Norm Van Vactor quipped, but he added that the benefit of the transaction for BBEDC is more crab available for its vessels that should make overall operations more efficient. With the CDQs playing a facilitating role in what are really separate deals for each community to own quota, according to Van Vactor, the revenue from the crab fishery will flow directly back into local government coffers. “There’s no middle man,” he said. “I hope the structure that we’ve put together actually makes this just a starting point. The infrastructure is there, if you will, is there now for communities to do more of this.” Coastal Villages CEO Eric Deakin said the crab fishery revenue should help fund solutions to some of the critical issues in the region. “Rural Alaska continues to face high poverty rates and lack of access to resources and there is a growing need for services in the Y-K Delta and Bristol Bay regions, which this deal will help address. We welcome a new generation of Alaskan owners and operators fishing in the Bering Sea and improving livelihoods here,” Deakin said. Van Vactor emphasized that at its core the deal brings more of Western Alaska’s fisheries under local control because of the value of the deal. “This wasn’t a grant or federal program; this was Alaskans through a competitive sales process buying back ownership to Alaska’s Bering Sea resource,” he said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

State to appeal Corps’ denial of Pebble permit

The Pebble Partnership will have the State of Alaska on its side when the company appeals the federal decision to deny the company approval to construct its mine later this month. Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced via a Jan. 8 statement from his office that his administration would appeal the November U.S. Army Corps of Engineers record of decision, or ROD, denying Pebble the ability to secure a key Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit. Dunleavy said in the statement that the decision signed by Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District Commander Damon Delarosa’s rejecting Pebble’s mine plan sets a “dangerous precedent” that will harm future development in the state. “We have to prevent a federal agency, in this instance, the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers, from using the regulatory process to effectively prevent the state from fulfilling a constitutional mandate to develop its natural resources,” the governor said. The decision was based on flawed conclusions and “usurped the entire public interest review process,” the statement reads. Corps Alaska District leaders found that Pebble’s plan for a large open-pit mine and extensive support infrastructure does not meet Clean Water Act criteria for minimizing development impacts and “is contrary to the public interest.” The Pebble ROD followed draft and final versions of the project’s environmental impact statement — intended to inform the record of decision — that largely concluded the Bristol Bay region’s prolific salmon fishery wouldn’t be meaningfully impacted by the project. Those findings were blasted by conservation, commercial fishing and Alaska Native groups opposed to Pebble for fears it would degrade water quality in productive salmon habitat and the mines waste would be a constant threat to the area’s salmon stocks, particularly in the Nushagak River. Public surveys have consistently found a majority of Alaskans are against the Pebble mine plan. Several state and federal agencies logged criticisms of the draft EIS for cursory analysis and conclusion drawn with incomplete data in official comments on the massive document. Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen said in the statement from the governor’s office that the Pebble ROD “ignored long-standing guidance that required it to tailor mitigation requirements to recognize Alaska’s unique position of holding more intact wetlands than any of the Lower 48 states combined.” In the first indication that Pebble could have trouble obtaining a wetlands fill permit the Corps officials in late August imposed mitigation requirements mandating the company conduct direct, in-kind mitigation — restoration or preservation — in the Koktuli River drainage, a Nushagak tributary, where the mine would be located. Pebble proposed preserving 112,000 acres of predominantly state land, including 31,000 acres of aquatic resources to offset impacts to 3,300 acres of wetlands and 185 miles of streams. The company did not propose any compensatory mitigation for its west Cook Inlet port site. In June 2018 former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works R.D. James signed a memorandum of agreement laying out Alaska-specific guidelines generally calling for less rigorous requirements for wetlands fill permits in the state. The memo encouraged Alaska District officials to allow for compensatory mitigation over a larger watershed scale “given that compensation options are frequently limited at a smaller watershed scale,” its states. “Given this flexibility, Alaskans should be assured that discharges of dredged or fill materials into waters of the United States will be evaluated in a reasonable manner, consistent with the agencies’ goal of fair, flexible, and effective protection of the nation’s wetlands resources,” the memo states. Department of Law spokeswoman Maria Bahr wrote in response to questions about the specific flaws in the ROD that the department is preparing the appeal that will identify the state’s arguments and it will be filed by the Jan. 25 deadline. The appeal would be adjudicated by the commander of the Army Corps Pacific Ocean Division headquartered in Honolulu, currently Col. Kirk E. Gibbs. Dunleavy has insisted his administration is neutral in regards to the development of Pebble while many of the project’s opponents consider the appeal further proof the governor is doing what he can to spur its development. Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., a group that works to support the region’s communities through its ownership of Bering Sea fishing quota, said he is disappointed but not surprised by the governor’s decision to appeal the Pebble denial. Dunleavy has not missed an opportunity to back the project, he said. “There’s been evidence that literally some of the governor’s correspondence are cut and pasted documents that originated with the Pebble Partnership; it’s just blatant,” Van Vactor said in reference to a letter Dunleavy sent to Corps officials in 2019. “He might as well be their spokesman.” He said regardless of the expected appeals he expects the combination of President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming federal administration and Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, who both took positions against Pebble late last summer should provide opportunities to protect the Pebble area, something Murkowski has already discussed. Dunleavy spokeswoman Lauren Giliam wrote via email that the governor has always advocated for a “consistent, predictable and fair” permitting climate. “Supporting the attributes of a robust regulatory regime is not the same as cheerleading for a particular project. The Pebble project’s proposal has, for the better part of 20 years, been snarled through ad hoc political decisions as opposed to objective regulatory determinations. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers most recent decision, a literal 180-degree reversal in the span of a month, is a clear case-in-point,” Giliam wrote. “Time and again, the governor has always deferred to the science of the project, and if it was found to be good for Alaska, he would welcome the opportunity.” Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said company representatives briefed administration staff about their plans to appeal the project but they did not request the action from the state. The company still plans to file its own appeal, according to Heatwole. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Movers and Shakers for Jan. 17

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska hired Nathan Soboleff as Grants and Resources director. Soboleff will manage the newly formed Grants and Resources Department which aims to implement an organizational strategy that centralizes Tlingit &Haida’s grant processes. Soboleff has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management from Oregon State University and a master’s degree in fisheries management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has more than 15 years of professional experience in grant writing and grants management including over eight years procuring grant-based budgets for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation and Bartlett Regional Hospital. Mike Fink has been promoted to audit partner and Christine Krysinski has been promoted to audit managing director in KPMG LLP’s Anchorage office. Fink and Krysinski will be responsible for audit quality and leading engagement teams in project execution. Krysinski joined KPMG in 2010. She provides audit and accounting advisory services to a variety of clients, including not-for-profit organizations, state and local governments, fisheries-related companies, oil and gas, and Alaska Native corporations. Fink joined KPMG LLP in 2018 and has 16 years of public and private accounting experience. He provides audit services to both public and non-public companies including telecommunications and Alaska Native corporations, and has extensive experience helping companies adopt new accounting standards. He is a graduate of the University of Alaska. University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Dan White has appointed UAF School of Management faculty member Peggy Keiper to serve as interim athletic director for the Alaska Nanooks, effective Feb. 1. Keiper will succeed Keith Champagne, who has been serving in dual roles as vice chancellor for student affairs and athletic director for the past 18 months. Champagne will continue to serve as vice chancellor. Keiper is an associate professor and director of the sport and recreation business program in the UAF School of Management. She has a doctorate in sport administration from the University of New Mexico. Prior to joining the UAF faculty in 2017, she had worked for nearly a decade in the sports industry, including sports tourism and the NBA’s minor league system, and as a college women’s basketball coach. She was national sales manager for the West Michigan Sports Commission, where she led the commission’s effort to generate economic spending to the Greater Grand Rapids Area and won bids to host six NCAA National Championships with Grand Valley State University and Calvin College. The Federal Aviation Administration has named University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist Catherine Cahill as one of 12 new members of its Drone Advisory Committee. Cahill is the director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, which is part of the UAF Geophysical Institute. The DAC provides independent advice and recommendations for the safe and effective integration of drones in the national airspace system. The committee was originally formed in 2016 and is composed of 35 representatives from industry, academia, and state and local governments. More than 70 candidates were nominated to serve on the committee. Cahill is the only Alaska representative. She will focus on issues and viewpoints related to advanced air mobility. Cahill has worked for the last five years as the director of ACUASI. The center focuses primarily on research being conducted in the Arctic, but it maintains an array of unmanned aircraft, ground control stations and generators that gives its team the capability of transporting and launching drones virtually anywhere in the world. ACUASI works with researchers from universities across the country, along with state and federal agencies, commercial partners and international collaborators.

Congress pays for another icebreaker, authorizes more

Congress paid for a second new heavy icebreaker among its year-end spending flurry and also helped Nome move one step closer to having a place to moor it. Inside the federal budget portion omnibus spending package that also included the second round of COVID-19 aid money and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s energy reform bill is $555 million for the U.S. Coast Guard to spend on another icebreaker, or a polar security cutter in Coast Guard parlance. Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a press briefing following the passage of the bills that the funding is proof that the Alaska delegation’s years of effort to focus more attention on the nation’s Arctic are paying off. That was also partly borne out in the annual water resources and infrastructure bill portion of the omnibus legislation that approves port and harbor development and maintenance spending nationwide. “We killed it in that bill,” Sullivan said. The 2020 water development bill authorizes $379 million for the federal share of a long-sought deep-draft port in Nome among other projects in the state. While Congress still has to actually appropriate the money, Sullivan said he’s confident that will happen within the next couple years. The 2018 version of the legislation authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the project, permitted the agency to engineer and design the roughly $600 million expansion of Nome’s current port. The ultimate goal of the project to deepen the Western Alaska port and further develop shore side infrastructure is to have a more northerly location from which to launch Arctic search and rescue, research and law enforcement missions in the increasingly active region. Sullivan said senators on both sides of the aisle recognize the national security need for the project as other countries continue to grow their icebreaker fleets and particularly Russia continues to ramp up its presence in the region; Dutch Harbor is currently the closest deepwater port to Alaska’s Arctic. “They get it — that this is a key piece of infrastructure to protect our interests as Americans, not just something that’s important to Alaskans,” Sullivan said. “There’s excitement about this, and not just in Nome.” As chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee on security, Sullivan sponsored the Coast Guard authorization bill that was rolled into the $740 billion 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The members of the Alaska delegation supported a Jan. 1 override of President Donald Trump’s veto of the NDAA. Provisions in the defense bill also authorize the Coast Guard to maintain the current contract for three heavy icebreakers and to award contracts for construction of up to three more. It also authorizes $745 million for construction of another icebreaker. As with the authorization for the Nome port, the approvals in the Coast Guard bill do not appropriate construction funds but Congress has now invested in icebreakers in three consecutive years with the $555 million that is intended to fully-fund the second new icebreaker. The first new icebreaker in decades was funded in 2019 and is expected to be complete in 2024 with the second coming a couple years later. Murkowski said in a prepared statement that she’s proud of the recent progress that’s been made to strengthen the country’s security presence in the Arctic. “The authorization of additional polar security cutters in the final NDAA is significant and a sign that we are moving in the right direction,” Murkowski said. Currently, the country’s only heavy icebreaker — the 43-year-old Polar Star — does most of its work on the other end of the world, returning to its homeport of Seattle each summer for maintenance and repairs. It breaks ice and escorts supply vessels to access the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica. This year, however, limitations on Antarctic research activities stemming from the pandemic have turned the Polar Star north and it will spend much of the winter off the coast of Western Alaska. Sullivan has routinely noted his frustration that the Polar Star doesn’t primarily operate off of Alaska and emphasized that the new cutters should not only work around the state, but also call it home. “Just putting icebreakers in Seattle because current icebreakers are in Seattle to me makes no sense,” Sullivan said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Study takes aim at magnetic fields, salmon returns

Is it a coincidence that one of the world’s largest mineral deposits is located near the world’s largest sockeye salmon spawning grounds at Bristol Bay? And if the likes of a Pebble mine removed the bulk of those deep deposits that also create the world’s magnetic field, could it disrupt the salmon’s ability to find their way home? A study, funded by Arron Kallenberg of Homer, founder/CEO of Wild Alaskan Company and a third generation Bristol Bay fisherman, aims to find out. “It’s not even been 10 years since we’ve discovered that salmon, sea turtles and other marine species are using the Earth’s magnetic field as a way to know where they are and to make important navigation decisions. But what is the magnetic environment that they need to thrive, and what might humans be doing that might keep them from thriving,” said Dr. Nathan Putman, a senior scientist at Texas-based LGL Ecological Research Associates and an expert on animals’ use of magnetics fields in migration who is leading the study. “The salmon at Bristol Bay are tuned into thousands of years of experience,” Putman said. “Might removing magnetic minerals alter the magnetic landscape they have experienced, and to what extent?” The combinations of magnetic field strength and angles give the salmon a sense of where they are, he explained. “For instance, if a fish has left its river and finds itself in a stronger magnetic field than when it departed, it’s got a good chance of being further north of the river. And if it finds itself in a weaker magnetic field, it has a good chance of being further south. It can use that information to decide which way it should go, depending on whether it’s heading out to its foraging grounds, or if it’s matured and it’s time to head back home.” Putman’s earlier studies on pinks revealed that salmon have multi-purpose navigational tools. “The handy thing about the magnetic field is that it’s both a compass and a map. A compass by itself only gives you a direction. The Earth’s magnetic field gives you that direction, but for salmon it also gives a sense of where in the Bering Sea or the Gulf of Alaska they are. It’s sort of part compass, part GPS,” he explained. Putman said it is easy to manipulate magnetic environments in the lab. “We call them magnetic displacement experiments,” he said. “And they perform quite well. The salmon seem to know how to orient their movements when they grow up in a pristine magnetic rearing environment. But if you add something as simple as a nearby iron pipe, it distorts the field. Then you have the same family of fish, the same setup, the same sort of behavioral assays and they don’t appear capable of using the magnetic field to make navigation decisions.” For the Bristol Bay project Putman is using a high-resolution magnetic model for 304,000 latitude/longitude points over the past 20 years, looking at the impact of mining activity on fluctuations in local geomagnetic fields. By comparing the rate of change in the geomagnetic field near mining sites to baseline background variability, he can identify potential man-made impacts of mineral extraction on field variations. “I think it really does put some burden back on us as humans to ask how we are altering the magnetic environment around salmon, whether it’s from mineral extraction or electric cables running across or through streams. How might we be presenting salmon or other species with challenges from how we’re manipulating their habitats. That’s where we’re going with this project.” Putman’s results should be known by this summer when the sockeye run is returning to Bristol Bay. Fishing facts Want to know where most fishermen live in Alaska? Or where most Alaska fishing boats are home ported? United Fishermen of Alaska has just released its updated Fishing Facts for every region of Alaska, plus the West Coast. The facts are updated through 2018, the most complete year available. At a glance, they show that nearly 8,700 permit holders fished in 2018, or which 6,055 were Alaska residents. More than 21,341 crew licenses were purchased, split almost evenly between residents and non-residents. Alaska’s seafood industry employed nearly 59,000 direct jobs, more than any other private sector. More than $172 million in fishing taxes were collected, of which $73 million went to state coffers and $51 million to local governments. Homer is home to 615 fishing boats and nearly 20 percent of its population fishes, earning $69 million at the docks in 2018. A total of 636 vessels call Kodiak Island home with 1,074 resident fishermen, or 17.3 percent of the population, who earned $105 million. Kodiak lays claim to 15 processing facilities, from ‘mom and pops’ to majors. At Petersburg, nearly 24 percent of the population fishes for a living on 620 home-ported boats. Their income was pegged at $50.5 million. Only nine permit holders fished out of Dutch Harbor/Unalaska but its 8 big processing plants helped generate $8.2 million in fishery taxes, both to the region and the state. Just more than 6,000 Washington residents plus crew fished in Alaska in 2018. Of the total harvest of 5.7 billion pounds, 4 billion pounds was taken by Washington residents. Of the dockside value of $1.94 billion, Washingtonians pocketed $900 million. The Fishing Facts include regional fishing, processing jobs and wages, fishery tax revenues and legislative districts. Big fish moves The 30 coastal communities that comprise the Coastal Villages Region Fund and the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. have bought out Seattle-based Mariner Companies that is majority-owned by Kevin Kaldestad and Gordon Kristjanson. The purchase comes with 3 percent of the Bering Sea snow crab and red king crab quota, along with 7 crab vessels. In a statement, the new company said it will sell the crab quota, valued at $35 million, to the communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay regions and provide economic support through fishing operations. Also, Peter Pan Seafoods, announced it is now a U.S.-owned, vertically integrated seafood processor. The company was owned since 1950 by Maruha Nichiro of Japan. The new ownership group includes Rodger May of Northwest Fish Company, the Na’-Nuk Investment Fund managed by McKinley Capital, and the RRG Global Partners Fund. New Peter Pan will continue to operate facilities in Dillingham, King Cove, Port Moller, and Valdez with headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. Fish trade tips Fishermen have until Jan. 15 to apply for federal funds to take the sting out of market hits from trade tariffs. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture will distribute a total of $530 million to fishermen based on their catches in 2019 for 19 species under the Seafood Trade Relief Program (STRP). Damages to fishermen are calculated as the difference with trade tariffs and the baseline without it. For cod, that adds up to an extra 14-cents a pound. Salmon fishermen get an extra 19 cents per pound. Other Alaska species include Dungeness crab, king crab, snow crab and Tanners, geoduck clams, sablefish, herring, pollock, flounders, mackerel, perch and turbot. Fisherman must fill out form found at and at USDA Farm Service Agencies. There are three Alaska agency locations at Homer, Kenai and Palmer. Joint Fish and Game meeting on COVID-19 questions The Alaska Board of Fisheries and Board of Game will convene a web conference on Jan. 19 to discuss current COVID-19 conditions and its impacts on upcoming meetings. Tentative topics include conducting some or all of the meetings via the web, or if meetings should be postponed until the 2021-22 meeting cycle and what the impacts might be. This is a non-regulatory meeting and no testimony will be taken. Written comments may be submitted through Jan. 15; previously submitted comments will be included and need not be resubmitted. Comments can be or emailed to [email protected]/ The meeting will be live streamed at the Joint Board’s website. Questions? Contact the Boards Support Section at (907) 465-4110. Buts up Halibut catch limits for 2021 will be revealed on Jan. 29, the last day of the International Pacific Halibut Meetings that will convene virtually starting on Jan. 25. A preliminary review of the 2020 fishery shows a total catch for the U.S. and British Columbia at 35.7 million pounds, down 11 percent from 2019. Sixty-three percent was taken in commercial fisheries (22.3 million pounds). Alaska fishermen took nearly 16 million pounds, 7 percent below the catch limit. Recreational fisheries took 17 percent (6 million pounds); 3 percent went to both subsistence and surveys/research (one million pounds each). More than 5 million pounds of halibut was taken as bycatch in other fisheries. Homer got the biggest chunk of the Pacific halibut landings at 18 percent (3 million pounds), followed by Dutch Harbor and Kodiak. Juneau at 1.3 million pounds narrowly outpaced Sitka for total commercial halibut landings. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

State tops bids in first ANWR lease sale

The State of Alaska is officially in the oil business. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority dominated bidding and won roughly a half-million acres across nine tracts in the long-awaited, oft-debated first Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain lease sale bid opening on Jan. 6. According to an initial tally of the bids opened by Deputy Interior Secretary Kate MacGregor via a video live stream, the sale netted $14.4 million in 11 winning bids, with approximately $12 million of that attributable to the state-owned development bank, which bid on at least 11 tracts. A lone bid for another tract from an unknown bidder was deemed incomplete by Bureau of Land Management officials. Half of the bid revenue will go to the State of Alaska per language in the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act that mandated the sale. Small Texas-based explorer Regenerate Alaska LLC outbid AIDEA for Tract 29 on the far western edge of the coastal plain with a bid of approximately $778,000. Regenerate also owns several leases on state lands adjacent to the area. Anchorage-based Knik Arm Services LLC outbid AIDEA for Tract 25 in the western portion of the coastal plain with a $1.6 million bid. No oil majors bid on ANWR coastal plain leases. BP and Chevron long held data from the only well drilled into the coastal plain, the 1986 KIC well, and the data BP owned was transferred to Hilcorp under the sale completed in 2019. The AIDEA board of directors authorized management to spend up to $20 million from its roughly $1.3 billion Revolving Fund on ANWR coastal plain lease bids in late December on the premise that if minimum bids were submitted the pro-development corporation could ensure some acreage in the refuge was secured when it was made available — given the political and legal efforts against the sales — and eventually transfer the rights to an operating company. AIDEA Executive Director Alan Weitzner alluded to that in a statement issued shortly after the bid opening. “By acquiring these tracts, Alaska preserves the right to responsibly develop its natural resources. This will create new, good-paying jobs on the North Slope and generate revenue for the local economies of Alaska’s Arctic and the state’s general fund,” Weitzner said. An AIDEA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about how authority officials chose to bid on the tracts they did. In all, the sale generated 16 bids over 12 tracts covering 552,000 acres, according to MacGregor, who called it a “momentous” and “historic” occasion before opening the bids. BLM offered 22 tracts covering approximately 1.1 million acres up for bidding. The oil and gas that will hopefully be developed from the coastal plain will benefit the economies of the nearby Village of Kaktovik, the State of Alaska and the nation as a whole, MacGregor said. “To all of those who have played a role in making today possible and happen, thank you for your grit and determination,” she said. The bidding fell far short of expectations for some who supported the four-decade effort to lease the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain for oil exploration. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the current sale and an expected future sale, combined with annual lease rents would collectively net the federal government $1.1 billion by 2027 when the tax bill was being debated in November 2017, with that much also going to the State of Alaska. Other estimates at the time were for as much as $1.8 billion in federal revenue. Conservation groups noticed the sale largely transferred state money to the federal government — half of which will go back to the state treasury. Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Adam Kolton called the sale an “epic failure” for the Trump administration and Alaska’s congressional delegation in a prepared statement. “After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza they ended up throwing a party for themselves, with the state being one of the only bidders. We have long known that the American people don’t want drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the Gwich’in people don’t want it, and now we know the oil industry doesn’t want it either,” Kolton said. A coalition of conservation organizations had their attempt to stop the lease sale in court through a preliminary injunction rejected in a late Tuesday ruling by U.S. District Court of Alaska Judge Sharon Gleason; however, three lawsuits objecting to the Trump administration’s handling of the environmental review that preceded the sale are ongoing. BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said in a follow-up press briefing that the sale was a success, with more than half of the available acreage receiving bids. He emphasized, as other administration officials have, that leasing does not authorize drilling or any other on-the-ground activity. Additional permits are needed for exploration work such as conducting seismic surveys. “It reflects an interest in further development of Alaska’s energy resources,” Padgett said of the sealed bid auction. In regards to the unique participation of a state-owned entity, BLM officials said AIDEA corporate status generally qualifies as a valid lessee and they do not foresee problems working with the state development bank because it is run much like a traditional business. Industry representatives consistently said in the lead-up to the sale that it was unclear what the results would be given the political tensions involved and vague prospectivity of the area. Alaska Oil and Gas Association CEO Kara Moriarty said in a post-sale statement that AIDEA’s participation helps reduce future uncertainty about the availability of acreage to explore on the coastal plain; she also acknowledged the activity level in the sale. “While the results may not have been as robust as we might have expected, industry still supports future access to this area,” Moriarty said. “Today’s sale reflects the brutal economic realities the oil and gas industry continues to face after the unprecedented events of 2020, coupled with ongoing regulatory uncertainty.” The U.S. Geological Survey officially has a mean oil estimate for the coastal plain of approximately 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil, but that is based on fairly little on-the-ground research particularly given the size of the area and much of what has been done was conducted with 1980s technologies. President-elect Joe Biden opposes oil development of the coastal plain and many congressional Democrats have vowed to overturn the rider to the tax bill if they can take control of the Senate over the next four years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Murkowski energy bill crosses finish line

Tucked amongst the 5,500-some pages of legislation with more than $2 trillion in spending and COVID-19 aid that President Donald Trump signed last month was one of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s biggest policy accomplishments, but according to Murkowski, that’s sort of how she wanted it. The 532 pages of the year-end omnibus spending bill that comprise the Energy Act of 2020 culminate almost six years of work, procedural hang-ups and near-victories for Murkowski, who credited her staff for their continual effort. However, the progress of the often-wonky energy policy reform package over the year was largely kept under wraps until announcing an agreement with House Democrats just a day before Congress passed the larger bill. Her American Energy and Innovation Act stalled in early March just prior to a planned Senate vote because it went through what she described in a Dec. 31 interview with the Journal as “a very unique process.” “Until we got this thing signed into law I really didn’t want to advertise the fact that this bill didn’t pass the United States Senate,” Murkowski said. The American Energy Innovation Act was already her third attempt at passing major energy reform as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It was held up by a bipartisan group of senators who wanted the bill to also include mandatory phase down in the country’s use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are often used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems and are also potent greenhouse gasses. But Murkowski noted that HFCs fall under the jurisdiction of the Environment and Public Works Committee, so the provisions couldn’t be added to the bill and there was little she could to at the time to move it forward. In December 2016, Murkowski watched her Energy Policy Modernization Act die in conference committee during the last days before the Christmas break despite Republican control of both chambers in Congress. She was sharply critical of House leaders who she said at the time chose to attend a holiday party in New York rather than finish negotiations on a bill that had already passed both bodies with strong support. This time, after roughly five months of what she called “much, much, much urging and pressure,” EPW chair Republican Sen. John Barrasso, ranking Democrat Tom Carper and Republican Sen. John Kennedy in early September announced a 15-year phase down compromise to the HFC issue that would be added to Murkowski’s energy legislation. Still further delays of procedural votes for unrelated matters kept the Senate from passing the Energy and Innovation Act before the election. That led Murkowski and ranking Energy and Natural Resources Committee Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia to work with Democrat House Energy and Science committee leaders to meld their bill with the Clean Energy Jobs and Innovation Act, which passed the House but was too partisan to pass the Republican Senate, according to Murkowski. “We basically took the two bills — even though ours had not passed the Senate yet — and we just kind of did an overlay. For three months we went back-and-forth, back-and-forth,” Murkowski described, admitting that she thought it was dead around Thanksgiving. “I told leadership we were going to have an energy bill that was going to be ready even though I wasn’t sure it was going to be ready and I said I want this to be included as part of the omnibus,” she added. As for the substance of the Energy Act, it’s an attempt to modernize at-times technical policies that largely hadn’t been looked at in more than a decade. Murkowski called it “almost incomprehensible” that the last major energy reform bill passed by Congress was the Energy Independence and Security Act signed by President George W. Bush in December 2007. Since then the entire country, not just the oil industry, has undergone the shale revolution, which switched the U.S. from being a major longtime importer of oil to a net exporter of oil and natural gas; the closely-tied LNG industry has exploded; and the climate change debate in the public and Congress has shifted from whether it’s real to what should be done about it in addition to major technological advancements in renewable energy production. “It just causes you to think about how much are we holding ourselves back because we haven’t reformed our own policies?” Murkowski said. Democrats have frequently called the Energy Act a “down payment” on cleaner energy production and carbon capture efforts. With provisions from nearly 70 senators, it authorizes investments in renewable energy technologies. Department of Energy geothermal demonstration projects will be funded at $170 million annually, for example, according to a summary of the massive bill by the industry law firm Holland and Knight. Similarly, $125 million per year will go to wind energy research and development programs and $300 million will go towards solar advancements. It also aims to improve permitting for renewable projects on federal lands via improved coordination between Interior Department agencies. House Energy and Commerce chair Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in a joint statement with other committee Democrats that the reforms and investments made in the long-overdue bill will help transition the country to a cleaner, low-carbon future. “This legislation includes programs to develop and deploy renewable energy, improve efficiency of our homes and businesses, modernize the grid, reduce carbon pollution from industrial and traditional power sources and more,” the Democrat lawmakers said. Murkowski said she believes a focus on energy storage technologies — large-scale batteries — will be an area where the Energy Act can have a lasting, positive effect. She noted many prominent renewable advocates consider storage the “holy grail” of energy advancements and systems are already being used in small one-off applications such as by the Cordova Electric Cooperative. The Cordova utility uses a 1-megawatt lithium ion battery to store previously forgone hydro energy to be used in summer when fish processors significantly increase the community’s collective electric demand, lessening the use of diesel to supplement the hydro production. “I think that (storage) will really help us as we move forward with different technologies, different energy sources, allowing us to better utilize our intermittent sources with a level of reliability and stability,” Murkowski said. More than $100 million will go to establish a new energy storage and grid integration research program with additional grants for future demonstration projects. She spoke similarly about the potential benefits of mobile, small-scale nuclear reactors in Alaska. “I keep coming back to the various applications that we could have in Alaska that could reduce costs, reduce emissions and allow for a level of reliability we haven’t even seen yet,” Murkowski said of advanced nuclear energy in the state. “We’re talking about units the size of a Connex.” The bill that was the result of six years of work also passed as Murkowski ended her six-year term chairing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, per caucus rules. She previously spent six years as the ranking Republican on the committee as well, meaning when Congress reconvened Jan. 3 she became a rank-and-file ENR member for the first time in 12 years. Murkowski also noted that her run on ENR was preceded by that of her father, former Gov. and Sen. Frank Murkowski. She was appointed to the Senate by her father in 2002. “My dad was there when they lifted the oil export ban for Alaska and it was under my leadership that we lifted the oil export ban for the country. He worked on ANWR; I worked on ANWR,” she said. “Between myself and my father we have been at the helm of energy policy for 20 of the last 24 years — pretty darn incredible.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Fish picks and pans for 2020

This year marks the 30th year that the weekly Fish Factor column has appeared in newspapers across Alaska and nationally. Every year it features “picks and pans” for Alaska’s seafood industry — a no-holds-barred look back at some of the year’s best and worst fishing highlights, and my choice for the biggest fish story of the year. Here are the choices for 2020, in no particular order: Best little known fish fact: Alaska’s commercial fisheries division also pays for the management of subsistence and personal use fisheries. Biggest fishing tragedy: The loss of five fishermen aboard the Scandies Rose that sank southwest of Kodiak. Biggest new business potential: Mariculture of seaweeds and shellfish Ballsiest fish move: Fishermen in Quinhagak formed a cooperative of 70 harvesters to revitalize commercial salmon fishing in Kuskokwim Bay, including members from Goodnews Bay, Platinum and Eek. It’s the first fishery since 2016 when the region’s “economic development” group abruptly pulled the plug on buying local fish. Biggest fish challenge: Getting whaled. Many fishermen say they can lose up to 75 percent of their pricey sablefish catches when whales strip their lines. Best fish invention: Slinky pots. Lightweight, collapsible, inexpensive fishing pots that prevent getting whaled. The new gear is especially beneficial for smaller boats that can’t accommodate the hydraulics and 300 rigid metal pots on deck. Biggest unexpected fish boost: As restaurants closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people turned to buying seafood to cook at home than ever before because of its health benefits. Best fish straight talker: Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak Best fish knowledge builders: Alaska Sea Grant Best fish feeder: Sea Share, with more than 220 million fish servings to U.S. food banks since 1994 and counting. Trickiest fishing conundrum: Balancing sea otters versus crab and other shellfish fisheries in Southeast Alaska. Saddest fish story: The loss of young fishermen Sig and Helen Decker of Wrangell in a car crash. Biggest fish missed opportunity: Wasting most of Alaska’s annual three billion pounds of fish skins, heads, etc. that could be used in nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and more. Such byproducts could be worth $700 million or more to Alaska each year. Cod skins produce about 11 percent collagen, nearly 20 percent from salmon skins. The marine collagen market is pegged at nearly $1 billion by 2023. Most earth-friendly fishing town: Kodiak, for generating nearly 100 percent of its electricity from wind and hydropower, and for turning its fish wastes into oils and meals instead of grinding and dumping them, as in most Alaska fishing towns. Best Alaska ocean watchers: Alaska Ocean Observing System. Sea ice, water temperatures, ocean acidification levels, AOOS tracks it all. Best daily fish news sites:, Undercurrent News, SeafoodSource Best healthy fish watchers: Cook Inletkeeper, SalmonState, Alaska Marine Conservation Council Best fish mainstream pushers: Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers on its mission to make wild Alaska pollock the world’s favorite whitefish. Biggest fish budget suck: Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Fairbanks. How much budget would be saved if scientists/students didn’t have to travel to reach the sea life they are studying? Why are those sites located so far away? “It’s the way it has always been.” Best go to bat for their fishery: Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, The fishermen-funded/operated group pays a 1 percent tax on their catches. They can use the money in any way they choose to enhance/protect/promote their fishery. The Cordova/Prince William Sound RSDA is the only other region to take advantage of this opportunity sanctioned by the state in 2005. Biggest fish broadsides: Ongoing trade tariffs with China and now, the European Union Worst fish inequity: The U.S. buying millions of pound of seafood from Russia since 2014 while Russia refuses to buy any U.S. seafood. Best eco-friendly fish advocate: Net Your Problem by Nicole Baker. One woman’s quest to mobilize Alaska to remove old fishing nets, lines and gear has expanded from Dutch Harbor to Southeast and most places in between. The plastic gear is recycled into new products from sunglasses to snowboards. Biggest fish fake: Genetically modified salmon, aka “Frankenfish.” Best Alaska fish writers: Sarah Lapidus, Kodiak Daily Mirror; Elizabeth Earl, Alaska Journal of Commerce; Margie Bauman, Cordova Times, Fishermen’s News Worst fish travesty: Cuts to commercial and sport halibut catches while millions of pounds get dumped as bycatch in trawl fisheries. Alaska can’t lay claim to having the “world’s best managed fisheries” until it gets its bycatch act in order. Best fish assists: Biologists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Best building future fishermen: Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. Deckhand apprenticeships, fishing loan payback programs for new entrants based on catches are just a few of ALFA-spawned programs. Fishing town that celebrates its fishing industry the most: Sitka Fishing town that celebrates its fishing industry the least: Kodiak Best fish boosters: Alaska’s salmon hatcheries. Worst fish slap in the face: The state opting to close salmon fishing in federal waters of Cook Inlet. Alaska co-manages several fisheries with the feds but won’t in the Inlet? Biggest Alaska fish beneficiary: Washington State. Seattle is homeport to about 300 fishing vessels and all but 74 make their livings in Alaska. Worst fish flim-flam: The Pebble Partnership for its deceit to Alaskans, investors, Congress about the scope of its mining plans. Biggest fish sigh of relief: The Pebble mine permit being denied by the Army Corps of Engineers. Baddest fish idea: Opening the Tongass National Forest to more roads and development. The Tongass produces 80 percent of the salmon caught in Southeast Alaska. Biggest fish fake: Plant-based seafoods such as “vegan shrimp” and “Toona.” Does fish best with least: Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. ASMI promotes Alaska seafood in the U.S. and around the world with zero backing from the state. Norway, for example, backs its seafood marketing with more than $50 million from a small tax on exports. Biggest fish stiff: Alaska processors paying millions in out of pocket expenses for COVID-19 quarantines in hotels, chartering planes, PPE, testing and other protections and getting no paybacks from federal relief funds. Biggest fish slap: Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s selection of Board of Fisheries reps who live far inland, including a Pebble mine director and one who has zero knowledge about commercial fisheries. Dunleavy hopes to ram them through with no legislative or public input. Best fish lifesavers: Alaska Marine Safety Education Association Most disliked fish moniker: The term ‘fisher’ in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to be gender neutral. Best new buy/sell fish better: The Seafood Auction based in Kenai gives fishermen, buyers and hatcheries an easier way to do business online from a single location. Worst fish crash: Collapse of the Gulf of Alaska cod fishery due to four years of warm waters that wiped out several years classes. The stock appears to be making a slow comeback. Best fish boost for babies: New federal dietary guidelines for the first time recommend that babies be introduced to seafood starting at six months because of the health benefits. Pregnant women also are strongly encouraged to eat more fish to enhance their baby’s brain and eye development. Biggest fish failure: U.S. baby food makers who provide ZERO seafood offerings. Best fish entrepreneurs: Zoi Maroudas of Bambino’s Baby Food (see above) – frozen portions of Hali-Halibut, Salmon Bisque, Sockeye Salmon Strips; Arron Kallenberg of Wild Alaskan Company. More than 140,000 members are serviced from fulfillment centers across the US. Most inexcusable fish gaffe: “Official” trade data from the U.S. Trade Representative that lists “petroleum and coal” as Alaska’s top export, although seafood has been tops for decades. Alaska’s “other top manufacturing exports” are listed as transportation equipment, computer and electronic products and machinery. Top agricultural products listed are plant and livestock products, feeds and other grains, beef and veal. Who knew?! Biggest fish story: for 2020 Alaska fishermen, processors, managers and communities pulled off a successful salmon season along with other fisheries amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Legislature still in limbo on session eve

The Alaska Legislature is still struggling to pick its new leaders in the wake of the 2020 elections. While members of the Alaska Senate believe they will pick a new Senate president before the Legislature convenes Jan. 19 in Juneau, members of the Alaska House of Representatives say they expect their leadership deadlock to extend through the session’s start. Several legislators said the situation is similar to the 2018 session, when the House deadlocked for a month and failed to pick a leader until February. “I can’t imagine being in the House,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it’s bad enough right now in the Senate.’” In House and Senate elections this year, Republicans won a majority of seats. Internal divisions have kept Republicans from seizing those majorities, though the path is easier in the Senate, where Republicans hold 13 of the 20 seats. Eleven votes are needed to elect leaders and control what legislation advances. “It’s a little bit of a rollercoaster ride, but we’re all still working to get to a place where we can function effectively together,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “So I think it’s going to happen before we go down. I certainly hope so.” “Mathematically, there are fewer of us,” Hughes said, comparing the situation in the Senate to the House, which has 40 members. “And so it’s easier to sort through the options, it takes less time to get through the different combinations.” Hughes and Micciche each said the principal sticking points preventing organization relate to the exact wording of the agreement that will define a new Senate majority. Hughes, Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, and Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, objected to the previous majority agreement, which required senators to vote together on the budget. The new agreement will not require them to do so, Hughes said. If Republicans fail to reach internal agreement, the Senate could organize around a bipartisan majority that includes Republicans and Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said he’s made “reasonable offers” along those lines but is not optimistic that the Senate will have any kind of majority before Jan. 10. In the House, 21 votes are needed to elect a speaker and control the flow of legislation. Twenty-one Republicans were elected this fall, but Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said last month that she was unable to find common ground on the budget with her fellow Republicans. That leaves 20 Republicans on one side of the House and Stutes, four independents and 15 Democrats on the other side. Current Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said Monday that it is “more likely than not” that members of the House will arrive in Juneau without agreement on who’s in charge. “I would be reluctant to give you odds on that one,” said Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer. Budgetary issues, differences over the Permanent Fund dividend and organizational disputes are separating members of the House’s two blocs. Members of each group, including Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, said they would be willing to join a 30-person coalition that includes members from the opposing party, but Tuck said anything smaller would leave aisle-crossers open to attack from members of their own party. The example, he said, is what happened this year. Anchorage Republican Reps. Jennifer Johnston and Chuck Kopp were defeated in the Republican primary after joining a multipartisan coalition in the House. “Overall, I would say that really hurt,” Tuck said. New lawmakers might see that and be discouraged from compromising, he said, but he believes a solution is possible.

BLM finalizes revised plan for federal petroleum reserve

Interior Department leaders published their decision to open nearly 7 million more acres of the western North Slope to the oil and gas industry Jan. 4 while federal attorneys prepared to defend the agency’s leasing plan for the other side of the region in court later that day. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision for the latest land-use plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which authorizes Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials to offer more than 18.5 million acres of the 23 million-acre federal parcel for bid in future oil and gas lease sales. Formally known as the NPR-A Integrated Activity Plan, the management scheme marks another subtle but significant achievement by the Trump administration in its push to increase energy and mineral development on federal lands across the state. Meanwhile, Justice Department attorneys were about to defend BLM’s contentious leasing plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain on the eastern Slope during oral arguments in federal District Court over a motion by a collection of national environmental groups to stop the lease sale before bids are scheduled to be opened Jan. 6. The previous NPR-A plan approved under the Obama administration in 2013 allowed BLM to lease just more than 11.7 million acres, or almost exactly half of the reserve. That plan closed to leasing more than 3.5 million acres — much of which is a vast wetlands complex — in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. The area is the calving grounds for a distinct population of caribou and is the summer nesting home for large numbers of migratory birds, both of which are important subsistence resources, according to area Tribes opposed to oil development there. However, since then a handful of large oil discoveries have been made in the eastern portion of the reserve and on state land around the Teshekpuk Lake area, including ConocoPhillips $5 billion Willow prospect. In 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey drastically increased its estimate for the amount of recoverable oil in the NPR-A, largely on the belief that additional Nanushuk oil formations are available in and around the Teshekpuk Lake area. The USGS now estimates there are roughly 8.8 billion barrels of available oil in the reserve and adjacent state lands, up from just 896 million barrels in 2010. Interior officials, state leaders and the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation have noted as much as the plan revision has moved along. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan said the new plan acknowledges the purpose of the reserve and will help the state’s long-term prosperity while also ensuring the protection of environmentally sensitive areas. “This strikes the right balance and fulfills the statutory purposes of the petroleum reserve — to produce energy for our state and country,” Murkowski said in a statement from her office. “I thank Secretary Bernhardt and the team at BLM Alaska for their hard work to develop this plan, and for listening to input from Alaskans throughout the drafting process.” While the pending ANWR lease sale receives most of the public attention because of the decades-long political battle over it, industry sources have consistently said they believe there will be more near-term interest from oil companies in the NPR-A because of the Nanushuk discoveries and the fact that there is less — but still some — political tension over the reserve. ConocoPhillips currently holds a majority of the leased acreage and has done by far the most work in the NPR-A, with its two mid-sized Greater Mooses Tooth oil projects in addition to Willow. The new plan mostly opens the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area to industry leasing but would defer leasing in two areas totaling approximately 132,000 acres for 10 years. It also eliminates the Colville River Special Area, which provides habitat protections over 2.4 million acres adjacent to the river as well, but would extend raptor protections previously required along the Colville to the rest of the reserve, thereby eliminating the need for the special area as well, the record of decision states. The Colville River makes up much of the eastern boundary of the NPR-A. Those protections for birds of prey include setbacks that prohibit permanent infrastructure other than critical roads and pipelines from being developed up to one mile from many of the rivers in the reserve. BLM Alaska Director Chad Padgett said in a prepared statement that the plan is responsive to requests from the state and local governments. “Our team of subject matter experts worked diligently to provide a robust environmental review that achieves a balance between conservation stewardship, being a good neighbor, and responsibly developing our natural resources to boost local and national economies.” The North Slope Borough, recent state administrations and area Alaska Native corporations have continuously pressed the federal agencies to relax development restrictions in the reserve while several North Slope Tribal governments have pushed back, arguing the westward-moving oil development on the Slope will impact wildlife and thus subsistence harvests. A handful of state and national environmental groups sued the Interior Department in late August after the release of the final NPR-A plan alleging in-part that BLM Alaska leaders violated the foundational National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by only conducting a cursory review of the impacts of additional development in the petroleum reserve. The agency also did not consider any management alternatives in the final NPR-A land-use environmental impact statement, or EIS, known as the reserve’s integrated activity plan, meant to substantially increase protections for the reserve’s wildlife and aquatic resources, another NEPA violation, according to the complaint. The groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, Trustees for Alaska, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Audubon Alaska said in a joint Jan. 4 statement that BLM officials ignored the comments from nearby Tribal governments objecting to the plan. “The Trump administration’s BLM has put forward a new management plan designed specifically to accommodate and promote oil development, not to protect key areas utilized by the Teshekpuk Lake caribou, migratory birds or other wildlife resources, and certainly do not protect communities in the region already facing unacceptable impacts on health, food security and cultural sovereignty due to existing industry activity,” the statement reads. The final NPR-A EIS published in late June identified the agency’s preferred alternative as one that would open slightly more of the reserve to industry than was contemplated in any of the three action alternatives detailed in the draft review. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Federal court rejects arguments to stop ANWR lease sale

U.S. District Court of Alaska Judge Sharon Gleason rejected a late attempt to stop the Trump administration’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain lease sale Jan. 5 when she denied a preliminary injunction motion from a group of national conservation organizations less than 24 hours before the bids are set to be opened. Gleason wrote in a 27-page opinion issued a day after oral arguments that claims leasing would likely hasten the pace of environmental damage to the refuge from activities such as seismic exploration are premature because Bureau of Land Management officials have not yet approved a seismic exploration plan submitted by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., or KIC. She also ruled that the conservation groups would not suffer the “imminent irreparable harm” that would be cause for a preliminary injunction to stop completion of the lease sale because the record of decision authorizing the sale as well as the subsequent lease rights do not authorize any on-the-ground exploration activity. Bidding in the sale closed Dec. 31. “Plaintiffs have listed various threats to their enjoyment of the Arctic Refuge’s solitude posed by, for example, aircraft noise and the presence of trucks, but they have not shown that these harms are likely to occur during the pendency of this action,” Gleason wrote. The original suit filed Aug. 24 is one of three separate legal challenges against BLM’s EIS review of the coastal plain leasing program brought by a collection of Alaska Tribes and local and national environmental organizations. The order against the preliminary injunction does not alter the broader lawsuits. In oral arguments Jan. 4, attorneys on behalf of the Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth insisted that allowing Bureau of Land Management Alaska officials to open bids for the sale Jan. 6 would increase the likelihood of seismic activities, aerial surveys and other activities that could disturb wildlife before the full merits of the case have been adjudicated. Earthjustice attorney Katharine Glover contended that allowing the sale to be finalized while the case is pending would also continue the “bureaucratic momentum” of the leasing program while acknowledging that further permit authorizations would still be needed for on-the-ground activities such as seismic surveys or drilling. KIC is the Alaska Native corporation for the village of Kaktovik, the only community within the coastal plain. Kaktovik leaders largely support oil development in the area on the premise it would bring additional revenue to North Slope communities and provide more basic infrastructure for the region. Attorney Paul Turke emphasized on BLM’s behalf that issuing the leases is an administrative matter that would not change the physical characteristics of the coastal plain while also noting that Congress mandated the agency to hold the lease sales via language in the 2017 tax bill. “The court retains its full authority to review this case on the merits and to take appropriate action when it reaches a determination on the merits,” Turke said to Gleason, adding she could suspend issued leases or order BLM to redo the environmental impact statement for the leasing program that is at the heart of the suit. “There would be no irreparable injury to the environment or otherwise in the interim period.” The conservation groups, which filed the preliminary injunction motion to stop the sale Dec. 15, shortly after BLM officials announced bids for the sale would be opened Jan. 6, are conflating the “irretrievable commitment” made when the government issues a lease with “irreparable injury,” Turke said. “Leases can be issued and never have any actual effect on the environment,” he said. Natural Resource Defense Council attorney Nathaniel Lawrence said on the broader merits of the case that BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act that prescribes the EIS process by not disclosing the full climate change consequences of oil production from the coastal plain in the EIS Interior Secretary David Bernhardt approved in August. The EIS only included estimates for domestic carbon emissions resulting from prospective oil extraction, according to Lawrence, who compared the analysis to that done by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in approving Hilcorp Energy’s offshore North Slope Liberty oil project. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the federal approval for Liberty in a Dec. 7 ruling in part based on the fact that the government did not analyze foreign consumption of oil from the project in evaluating Liberty’s environmental impacts. “It painted a false picture because it only included U.S. emissions, not the bulk of the emissions that come from foreign consumption,” Lawrence said of the coastal plain EIS. Lawrence also said that while Congress did require two lease sales offering a little more than half of the coastal plain over 10 years, BLM did not need to open ostensibly all of the area to leasing as it did following the environmental review. “The (leasing) program goes far beyond anything Congress mandated,” he said, which further requires agency leaders to make a written determination of how the new uses of the refuge are compatible with its existing purpose — something Interior leaders did not do. Ryan Steen, representing the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, countered the “bureaucratic momentum” argument by noting that President-elect Joe Biden had made it clear he opposes developing the coastal plain, so any momentum that exists now is likely to be gone Jan. 20. Tyson Kade, representing the North Slope Borough, the Native Village of Kaktovik and KIC said any seismic activity is unrelated to leasing; he referenced SAE Exploration’s unsuccessful attempt to conduct seismic exploration in the 2018-19 winter before a lease sale was planned. “This court should consider the input of the people that live and depend on the resources of the coastal plain,” Kade said. “The tax act and ANCSA provide for the realization of those (economic) benefits.” Glover rebutted that any delay in realizing economic benefits caused by a preliminary injunction would likely only be temporary. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]


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