EPA issues long-awaited final determination halting Pebble mine

The Biden administration wielded a little-used tool on Tuesday to stop the controversial proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska, issuing a final determination under the Clean Water Act to prevent the project from being developed. The Environmental Protection Agency said the mine would cause “unacceptable, adverse” harm to the valuable Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Fishermen, tribes and other Pebble opponents hope the decision spells the project’s demise. They celebrated the announcement. The developer of the copper and gold prospect and the administration of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy have both threatened legal action to reverse the decision, and issued statements strongly opposing the action. The EPA employed a rarely used clause of the Clean Water Act that allows it to “veto” projects before they’ve completed the federal permitting process. Specifically, the EPA wants to block Pebble or any future similar mine from releasing “dredged or fill material,” essentially rock or gravel used in development, into streams that support the fishery. [What Alaska leaders, advocacy groups and industries are saying about EPA’s Pebble decision] The special action has been used sparingly in the past and will trump any final decision from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, which denied a permit for the mine in 2020. Mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership has appealed that decision, a process that remains underway. The Pebble project is on state land about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. The EPA’s 435-page final determination completes a process that began in 2010 after several tribes in the Bristol Bay region petitioned the agency for help to stop the project from being built. Agency officials said the decision follows an extensive review of scientific and technical records dating back two decades to show that Pebble’s 2020 development plan, if completed, would destroy about 100 miles of stream that support salmon habitat. EPA administrator Michael Regan, speaking with reporters on Monday, called the Bristol Bay watershed a “one-of-a-kind ecosystem” that supports valuable jobs and the sustenance of fishing traditions in about two dozen Alaska Native communities in the region. “This final action demonstrates the Biden administration’s commitment to safeguarding our nation’s indispensable natural resources and protecting the livelihoods of those who so deeply depend on the health and well-being of these magnificent waters,” he said. The fisheries are worth about $2 billion annually and support about 15,000 jobs and subsistence fishing for Alaska Native communities. The Pebble deposit contains minerals worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and supporters say development there will support the Alaska economy and create many new jobs. Reaction to the decision was swift and widespread. Alannah Hurley, head of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, called the EPA action “historic progress” toward the goal of safeguarding the Bristol Bay watershed. Hurley was included as a speaker during EPA’s Monday call with reporters. “The EPA has not only restored its commitment to science and law, but truly has listened to the original stewards of this land,” Hurley said. James Metrokin, chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., the Alaska Native corporation for the Bristol Bay region that has also opposed Pebble, said the EPA has listened to the voices of residents. “Today is a great day for Bristol Bay, and one that many thought would never come,” Metrokin said. “While the immediate threat of Pebble is behind us, BBNC will continue working to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon-based culture and economy and to create new economic opportunities across the region.” The Pebble Limited Partnership maintains that the mine will not harm the fishery. The company on Tuesday called the EPA’s veto effort unlawful and warned that legal action could follow. John Shively, chief executive for Pebble Limited, said in a written statement that the land around Pebble was chosen by the state for its mineral potential as part of the process that led to statehood in 1959. “The EPA is violating the U.S. Constitution by taking away the state and the project’s legally protected property interests in the mineral rights underlying the land, without any just compensation,” the statement said. “This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally. As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice.” Likewise, the governor’s office said in a statement that EPA’s decision covers more than 300 square miles of state land and harms the state’s ability to develop its resources. “EPA’s veto sets a dangerous precedent,” Dunleavy said in the statement. “Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams. My administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, Alaska property owners, and Alaska’s future.” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said Tuesday that the EPA’s decision short-circuits Alaska’s normal process for environmental review and the Corps’ appeals process. He called the EPA action “legally indefensible.” “Washington’s overstep into the State’s process was unwarranted and should not be allowed to continue,” Taylor said. “As such, the state intends to challenge EPA’s decision. The state presented strong legal and policy arguments outlining why EPA’s decision is wrong and we look forward to meeting EPA in court.” Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, who have said they oppose Pebble but don’t support an EPA veto, expressed concern about what the decision might mean for other Alaska projects. “Today, the Biden administration is doing something different — using a pre-emptive veto, which raises serious legal questions and has the potential to establish a very troubling precedent for resource development on state of Alaska lands,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said in a statement. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the final determination should “mark the end of Pebble.” “To be clear: I oppose Pebble,” she said in a statement. “To be equally clear: I support responsible mining in Alaska, which is a national imperative. This determination must not serve as precedent to target any other project in our state and must be the only time EPA ever uses its veto authority under the Clean Water Act in Alaska.” Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, said the decision would prevent development of the Pebble deposit, which she hopes will be comforting news for Bristol Bay residents. “I also understand that some Alaskans might be disappointed by this decision,” she said in a statement. “To all of you, know that I am committed to our state’s development and to helping local communities build robust economies with good-paying jobs.” The final determination was signed by Radhika Fox, assistant administrator of water for the EPA. On Monday, she stressed that it does not apply to other resource development projects in Alaska. “It provides a roadmap for those types of projects that would create these adverse impacts, but does not at all apply to other projects that could potentially be considered and it does not apply to any resource development beyond this one in the state of Alaska,” she said in a briefing with news media. Regan, the EPA administrator, said the agency has rarely used its veto power. The determination represents the third time in 30 years the agency has taken final actions using the authority. It’s never been finalized in Alaska until now. Regan told reporters the final determination could face court challenges, but the agency has used “sound science” and created a “strong record” to create the decision. For years, the mine’s fortunes have been subject to a roller coaster of on-again, off-again decisions. Exploration at the deposit began in the 1980s. Northern Dynasty Minerals, the small Canadian mineral exploration company that owns Pebble Limited, has pursued the project for about 20 years. Over the last decade, major mining companies have backed away from the project. In 2020, the project’s standing suffered a blow with the leak of videos that led to the resignation of Pebble Limited’s then-chief executive. Three straight U.S presidential administrations have blocked the mine’s progress. The EPA initially proposed stopping Pebble in 2014 under President Barack Obama. The mine developer sued, leading to a 2017 settlement agreement under Donald Trump making it so the EPA would step aside and let Pebble pursue a federal permit. The U.S. Army Corps under Trump later rejected that permit application — action that’s now under appeal. Then, about a year ago, the EPA under Joe Biden renewed its effort to halt Pebble after the developer filed a mining plan. The project has also faced significant public opposition, led by a broad coalition of fishermen, tribal governments and conservation groups. They’ve pointed out that if built, Pebble would be one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, and a spill there would threaten a salmon fishery that has seen record returns of sockeye as many other salmon fisheries struggle for survival. The agency received more than 582,000 public comments in the lead-up to its final decision. The comments were overwhelmingly against the project, EPA officials have said. Bristol Bay leaders who have fought Pebble for a generation said in a press conference on Tuesday that they were prepared to legally defend the EPA decision. They also said the federal government’s final determination does not mark the end of their effort to protect Bristol Bay and prevent development of the Pebble mineral deposit. Russell Nelson, chair of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., said the region needs a salmon and fisheries preserve that protects every stream. Each one plays a role in Bristol Bay’s large salmon runs, he said. Hurley, with United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said groups are looking for support from Alaska’s congressional delegation to create additional protections. “We have over 20 active mining claims throughout the region,” Hurley said. “We do not have salmon habitat prioritized within any of those lands. The EPA action only applies to the Pebble deposit, so we are in dire need of much broader watershed-wide protections.”

Alaska’s population is still younger than US but is aging at a dramatic rate

Alaska’s share of youth has shrunk and its retirement-age population has grown sharply, opposing factors that are reducing the state’s workforce and complicating the pandemic-related labor shortage, state experts say. Alaska economists touched on the diverging demographic trends in an annual jobs forecast released by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The aging of Alaska is a long-term issue that will continue to squeeze the workforce from both ends of the age spectrum, according to the report. “An older population means a smaller pool of working-age people, and a lower birth rate translates to fewer future workers,” wrote Alaska economist Karinne Wiebold. And there are other impacts. Parts of Alaska are closing schools as the population of young people shrinks, while the rapidly rising elderly population has led to demand for new health care facilities and services. For now, Alaska has about 11,000 fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic, wrote Wiebold. Despite that, the worker supply is still short. And job openings in the state hit record levels last year, she wrote. People leave the workforce for a variety of reasons, including to care for children or ailing relatives, or maybe they’re going back to school and training for a new career. Fewer people moving to Alaska is another factor, she writes. “An older population means a smaller pool of working-age people, and a lower birth rate translates to fewer future workers,” Wiebold wrote. Older than in 1980 Alaska is still younger than the rest of the U.S. by a couple of years, state experts say. The state’s average resident is now about 36. That’s a decade older than they were in 1980. Older people are helping bend that curve. Their numbers have “grown dramatically,” Wiebold writes. In the last four decades, the share of Alaskans 71 and older has increased several times over, from a little over 1% to close to 8%. Then there are the children. Alaskans 15 and younger have fallen from about 29% of the population to about 22%. Lower birth rates in Alaska, though still above the national average, is one factor for the drop in children, said David Howell, the state demographer, in an interview. Alaska’s birth rate over the last decade has fallen to 1.9, about two-tenths lower than what’s considered necessary to replace the population over the long haul, he said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot,” he said. The number of births annually has fallen to 9,400, down nearly 2,000 births from six years ago. “In addition to the fertility rate, you have a lot of millennials aging out of the prime birth years” and now getting into their 40s, he said. ‘Aging in place’ In the 1980s and 1990s, younger people were moving to Alaska, starting families and sometimes bringing children with them, said Howell. Some of those people are still in Alaska and hitting retirement age, he said. “They’re aging in place,” he said. Also helping thin the workforce, and reducing the number of children who could one day join the workforce, is net outmigration, Wiebold said. More people have been moving away from Alaska than coming here over the last decade, she writes. That also shrinks the population of children. Movers are disproportionately in their 20s and 30s, and when they move they take their children with them, she writes. Changing demographics affect education, health care The implications extend beyond the workforce. In education, the dwindling share of young people is creating difficult conversations for school administrators, Howell said. Fewer students, added to an ongoing budget crunch, contributed to the Anchorage School District’s recent move to recommend shutting down some elementary schools. The school board recently agreed to close Abbott Loop Elementary, down from the six school closures proposed by the district, but school board members say more could close in the future. “There’s not a big group of kids about to enter the school system,” Howell said. “There are smaller and smaller numbers due to births declining since 2016.” As for health care, Alaska’s growing population of retirement-age residents is expected to continue buoying the industry for many years to come, Alaska economist Neal Fried wrote in the publication, in a jobs forecast focused on Anchorage. “Alaska’s 65-plus population nearly doubled from 2010 to 2021 and grew by 6,000 from 2020 to 2021 alone,” Fried wrote. “This age group will keep growing through at least 2035.” “As Anchorage is the state’s health care hub, an older Alaska will raise demand for health services in the city,” Fried wrote.

Alaska oil producers squeezed more oil out of the North Slope in 2022

In a rare feat, oil production on Alaska’s North Slope increased slightly in 2022. The giant oil patch has seen dwindling production for decades, with its primary field at Prudhoe Bay aging. But the Slope remains a key part of Alaska’s economy. Industry observers said the annual increase is a positive sign, though it doesn’t meaningfully change the long-term slide in Alaska oil production. That will likely take large new fields producing oil, they say. The bump added about 6,000 barrels of crude oil daily to the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, operator Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. announced in January. The increase pushed last year’s daily oil production to 483,000 barrels. This marks only the fifth yearly increase since 1988, when Alaska oil production peaked at more than 2 million barrels daily, four times more than today, according to Alyeska pipeline data. The last increase came in 2017. The small bounce won’t increase Alaska revenues by much, said Larry Persily, a former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue, who recently left a position with Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola. Still, it’s a meaningful accomplishment that reflects investments by Hilcorp, the operator of the Prudhoe Bay field, and ConocoPhillips, the state’s largest oil producer, he said. “It’s a reason to be happy, but not to drop balloons from the ceiling,” Persily said. Hilcorp has slightly reversed declining oil production at Prudhoe Bay after becoming operator there in 2020, following its acquisition of assets from former Alaska producer BP. Hilcorp has also produced several thousand barrels more daily at its Milne Point field, injecting a polymer substance to produce viscous oil that is thicker than conventional crude oil and does not flow as easily. The company said in a statement it’s committed to operating in Alaska for “decades to come.” “At Milne Point, production has more than doubled since Hilcorp became operator in 2015, primarily due to increased Schrader Bluff viscous oil production,” said a statement from Luke Saugier, senior vice president for Hilcorp Alaska. “Prudhoe Bay production continues to trend upward as we invest heavily in drilling new wells, fixing old wells and improving and enhancing facility capacity.” Persily said ConocoPhillips has brought new projects online in recent years, including at the Greater Mooses Tooth-2 in late 2021 and Fiord West Kuparuk in May. “ConocoPhillips Alaska and other North Slope operators have invested heavily in existing fields and new developments” over the past several years, said Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman with ConocoPhillips Alaska. That has resulted in a more stable throughput in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, she said. Betsy Haines, interim president of Alyeska, said in a statement, “The best long-term solution for safe and sustainable TAPS operations is more oil, so this increase is a notable milestone.” Low flows of crude oil require more technical solutions to keep the oil flowing smoothly. The increase in part “reflects the innovative work of Alyeska staff and TAPS contractors in the face of declining flow,” Alyeska’s statement said. Brad Keithley, a former oil and gas attorney, said Alaska oil flow could increase sharply if two giant new discoveries begin production. Oil Search Alaska, a subsidiary of Australia-based Santos, expects its Pikka oil field to begin producing oil in 2026. ConocoPhillips’ Willow field awaits a contested permitting decision from the Biden administration before construction can begin. Combined, the fields have the estimated potential during their peak production to add more than 250,000 barrels daily to Alaska production. The fields would improve the state’s fiscal position by injecting new revenues into the budget, Persily said. “If you can get Willow and Pikka on line, then you will see some substantial increases in not just oil production but in revenue to the state,” Persily said.

Alaska regulators approve Enstar sale

The state has approved the $800 million sale of Alaska’s largest natural gas utility. Enstar Natural Gas, with about 150,000 customers in Anchorage and the Cook Inlet region, is being sold by AltaGas to Alaska Utilities Holdings, a subsidiary of TriSummit Utilities. The parent companies, both based in Canada, announced the deal in May, pending approval from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. The agency approved the deal on Dec. 21 in a 48-page order. The sale is expected to close early this year, the companies said. All Enstar employees will move over to the new company, AltaGas said. Enstar employs about 200 full-time workers. The proposal for the acquisition shows there is “sufficient organization, financial backing, technical facilities and equipment, operations expertise and managerial and administrative experience to support a finding of fitness, willingness, and ability to provide public utility service,” the state agency said in its order. The deal will more than double TriSummit’s customer base. The natural gas distribution company has about 133,000 customers in Canada. AltaGas said the sale will help it reduce debt and create financial flexibility for future growth in other areas. Enstar reported net income of $24 million in 2021, with assets at $610 million and liabilities at $430 million, the agency’s order said. The sale involves assets that include Enstar’s majority ownership of Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage Alaska, which protects against potential gas supply disruptions in Southcentral Alaska. The storage facility, like Enstar, is a standalone utility. It reported net income of $11 million last year.

EPA regional administrator recommends killing Pebble mine, setting stage for final veto

The Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 1 moved to deal a major blow to the proposed Pebble mine, a large copper and gold prospect that is located in a salmon-rich Southwest Alaska region and has been hotly contested for more than a decade. Casey Sixkiller, the administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Northwest region that includes Alaska, recommended the agency stop the mine from being built under a rarely employed agency action called a veto, setting the stage for a final decision from EPA headquarters by February. The EPA has said the mine if built would be among the world’s biggest open-pit copper mines and would destroy about 100 miles of stream that support salmon habitat, through the release of “dredged or fill material” — essentially rock or gravel — in the mining area. That would cause “unacceptable adverse effects” to fishery areas in a watershed of “unparalleled ecological value,” the agency has said, supporting its special action. “If affirmed by EPA’s Office of Water during the fourth and final step, this action would help protect salmon fishery areas that support world-class commercial and recreational fisheries, and that have sustained Alaska Native communities for thousands of years, supporting a subsistence-based way of life for one of the last intact wild salmon-based cultures in the world,” Sixkiller said in a statement. Mine opponents have long called for the EPA action, and say it is unlikely to be overturned and could close the door on the project. Those groups celebrated the news. Pebble’s developers and its supporters, however, decried the announcement and asserted it would be illegal. The state of Alaska is poised to sue the agency if it finalizes the veto, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office said in a statement after the announcement. Alannah Hurley, head of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, urged the Biden administration in a statement to finalize the decision to veto the project. She and other opponents have argued that pollution from the mine will destroy the fishery. “After twenty years of Pebble hanging over our heads, the Biden administration has the opportunity to follow through on its commitments by finalizing comprehensive, durable protections for our region as soon as possible,” Hurley said. “We look forward to reviewing the EPA’s Recommended Determination in greater detail to ensure it achieves the goal of protecting our people and region from the threat of the Pebble Mine.” “Our fishermen were able to deliver 59 million wild sockeye to the market — something that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world,” said Katherine Carscallen, director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, calling the announcement “an important step towards finalizing urgently needed protections for the region.” Supporters say the mine can coexist with the fishery without harming it, and that it could open a region of Alaska that contains minerals worth hundreds of billions of dollars, creating new jobs and helping the state’s struggling economy. In a prepared statement, Pebble Limited chief executive John Shively asserted that an EPA veto will be illegal. “Congress did not give the EPA broad authority to act as it has in the Pebble case,” Shively said. “This is clearly a massive regulatory overreach by the EPA and well outside what Congress intended for the agency when it passed the Clean Water Act.” Pebble Limited in September warned that legal action may follow if the EPA finalizes the veto. The EPA action is separate from a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2020 to reject a permit for the mine under the traditional federal permitting process. The Corps said the mine was not in the public interest. Mine developer Pebble Limited Partnership is appealing that decision. EPA’s decision would overrule any Corps conclusion on the project. The mine site, located on state land, straddles headwaters of Bristol Bay about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, worth an estimated $2 billion. The project has been in the works for decades after exploration began in the 1980s. Its history has been marked by a roller-coaster ride of events, including attempts to stop it under three U.S. presidents, the leak of videos that led to the resignation of its then-chief executive in 2020, and overwhelming opposition to the project by the public in EPA comment periods. In a recent comment period, the agency received more than 582,000 public comments on its proposal, said Suzanne Skadowski, an EPA spokeswoman. The comments were overwhelmingly against the project, similar to past EPA comment rounds, she said. Alaska’s congressional delegation, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and newly elected Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, oppose Pebble. The senators have said EPA intervention is not the right way to stop Pebble, but they supported the permitting process led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Corps’ earlier decision to reject the project. Gov. Dunleavy has taken multiple actions that support Pebble, including urging the EPA in September not to veto the project. In the statement describing the state’s intent to sue over EPA’s action, the governor said, “The state of Alaska has the duty, under our constitution, to develop its resources to the maximum in order to provide for itself and its people, so it’s important that any and all opportunities be explored in furtherance of this idea.” “The recent decision on the Pebble mine, which is solely located on state land, is the wrong decision,” Dunleavy said. Attorney General Treg Taylor in the statement called the action “legally indefensible,” and said his office would defend Alaska’s rights in court if EPA finalizes the veto. The state has argued that the federal government conveyed the land to Alaska for this sort of development, in a deal in 1976 that involved the state providing lands that led to the creation of Lake Clark National Park in the region. The recommendation from Sixkiller will be transmitted to Radhika Fox, an assistant administrator for the Office of Water at the EPA. Fox is expected to make a final decision within 60 days on the veto proposal, said Skadowski with EPA. Fox can reject the veto proposal, modify it or accept it, Skadowski said. The EPA’s Office of Water will review the record on the proposal so far, and other information provided by the Corps and Pebble Limited, including what corrective action the developer might propose to limit harm to the watershed. The history of EPA’s proposal on Pebble dates back years. In 2014, the agency initially moved to stop the mine under President Barack Obama, proposing to use the same special authority being pursued today. Pebble Limited at the time had not submitted a plan for approval to the federal government, but several tribes from the Bristol Bay region sought the veto action, concerned the mine would harm the fishery and environment. That proposed EPA action led to a lawsuit from the developer, and a decision by a federal judge against that proposal, bringing the effort to a halt. In 2017, under President Donald Trump, EPA stepped aside under a settlement agreement between the agency and the developer, allowing Pebble to pursue its project under the federal permitting process. Under that process, Pebble submitted a development plan for approval to the Corps, leading to the agency’s permit denial, which also came under the Trump administration. The EPA announced in 2021, under Democratic President Joe Biden, that its special action to potentially veto the project was back on the table. The agency has taken final actions to use its special veto authority only 13 times in its 50-year history, in an effort to protect important resources. If this action is finalized, it will be a first for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest region that includes Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Ivy Spohnholz, director of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, said research by her organization shows that none of the EPA’s 13 final determinations have ever been overturned, indicating that a final veto will very likely be a permanent action stopping the project. Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with Pebble, said EPA’s “extraordinary action” against Pebble is unusual compared to past EPA vetoes. ”I am not aware of a veto of a project that had not completed (Corps) permitting,” Heatwole said.

Alaska continues to lose ground on wages compared with other states, though pay is still high

The “legendary” wages that once coaxed people to Alaska have continued to shrink compared to the rest of the U.S., due partly to a statewide recession before the pandemic and a slow recovery after it, according to a new report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Alaska’s average wages still outperform the rest of the country, said economist Neal Fried, writing in the agency’s latest publication of Alaska Economic Trends. They placed eighth nationally last year at $30.52 an hour, behind Maryland, about $2.50 above the national average. But Alaska wages no longer hold the top spot they’ve held at times in the past, he wrote. “Since the economic bust of the mid-to-late 1980s, Alaska’s wage advantage has narrowed,” he wrote. “While Alaska wages still rank high among states, they aren’t the lure they once were, something that’s evident by the past decade’s downturn in migration.” Since 2010, average wage growth in Alaska rose by $1.09 an hour, adjusted for inflation. But during that time, U.S. inflation-adjusted wage growth outpaced Alaska by almost 40 cents. Alaska’s average wage in 2015 was 15% higher than the national average. Last year, it was 9% higher. “The narrowing isn’t surprising given the economic contrasts over that period,” Fried wrote. “Between 2016 and 2019, the nation’s economy prospered as Alaska weathered a statewide recession and a brief, weak recovery before COVID-19. The pandemic-led recession that followed hit everyone, but Alaska’s recovery has lagged behind the nation’s.” Alaska’s wages have stayed perched in the top 10 for decades, thanks to factors like the state’s higher cost of living, tough working conditions and periods of strong economic growth, Fried wrote. But the state today has a smaller percentage of high-paying jobs in areas such as oil, than it once did. And there is a greater percentage of lower-paying jobs, such as in the service sector that includes restaurants, he said in an interview this month. He said Alaska’s shrinking wage gap and relative economic underperformance are factors in the state’s net outmigration. More people have left Alaska than moved here since 2012, he said. A different report released last month by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development focused on Alaska’s overall economic performance compared to its national peers. That report said Alaska’s economy has performed “at or near the bottom” nationally for seven straight years in four key measures of economic health: employment growth, unemployment, gross domestic product and net migration. The report said low oil prices are the primary culprit — they crashed in 2014, hurting the industry that drives the state’s economy — though oil prices have improved in recent months. Fried said the Alaska economy has many positives, including an array of employment openings across many fields. “The job market is unbelievable,” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities.” And Alaska’s economic performance could change quickly compared to the rest of the U.S., he said. That can happen “if our economy is again outperforming the national economy, and it doesn’t have to be by a huge degree,” he said. What 12 Alaska jobs pay Here’s the average hourly pay for 12 jobs in Alaska, from the state’s lowest-paying to top-paying jobs: Ushers and ticket takers: $12.09 Waiters and waitresses: $13.86 First-line supervisors of retail sale workers: $23.40 Sailors: $30.19 Derrick operator, oil and gas: $35.52 Roofers: $36.90 Nurse practitioners: $54.72 Commercial pilots: $59.81 Construction managers: $72.23 Architectural and engineering managers: $78.83 Family medicine physicians: $142.84 Surgeons: $161.97 Source: Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development statewide 2021 wages

Report on pot in Alaska says industry may be hitting its ceiling

After years of growth, Alaska’s cannabis industry appears to be hitting a plateau, with the pace of employment and tax revenue increases leveling off. The assessment comes from a new report this month on Alaska’s economic trends by the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which finds the industry has “matured” since last evaluated. Alaskans voted to legalize recreational cannabis businesses in 2014, and the first operations opened shop at the end of 2016. Employment and tax revenues ballooned in the industry’s first years, with total jobs doubling from 2017 to 2018, but has since started to level out, indicating the industry may be approaching a ceiling, if not already there. “The industry has settled in since that first snapshot. Jobs, wages and taxes have continued to grow, but at a slower pace each year,” wrote Karinne Wiebold, the report’s author. Though the industry averaged 1,566 jobs associated with cannabis in 2021, bringing with them $48.3 million in wages to employees, state analysts believe that may be an undercount, noting that currently there are “7,000 active marijuana handler permits, which is a rough proxy for the number of people who have participated in the industry in some way within the last three years.” 2021 saw $28.9 million in excise taxes on cannabis brought into the state’s general fund, which does not include additional sales taxes collected in some cities and boroughs. The pandemic is a complicating variable, according to the researchers, having arrived as the cannabis industry was in a rapid growth phase and obscuring market equilibrium. “It remains to be seen how much marijuana Alaska consumers and visitors want, how many cultivators it takes to produce it, and how many stores (and in what locations) can be profitable,” the report notes. “While growth moderating over the last couple of years could be the industry settling, it’s also possible that COVID-19 tempered expansion. Demand could pick up as the pandemic winds down. Few out-of-state seasonal workers showed up in 2020, and product demand was likely reduced as few visitors came that year and a fraction of the typical number returned in 2021.” As of December of this year, the state counts 459 active licenses, a figure that includes retail stores, cultivators, manufacturing businesses that make products like edibles and concentrates as well as just two testing facilities for the state’s entire industry. The largest share of those licenses, 133 of them, are in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Anchorage hosts 105, the Fairbanks North Star Borough 71, with 66 on the Kenai Peninsula and another 84 spread across Southeast, Western Alaska and less dense areas of the Railbelt. To date, the state has received more than $119 million from excise taxes on cannabis, which are calculated through flat rates when cultivators sell flower or trim to manufacturing or retail businesses. The mechanism does not take potency into account, which some in the industry have criticized for offering an economic imperative to grow higher-strength product that commands a higher retail price. The report notes that federal prohibitions on cannabis make for a lot of challenges, particularly in Alaska given how much of the state is not connected by roads. “This means that with few exceptions, cannabis in any form can’t be transported by air or sea,” the report points out. “Samples must be tested before sale, and Alaska’s two testing facilities are on the road system, so cannabis tends to be grown on the road system as well. Remote operators must grow their own and arrange for testing or take frequent trips to the grow facilities to pick up and transport the product in person.” This puts business owners and residents in a legal gray zone between federal and state rules each time they board a commercial flight or ferry with cannabis on their person. “The state allows cannabis products on intrastate commercial flights as long as they stay with the traveler (so, carry-on only),” Wiebold said. “The federal government has instructed the Transportation Security Administration to contact local law enforcement when they encounter marijuana to ensure it follows state law.” The federal government’s stance towards cannabis has oscillated with different presidential administrations. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department deferred to state laws in deciding how to apply resources, which meant Alaska and several other states’ industries had fewer threats of legal sanction hanging over them. That guidance was reversed under the Trump administration, although there was scant interference or prosecution in states with legal cannabis industries. So far, the Biden administration’s approach, as the report notes, has been “hands off” when it comes to federal law enforcement over cannabis. Though there are few signs that federal legalization of cannabis is on the immediate horizon, especially with the U.S. House flipping from Democratic control to a Republican majority in January, such legislation would upend Alaska’s existent industry, the state analysis notes. Alaska cannabis licenses have a residency requirement that has largely kept out major investors and ownership groups from the Lower 48. Likewise, more inexpensively grown product from saturated markets along the West Coast could undercut local cultivation businesses if shipping it were suddenly legal.

Former Dunleavy chief of staff named head of AIDEA

A former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy is taking over as head of an Alaska economic development agency. Randy Ruaro is becoming executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority starting Jan. 3, replacing Alan Weitzner, who resigned last month, according to a statement from the agency. The agency’s chief investment officer, Morgan Neff, has served as interim executive director. Ruaro has a long history in Alaska government. He recently served as the governor’s special assistant for statehood defense, which helps coordinate the state’s action on disputes with the federal government involving control of Alaska lands and waters. He has been chief of staff in the Senate and House Finance committees and served in leadership roles in multiple Republican administrations in Alaska, starting with Gov. Frank Murkowski about two decades ago. Ruaro takes over a state agency that has often been the target of opposition from environmental groups. It has made a controversial decision to buy federal leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and pursued development of a road to the Ambler mineral district in Northwest Alaska that has faced strong opposition. The agency in November also launched an effort for an independent review of its financial history after a report funded by a conservation group alleged that the agency has a history of poor investments. Ruaro, who holds a law degree from Willamette University College of Law, has supported many of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s projects, including the Ambler road and the refuge leases, according to the agency’s statement. “Randy has extensive experience leading departments for the State of Alaska and we look forward to working with him and AIDEA’s talented executive team as we advance economic growth and diversification for Alaskans,” said Dana Pruhs, chair of the agency’s board. The board consists of five public members who are appointed by the governor to two-year terms, plus two board seats filled by the commissioners of the Alaska Department of Revenue and the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

Council has 4 months to fix Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan

The future of the Cook Inlet salmon fishery is again in the air as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council debates how to manage it after a federal court ruled that it has to write a new plan. It’s been six years since a federal court ruled that the council’s decision to remove Cook Inlet from a federal management plan and defer entirely to the state was illegal. The council initially decided to remove Cook Inlet in 2012, a decision that the United Cook Inlet Drift Association challenged in court. In 2016, the court agreed with the association, ordering the council to create a new federal management plan that includes the federal waters of Cook Inlet. With input from a stakeholder committee, the council worked on the new plan from 2018 to 2020, voting on a set of options in late 2020. However, representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced at that meeting that they would not accept delegated management with federal oversight. The council then voted to accept an option that would have closed the federal waters to all commercial fishing. UCIDA challenged that vote in court, saying that the decision was arbitrary and capricious, and a federal judge again agreed. Now, the council has to review the options again and vote on a final action by April 2023 in order to comply with the court’s timeline. At their meeting on Dec. 10, Doug Duncan with the National Marine Fisheries Service told the council members that the deadline is set in April because the fisheries service still needs a year after that to finalize the management plan through the federal rulemaking process. At this point, the proposal doesn’t look much different than it did in December 2020, when the council voted to accept Alternative 4, which would have closed the Cook Inlet federal waters to commercial salmon fishing. However, one major change that the court ruled had to be included was management of the sport fishery that takes place in federal waters. Homer, Anchor Point and Ninilchik are major launch points for guides and private sportfishermen nearby, where anglers often head out to fish particularly for king and coho salmon. There are four total options: Do nothing, delegate management to the state with federal oversight, have the federal government directly manage the fishery, or close the fishery. Because of court decisions, the first and the fourth options aren’t really viable, Duncan said. That leaves the council with the middle two options: Either delegate management to the state and oversee its decisions, or manage the fishery directly under the National Marine Fisheries Service. Federal management would be a fairly major change for how the fishery operates — the National Marine Fisheries Service does not actively manage salmon fisheries in Alaska at present, and because they are an anadromous species that are currently managed based on escapement into freshwater, the mechanics of regulation would change. For example, federal groundfish fisheries are often limited based on total allowable catch limits, which are set based on a population estimate before each season begins. Salmon fluctuate from year to year, which the state projects and manages for based on in-season information. Council member Bill Tweit said the council’s decisions is challenging because they are stuck with one or the other — delegate to the state or set up entirely federal management. State representatives said in 2020 they would not accept delegated management because they saw it as a form of overreach, and Tweit said he understands from their perspective why delegation is not appealing. “It strikes me as a state official as a truly unpalatable choice,” he said. “I would have great difficulty if I were sitting in the commissioner’s chair … it’s an intrusive oversight, even well-intentioned, well-meant, and well-founded in the (Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management) Act. Still, from a governmental perspective it’s very intrusive, and it requires the state agency to devote fairly significant resources that they don’t have to devote to facilitating the oversight of a federal agency.” Most of the stakeholders agreed — they would prefer some form of state management with federal oversight over strictly federal management. That was the consensus from the beginning, even in 2018, when stakeholders began to weigh in on a new management plan. The 2020 decision to close the fishery drew ire from many of them and concern from the communities that depend on commercial fishing, such as Kenai and Homer. Homer has the largest harbor on Cook Inlet and depends on marine trades for a major slice of its economy. Donna Aderhold, a Homer City Council member, told the council members that she appreciated their focus on economic impacts during this federal management plan development process, and urged them to consider the human implications of limiting or shrinking the fishery. “Data points represent human beings,” she said. “They represent people. They represent my friends. There are people in Homer who have participated in the drift fleet who have sold their vessels, sold their permits, and moved out of Homer. Those individuals who leave Homer under those circumstances represent members of our port and harbor commission, they represent volunteers in our community, they represent people who serve on our nonprofit boards … they’re amazing people who have contributed a lot to our communities.” Kenai Mayor Paul Ostrander echoed the economic concerns, as Kenai is home to the peninsula’s remaining large salmon processing facilities. The council there has repeatedly opposed the plan to close the federal waters to salmon fishing, but has not specifically supported an option going forward yet, he said. “The city has not weighed in on which of the remaining alternatives should be adopted … but ultimately want this council to consider the importance of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and a critical component of the continued viability of that fishery is keeping the fishery open and managing it using the best science available,” he said. Kenai Peninsula Borough planning director Robert Ruffner told the council that the borough supported passing “some variant of Alternative 2,” though said it was still unclear whether the state Fish and Game commissioner could issue a formal rejection of delegated management. He said the council should be involved in the scientific review process for setting escapement goals as well. “We want to advocate for the best science available, and having some checks and balances and some peer review on those seems very appropriate because we’re going to build on that science in this process for all five species of salmon in the (federal waters),” Ruffner said. Fish and Game deputy commissioner Rachel Baker, who represents Fish and Game on the council, said she agreed with Tweit’s concerns about the burden of work for the state in Alternative 2 and looked forward to more information at the next analysis. The council accepted the initial analysis, with requests to the National Marine Fisheries Service for more information about the details of alternatives 2 and 3 at its next meeting. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Dunleavy appoints oil executive to lead DNR

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is appointing a former oil executive to serve as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. John Boyle most recently worked as the government affairs manager for Santos, an Australian oil and gas company that announced earlier this year it would invest $2.6 billion in developing the Pikka oil field on Alaska’s North Slope. “His legal training, knowledge of Alaska’s resource industries and commitment to developing our resources to the maximum benefit of all Alaskans, and in the safest possible manner, make him an excellent choice to lead the department during my second term,” Dunleavy said in a statement. Boyle moved to Alaska to clerk for the Alaska Court System in 2010, after earning a law degree from the Brigham Young University in Utah, according to his LinkedIn page. He then worked for the North Slope Borough as assistant borough attorney and director of government affairs, before working as director of government affairs for oil giant BP. He began working for Santos in 2019. Boyle will assume the commissioner position on Jan. 6. His confirmation is subject to approval by the Legislature. He replaces Akis Gialopsos, who has served in the role on an interim basis since July. Gialopsos, who previously served as Dunleavy’s legislative director, is leaving the administration, a Dunleavy spokesperson said. Gialopsos replaced former Commissioner Corri Feige, who left the administration in June.

Pressure mounts on Biden administration for Willow decision

A major oil prospect on federal land in Alaska is hanging in the balance as pressure mounts on the Biden administration for a final decision to approve, or reject, the project. Political observers say they don’t know where the Biden administration will land, saying the president is a tough political position. Conservation groups and climate activists have urged the administration to deny ConocoPhillips the permission it needs to build the $8 billion Willow oil project. National groups protested outside the White House in December, arguing the project will imperil wildlife and undermine Biden’s goals to combat climate change. The project’s advocates, including Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation, are calling for approval from the administration so construction can start immediately during the North Slope’s short winter season, or else it will be delayed until next year. They say the project is vital for the struggling Alaska economy and could combat future high oil and gas prices. Alaska Native leaders are also weighing in, both in favor and against. ConocoPhillips has said it will begin construction as soon as the administration makes a decision supporting development. “Any further delay (at Willow) is unwarranted” after five years of environmental review of the project, the company said in a statement Dec. 22. Additional delay “jeopardizes ConocoPhillips’ ability to initiate construction of the project in this winter season and further advance major contract awards that are needed to execute the project,” the company said. In December, ConocoPhillips Alaska President Erec Isaacson signaled in an interview with Bloomberg that the company will back out of the project if the Biden administration scales the development down to two drill pads. ConocoPhillips said the “viable path forward” is a development proposal with three initial drilling pads, a plan the federal government proposed this summer. That plan arose after a federal judge rejected initial approval of the project by the Trump administration in 2020, after conservation groups argued that the government had underestimated the plan’s harm to wildlife, among other factors. Alaska delegation meets Biden officials If built, Willow would be one of the first oil fields in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The reserve, which is the largest block of federal land in the U.S., was established by President Warren Harding in 1923 as a source of oil for the U.S. Navy. But commercial oil didn’t flow from the reserve until ConocoPhillips established its first small field there in 2015. The Willow field could produce 600 million barrels of oil over three decades, worth $50 billion at today’s oil prices. Its oil could also lead to the release of 278 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions during that time, equivalent to what 76 coal-fired power plants emit in a year, conservation groups say. Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola said in a Dec. 21 statement they had met twice recently with senior Biden administration officials to urge approval of the project. The meetings included John Podesta, Biden’s senior adviser on clean energy innovation, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Sullivan said in an interview. The administration has committed to releasing a final environmental report for the project before February, and a final decision before March, according to the delegation’s statement. In September, the delegation had implored the administration to approve the project by year’s end. Spokespeople with the Interior Department declined to comment on the current timeline for a decision. “We have nothing offer on this,” said Melissa Schwartz, communications director with the agency. Sullivan said the timeline is “disappointing” and limits the development that could begin in the four-month construction season that begins in January. Work that can’t happen this year will need to wait until early next year. Climate activists protest Willow outside White House Climate activists in early December protested at the Ellipse outside the White House, unfurling a bright-yellow banner that said “Stop the Willow Oil Project.” “Our recent climate wins, the clean energy advancements we’ve made, President Biden’s 2030 goals — they’re all for nothing if the administration approves this colossal drilling project,” said Magnolia Mead of This is Zero Hour. “Youth turned out to elect President Biden and Democrats because of their ambitious climate promises, and all eyes are on him to follow through.” Alaska Native leaders have also weighed in. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Nuiqsut’s mayor, wrote in a November opinion piece in The Hill that her village, the closest to the project, is being ignored as Biden “barrels towards approving” it. “The Biden administration is moving forward with a massive oil and gas project that is a climate disaster waiting to happen while refusing to listen to the voices of my constituents and community, who will bear the burden of this project with our health and our livelihoods,” she wrote. Harry Brower Jr., mayor of the North Slope Borough that includes Nuiqsut, and borough president Amaulik Edwardsen, expressed support for Willow in a September opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “We are tired of outside groups trying to turn this project and every other oil and gas project in our region into the poster child for a global movement away from fossil fuels,” they wrote. “This is more than a political oil debate for us; it’s about access to land we were promised many years ago. Without projects like Willow and their crucial economic benefits, many of my neighbors would be forced to leave the lands they and their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years.” ‘A tough spot’ for Biden Observers of oil field activity and federal policy in Alaska said they weren’t sure where the Biden administration would land on Willow. Andy Mack, former Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner under independent Gov. Bill Walker, noted the Biden administration has taken positions that have allowed the Willow project to advance. The Bureau of Land Management and ConocoPhillips have worked together to find a way to reduce harm to the environment that would have been caused by an original development plan proposed by the oil company, he said. “I think they’ve done as much as they can do to mitigate the impacts” through the project’s design, said Mack, chief executive of Kuukpik, the Alaska Native village corporation for Nuiqsut, and an oil field services provider. Mack said Willow is an “economic opportunity” for Alaska. But it is “immense” and will have environmental impacts, he said. Kuukpik will push for improvements, such as urging the federal government to require electronic monitoring of caribou in the area to provide details on their status, he said. Pat Pourchot, the former top Interior official in Alaska for six years under President Barack Obama, said in an interview he thinks Biden is “under a lot of pressure” on Willow. Biden has set ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions, but the Willow project will increase those emissions, he said. That creates a contradiction in policy, something emphasized by conservation groups, said Pourchot, board president for the Alaska Wilderness League, which was part of the legal effort that stopped Willow’s approval under the Trump administration. Pourchot said the administration also has political calculations to consider in a Willow decision. That includes future support that might be needed from Sen. Murkowski, a moderate who at times has been a critical swing vote on issues that Democrats favor. And Democratic leadership will want to support Peltola politically, who they’ll need in two years to regain control of the House, he said. “The Biden administration is in the crosshairs between his own policies and on the political side,” Pourchot said. “I think Biden is in a tough spot and I don’t know what he’ll do on Willow.”

What’s in the $1.7 trillion government spending bill for Alaska? Lots.

WASHINGTON — Congress passed a $1.7 trillion spending package to fund the government through September 2023. The omnibus bill funds all corners of the federal government, with $773 billion for domestic spending, $858 billion for military spending and nearly $45 billion for Ukraine assistance. Congress passed the bill on Dec. 23 in the nick of time, averting a looming shutdown that would have started after government funding expired Friday. The bill also includes millions in appropriations for projects specific to Alaska and enacts legislation that will directly impact the state. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, supported the bill, saying in a statement that “there is literally no part of our state that this legislation doesn’t benefit.” Murkowski was one of 14 Senate Republicans to vote for the bill, though House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — the frontrunner to be next term’s House speaker — threatened to block their bills if they voted for the package’s passage. Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan opposed the 4,155-page bill, which was first released late the evening of Dec. 20. Sullivan acknowledged that the bill includes Alaska-related provisions he supports, but said a “broken budget process” and the roughly 48 hours between the bill’s introduction and the final Senate passage contributed to his no vote. Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola voted to pass the bill Dec. 23, alongside most other House Democrats. Over 200 of Peltola’s House colleagues voted via proxy, presumably to make it home in time for the holidays amid winter storms across the country, but Peltola voted in person. Here’s some of what the spending package includes for Alaska: $500 million in earmarks About 130 Murkowski-requested, congressionally directed spending allocations — also called earmarks — made it in to the spending bill, totaling close to $500 million. Nonprofit and government projects across the state will receive funding. Some big-ticket items include $99 million to fund a fitness center annex at Fort Wainwright; $63 million for an aircraft maintenance hangar at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson; and $33.9 million for abandoned well remediation in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The Municipality of Anchorage is also receiving millions for various city projects, related to wastewater, fire prevention, police vehicle replacements and more. Murkowski noted in a statement that she “was the only member of Alaska’s congressional delegation to pursue Congressionally Directed Spending (CDS) projects.” Rep. Don Young died weeks before earmark requests were due, and Peltola was elected after the deadline. Sullivan’s office has said he pursues other methods to secure federal spending for Alaska. Fishery disaster assistance The bill includes $300 million for federal fishery disaster assistance, funding that the Alaska congressional delegation said the state’s fisheries, like the Bering Sea king and snow crab fisheries, sorely need. The U.S. Department of Commerce declared a slate of fishery disasters in Alaska last week, making them eligible for the assistance, though the timeline to get that funding to Alaska’s fisheries is unclear. Alaska Salmon Research Task Force A Sullivan-led measure to study Pacific salmon is laid out in the omnibus bill. The Alaska Salmon Research Task Force will be a 13- to 19-member body that reviews and reports on research about salmon in the state, with the goal of supporting sustainable salmon runs. “In recent years, Alaskans have witnessed shocking and unprecedented declines among some salmon species in parts of the state while, in other parts, runs have been strong and historic,” Sullivan said of the measure in a statement. “Many have speculated on the causes of these declines, but all Alaskans can agree — we need to identify and address research prioritization gaps with comprehensive data and the best scientific minds, including Indigenous communities that have harvested salmon for millennia.” Denali Park Road The bill provides funding to repair the road that heads into Denali National Park and Preserve. A long stretch of the road has been closed due to a slow-moving landslide in the Polychrome Pass area, which has impeded access to parts of the park. A previous round of federal funding allowed construction to begin on a bridge over the area. “The No. 1 place that people want to go and see is Denali Park, and so we need to place a priority on making sure that that road is open, but that it’s safe, and so that’s what these funds help do,” Murkowski said. Land contamination grants For the first time, the package allocates $20 million for grants for the assessment and remediation of contaminated lands conveyed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Trails The spending bill provides funding for the Interior Department to do a feasibility study on the Alaska Long Trail, a proposed 500-mile route from Fairbanks to Seward, to determine if it could be a National Scenic Trail. The bill also designates the Chilkoot Trail, a 16-mile long Tlingit trade route later used during the gold rush in Southeast Alaska, as a National Historic Trail. Alaska Native mental health The package allocates $80 million to the Indian Health Service for prevention, recovery and treatment programs dedicated to mental health and substance abuse. With this provision, the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services can direct any amount of money to Alaska Native tribal health organizations. Notably absent: Icebreaker appropriations Appropriations for an icebreaker were absent from the spending package, apparently removed last-minute. Authorization for the icebreaker was included in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, but the lack of the necessary $150 million in the spending bill to acquire a vessel dashed Sullivan’s hopes that an icebreaker would soon be home-ported in Juneau, at least for now    “This is a major disappointment for our state and country,” Sullivan said. Other Alaska delegation initiatives The bill also includes a series of nationally oriented provisions championed by the Alaska congressional delegation that address veterans benefits, infrastructure development, public safety and more. The Electoral Count Reform Act, co-sponsored by Murkowski, clarifies that the vice president does not have the power to solely determine disputes over electors. In an effort to prevent objections to the electoral count like those that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, the measure also requires 20% of the Senate or House of Representatives to lodge an objection to electors. The Visit America Act, sponsored by Sullivan, creates an assistant secretary of tourism in the Commerce Department to boost the country’s tourism industry. The bill provides funding for an Arctic Ambassador, a priority for Murkowski. The bill appropriates $6.5 million to support municipal recycling programs and local waste management systems for marine plastic waste, a priority of Peltola’s. The Murkowski-sponsored Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, or PUMP Act, was also added to the omnibus bill Thursday during the amendment process. The measure mandates that employers provide hourly and salaried employees space and time to pump and store breast milk at work.

Federal appeals court sides with environmental groups in latest ruling on King Cove road land swap

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a ruling from earlier this year that cleared a path for a land trade to facilitate putting a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, connecting two communities at the western edge of the Alaska Peninsula. It’s the latest reversal in a decadeslong saga over whether or not to build an 11-mile gravel road through an area environmentalists say is a crown jewel for biological diversity worthy of preservation. Other Alaska stakeholders say their health, safety and economic well-being depends on linking the community of King Bay with the all-weather airport in Cold Bay. The Nov. 10 ruling by the 9th Circuit essentially nullified a decision in March by a smaller three-judge panel that said the Interior secretary is allowed to swap lands defined under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act as protected wilderness without approval from Congress. Instead, that case will need to be heard again by the full bench for its legality to be determined. The land-swap deal between the U.S. Department of the Interior and King Cove’s village corporation was initially advanced under the Trump administration, and later supported by Biden administration officials. Environmental groups were quick to call this month’s action by the 9th Circuit a win. “It was obvious from the beginning that the destructive ruling by two Trump-appointed judges to uphold a land exchange must be reviewed by the court in the interest of wilderness areas and wildlife refuges across the nation,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska senior regional director for The Wilderness Society, in a press release sent out on behalf of the plaintiff group. “We trust that the full 9th Circuit will find that the land exchange was illegal and undermines provisions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.” The plaintiffs take issue with the assertion that because the road would create economic benefits it should be allowed to bypass processes designed to conserve the environment and wildlife under ANILCA. “We’re really sad that the national and local environmental groups keep upholding this,” said Della Trumble, head of the King Cove Corp., which has long pushed for the road. “It’s very frustrating and disheartening that this continues.” The main reason for connecting the two communities, according to proponents, is the sizable airstrip in Cold Bay, which is big enough for jets to land more or less regardless of weather conditions. That includes emergency medical flights when there’s a health or public safety crisis, as well as commercial passenger service for residents needing to get off the peninsula. Without any overland route, Trumble said she had just returned from a trip out for medical care by sea. “I came home on a boat yesterday from Cold Bay to King Cove,” said Trumble, who has bad knees. “This was my last trip by boat, because I can’t do this anymore.” Just hours after the 9th Circuit decision on Nov. 10, Trumble said the path forward for litigants wasn’t yet clear. “We’ll see what the next steps are, but the battle isn’t over,” Trumble said.

Movers & Shakers for Nov. 20, 2022

Alaska Communications has promoted Mark Ayers to chief technology officer. Ayers joined Alaska Communications at the start of 2022. As chief technology officer, he leads information technology, planning and construction strategy, engineering design and execution, and helps set network vision. Ayers has extensive telecommunications experience having served 20 years at GCI. He is a University of Alaska graduate and a licensed professional engineer in the state of Alaska. University of Alaska alumnus and Bristol Bay Borough School District superintendent Bill Hill was named 2023 Alaska Superintendent of the Year during a banquet hosted by the Alaska Superintendents Association. He will now be in the running for the School Superintendents Association’s National Superintendent of the Year award. The award follows the news that the Bristol Bay Teaching and Learning Collaborative, which includes BBBSD and the UAA School of Education, was awarded a $4.39 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Alaska Native Education program. BBTLC — which Hill was a key partner in forming — will use the grant to facilitate teacher development and retention and provide culturally responsive education courses to teachers from outside the region. Carol Fraser, vice president of Aspen Hotels of Alaska, leads the Trend Alaska Fashion Show. The Trend Alaska Fashion Show, also known as Trend, is an annual event that showcases Alaska’s artists and designers while raising funds for a local nonprofit. The event debuted in 2019 and returned in 2022 after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception, the show has raised more than $140,000. Thanks to Fraser’s leadership, the Trend committee was awarded the 2022 Spirit of Alaska Award at the Alaska Travel Industry Association Annual Convention & Trade Show. “Supporting Alaska’s artists, designers and nonprofits has been such an incredible opportunity,” said Fraser. “I can’t wait for the community to see all that we have in store for the third Trend Alaska Fashion Show on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.” Fraser was also inducted into the Anchorage ATHENA Society earlier this year, currently serves as the president of the Alaska Alliance for Cruise Travel, and previously held positions on the Alaska Hotel and Lodging Association and the Alaska Travel Industry Association board of directors. Fraser got her start in hotel management in 1992 when she fell in love with not only hotel operations, but also with sharing the wonders of Alaska with people from around the world. Northrim Bank is proud to announce the promotion of four officers and welcomes two new employees. Jason Gentry is now vice president, commercial loan officer. Gentry rejoined Northrim in September and has over 10 years of experience in the financial industry in Alaska and Washington. A longtime Alaskan, he grew up in Utqiagvik and attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ben Schulman is now vice president, commercial loan officer. Schulman started at Northrim Bank in 2010 and has 22 years of banking experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Corban University. Johnico Bashford-Blumer is now assistant vice president, branch manager-Lake Otis Community Branch. Bashford-Blumer has been with Northrim for just over two years and has more than 13 years of management experience. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Colorado Technical University. Samantha Schemm is now assistant vice president, deposit applications manager. Schemm joined Northrim in September and brings over 15 years of experience in the financial industry, to include retail banking, back office operations and IT. Jodie Stone is now assistant vice president, card services manager. Stone started at Northrim two years ago and has 24 years of banking and leadership experience, working in retail banking and back office branch support. Cindy Cheely is now assistant branch manager, Southside Financial Center. Cheely has been with Northrim Bank for a total of 13 years and has over 25 years of experience in the financial services industry. She has worked in a variety of departments at Northrim including financial sales, lending and retail banking.  

Fishing jobs declined in Alaska in 2021

Last year brought another series of job losses for the Alaskan fishing industry, even after the massive declines in 2020. The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s analysis of fishing jobs, which it releases annually, shows that 2021 did not bring a full recovery back to the industry the way it did to others after the low during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Overall, the industry lost another 134 jobs, on top of the approximately 1,000 it lost in 2020. “While some harvests were notably large in 2021, no fishery significantly boosted its employment,” wrote Joshua Warren, an economist for the Alaska Department of Labor, in the report. “Larger harvests don’t necessarily translate to job growth.” Though there are commercial fisheries operating all over Alaska year-round, employment usually spikes from May through September for salmon harvesting. Of all the sectors, salmon tends to be the largest employer each year — about 56% of total harvesting jobs last year, according to the Department of Labor. Salmon continued to be the largest in 2021 as well, though not proportionally, considering that the 2021 harvest and exvessel value were the third-largest each in state history. In 2021, the state recorded an average monthly employment of 6,449 salmon jobs, 134 fewer jobs than the 2020 average, which itself was more than 1,000 jobs down from 2019. Salmon jobs have been declining since 2015, when they hit an average of 8,501, the highest in the last 20 years. Salmon jobs are highly seasonal, though — while there are nearly none in April, before the first salmon start to return, the average in July is more than 20,000. But even that July peak was down in 2021 by nearly 300 jobs. That number is also down significantly from a high in 2013 of about 25,000 jobs, according to the Department of Labor. It’s hard to say exactly why salmon harvesting jobs declined, though people involved in the industry in 2021 reported difficulty finding employees for both processing and harvesting, just like most businesses across the American economy. As the economy rebounded from the job lows of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers found themselves competing for a scarcer workforce. Sam Friedman, an economist with the McKinley Group, said the evidence seems to indicate “there were less people catching more fish and processing more fish.” Data compiled by the McKinley Research Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute show that processing jobs dropped significantly from 2020 to 2021 as well. Peak monthly employment fell by more than 800 jobs, and the average monthly employment fell from 8,114 jobs to 7,388. However, the percentage of Alaska residents ticked up slightly, from 21% to 22%. The opposite was true of the harvesting sector, according to data compiled by Fish and Game on behalf of ASMI. The percentage of Alaska residents in the harvesting sector fell from 56% to 53%, with total employment falling about 100 jobs between the two years. Most of those jobs were actually among skippers, though — 200 skipper jobs were lost, while 100 crew jobs were added, according to the data. Halibut harvesting is the second-largest employment sector after salmon, without about 14% of the jobs to salmon’s 56%. Three regions gained halibut jobs last year: Southeast, Southcentral and Kodiak, totaling about 30 extra jobs, an increase of about 3.5% for the sector. Employment in groundfish harvesting, the next largest sector, fell about 6.8%, while sablefish fell about 13.9%. Late 2021 also brought a year of major closures for crab fisheries in the Bering Sea region, with the first complete closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in decades and a nearly 90% cut in the total allowable catch for Bering Sea snow crab due to a near-complete population collapse. However, most crab jobs are actually in Southeast Alaska, where the employment slightly increased; the employment in the Aleutians held steady, while Kodiak and Southcentral both lost crab harvesting jobs. There are two peaks for crab employment — February and October — and the February employment only declined slightly while October fell to nearly half of 2020′s average, according to the Department of Labor. “Gains in some of the other months muted 2021′s loss to just 13 (crab) jobs,” Warren wrote. Regionally, Southeast posted a record year for salmon harvest in both poundage and value, as well as a higher average number of jobs for the industry. All Southeast’s other harvesting sectors added jobs or stayed steady except for sablefish, according to the Department of Labor. The Aleutians and Pribilofs regions held steady except for in groundfish, which fell nearly 18%; Kodiak lost jobs in crab and sablefish, but compensated overall with salmon and halibut increases. Bristol Bay, which posted a near-record harvest for salmon in 2021, saw employment in salmon stay nearly flat, with the peak in July actually dropping slightly. The tiny herring fishery there posted job increases, while crab jobs disappeared because the red king crab fishery closed. Salmon jobs declined in Southcentral Alaska by about 2.1%, but the biggest regional loss was in the Yukon Delta, where the salmon stocks continued to crash. In the last four years, the region has seen its summer annual employment in commercial salmon fishing drop from about 1,000 jobs to about 144 in 2021. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the salmon are declining, pointing to climate change, competition with hatchery salmon, bycatch and phytoplankton blooms as potential causes, according to the Department of Labor. “The last few years of job losses in the Yukon Delta have been the largest our data have recorded in Alaska,” Warren wrote in the report. “Salmon harvesting jobs have plunged to near-zero as the fish fail to return in adequate numbers for both subsistence and commercial use.” 2022 hasn’t quite come to a close yet — the salmon fisheries are closed for the year and halibut are due to close at the beginning of December, but the crab fisheries are beginning to open, as well as other winter fisheries. Warren notes in the Department of Labor report that the 2021 trends in salmon harvesting seemed to continue in 2022, and future harvesting employment will likely be influenced by environmental factors like climate change and biological factors that influence salmon populations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its statewide salmon summary for 2022 on Nov. 10, noting that the overall harvest of salmon was down by about 31% —mostly due to a decline in pink salmon, which is normal for even-numbered years. However, the value was up nearly $80 million from 2021, for an estimated total of $720.4 million. More than half of that value came from sockeye salmon, and most of those came from Bristol Bay. The record harvest this year in the region helped push the 2022 statewide sockeye salmon catch to the largest on record, according to Fish and Game. Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the closing date for the halibut season to early December. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Massive losses predicted from Bering Sea crab closures

This winter will mark the first time in the history of U.S. management that the Bering Sea snow crab fishery will be closed. While other crab stocks have been declining in the North Pacific for years, the snow crab fishery’s collapse is doubly shocking for the industry. Not only is it one of the larger crab fisheries by volume in Alaska, it has also gone from booming and healthy to overfished and collapsing within five years, with little warning or clear explanation. Fishermen who made investments in permits and boats less than five years ago are now looking at bankruptcy. Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the trade organization representing the industry, has estimated the direct financial losses at about $500 million. Adding in the ripple effects to the economy, that estimate rises to about $1 billion. Jamie Goen, the executive director of ABSC, said fleet members have expressed frustration with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s past inaction on crab conservation as well as the sadness going into this closure. “(There is) deep sadness and shock with what we’re facing right now,” she said. “I think there was hope there would at least be a small fishery to keep our guys surviving and vessels working.” The council heard and agreed to set maximum catch limits, which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game followed with the announcement of a total closure for both the Bering Sea snow crab fishery and Bristol Bay red king crab. This is the second year in a row for Bristol Bay red king crab, which has been declining for more than a decade, but this is the first Bering Sea snow crab closure in the history of U.S. management, Goen said. Just prior to the pandemic, survey numbers from the snow crab population looked healthy enough for managers to raise catch limits and to tempt crew members to buy into the fishery. That was a sign of a healthy fishery, Goen said, which was also rationalized — a federal process designed to make sure a fishery is adequately conserved and managed while allowing for maximum sustainable use. During the pandemic, there was no survey conducted, so the next available data came from the survey in 2021. That was what showed a near-complete stock collapse and a nearly 90% cut in the total allowable catch for last season. This year’s survey was even worse. Nearly all groups in the survey showed historic drops, with the exception of immature female crab, and managers are now working on a stock rebuilding plan that will likely take many years to see through. In the meantime, crabbers either can’t fish or have very small quotas, which won’t be enough to sustain them. “We’re facing an industry’s extinction,” Goen said. “It’s the independent family businesses. It’s the second- or third-generation fishermen (we’re losing).” The closure this year presents the industry with potentially major damage. When the boats are tied up, crew members may choose to move on and not be available next year. With an industry like crab, which relies on experience to weather the difficult conditions in the Bering Sea winters, that’s a huge loss, Goen said. The two biggest crab processing communities in the Bering Sea — Unalaska and St. Paul — are also concerned about the impact. Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr. said in a letter to the council that the city is concerned about its harvesters, as well as the associated businesses at the port, being able to survive these cuts and closures. St. Paul is even more vulnerable; crab landings and processing typically account for about 85% of the city’s revenues. Under the current projections, St. Paul was expecting a loss of about 52% overall compared to 2021, with the crab losses offset somewhat by the shared fishery tax program through the state. Phillip A. Zavadil, St. Paul’s city manager, wrote to the council that the city will “basically be kept afloat” by those taxes, and the situation in 2023 is likely to result in even further cuts. “Over the mid to long term, should this status persist, it will impact municipal services, the City’s ability to pay debts and obligations, and its ability to finance or provide local matches to future harbor and other infrastructure projects, necessary to maintain Saint Paul Island’s participation in the Bering Sea fisheries,” he wrote. St. Paul’s community development quota fishing group, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, has also seen a major revenue drop because of the cuts in crab catch limits. Heather McCarty, the lobbyist for CBSFA, said the organization is looking for ways to diversify, but has much of its portfolio tied up in crab harvesting and processing quota. “We are losing on three different levels,” she said. “We are losing on our portion of the CDQ quota, we’re losing the revenues from our investment in harvester quota and processing quota.” The group is also dependent on the infrastructure from the crab processing industry for its halibut catch, another major part of the industry in the region. Right now, the group is planning to send out vessels to participate in the very limited tanner crab fishery, which only has about 2 million pounds available this year, and in the Aleutian golden king crab fishery, McCarty said. “I think people expect to not make very much money,” she said. “But there are many things (to fishing) ... like keeping the crew lubricated, keeping the boat lubricated, things that have to keep operating.” There are some vessels in the crab fleet that may do the same, Goen said — while some may tie up, others may go out for the small Tanner crab quota not expecting to make much money, but just to keep the boats operating and the crews paid. However, they can’t keep doing that if the closures and tight quotas go on for years. In the meantime, ABSC is working on getting a disaster declaration for both Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab, which could put money in fishermen’s hands to help them through. However, fisheries disaster processes can take years from the time the request is granted to when money actually makes into peoples’ hands—and that’s too long, Goen said. While the fleet is looking at some other options for revenue, such as using crab vessels for research and diversifying into other fisheries where possible, ABSC is working on a potential avenue to get that disaster funding faster. “We need money in pockets within six months to a year, much like what farmers get or communities get when a hurricane comes through,” Goen said. “Fisheries disaster funding... takes two to four years. Our small family businesses are going to go out of business by that time.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Movers & Shakers for Oct. 16, 2022

Award-winning presenter Shawn Spruce (Laguna Pueblo) has joined Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, a nonprofit, Alaska Native governed media center, as the new permanent host of Native America Calling (NAC). The live and nationally syndicated radio program produces thoughtful conversations from a Native perspective about issues that affect Native people. Spruce was a frequent guest for many years on Native America Calling, and comes from a financial education and economic development background. He was awarded the 2021 Ketchum Prize for outstanding contributions to financial education and inclusion for Native Americans. Sol Traverso (Athabascan and Puerto Rican descent) joins NAC as associate producer. Originally from Alaska, Traverso is a University of New Mexico journalism graduate with three years of experience that includes the UNM Daily Lobo, the New Mexico News Port, The Taos News and NAC. Andi Murphy (Diné) has been promoted to senior producer for NAC. Murphy has more than decade of journalism experience including eight years with NAC. She specializes in Indigenous multimedia storytelling, production, and research and is a frequent fill-in host for NAC. Her popular “Toasted Sister Podcast” covers Indigenous cooking and food sovereignty. She is a two-time first place winner of the National Native Media Award for general excellence in podcasting and radio. The Nature Conservancy has named Ivy Spohnholz as its next Alaska state director. Spohnholz also currently serves as a Democratic representative in the Alaska State Legislature. “I am thrilled to be joining the team at The Nature Conservancy,” Spohnholz said. “In Alaska, with our rich resources and a way of life that’s second to none, TNC’s work is both practical and essential. Alaska needs more jobs and lower cost energy that is both sustainable and predictable — especially in the rural and coastal communities that define us. We need to make big progress on adapting to and slowing climate change. There is no organization better positioned to help formulate the breakthroughs we need than The Nature Conservancy.” Prior to her service in the Legislature, Spohnholz’s career included 20 years in roles with organizations such as The Salvation Army, University of Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Conservation Foundation and Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis. Spohnholz holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration, both from the University of Washington. She has been a foster and adoptive parent and is the past chair of the board of directors for the Alaska Children’s Trust. The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat is pleased to announce that Nagruk Harcharek will serve as the organization’s president. The Voice Executive Committee vote on his selection was unanimous. Formerly the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation vice president of private equity and arctic development, Harcharek will work with the Voice’s 24 member organizations to advance the organization’s four major goals, which are: Addressing and participating in legislation, regulations and government programs to protect Iñupiat culture, increasing communication and information-sharing amongst organizations of the North Slope, ensuring the development of North Slope natural resources in a safe and responsible manner, and promoting Iñupiat stewardship of the North Slope and stimulate the North Slope economy. “There is so much opportunity for us on the North Slope, and to help realize that opportunity is something I am looking forward to taking on. I am ready to jump in with the Board and Executive Committee to start tackling issues head on,” said Harcharek on his new role. “I am humbled by the Board and Executive Committee’s confidence in me and by the support I’ve al ready received from across the North Slope.” The ACLU of Alaska has hired longtime Alaska litigator Ruth Botstein to lead the organization’s legal department. She joins the team with more than 20 years of complex civil litigation in state and federal courts and will officially take the helm on Oct. 17. Botstein’s career has been dedicated to Alaskans, of whom she has fought for in front of the United States Supreme Court twice. She’s worked in private practice at Feldman & Orlansky, served as an Assistant Attorney General and Senior Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alaska, and worked as an Assistant Municipal Attorney for the Municipality of Anchorage. “I’m very excited to have this opportunity to help preserve and protect the civil rights and freedoms of all Alaskans. I believe the ACLU of Alaska has a crucial role to play in protecting our constitutional rights and holding our governments accountable, and it’s an honor and a privilege to join a group so dedicated to this work,” Botstein said. Botstein attended Oberlin College and Stanford Law School. She moved to Alaska in 1998 to clerk on the Alaska Supreme Court for Hon. Dana Fabe. Two leaders with Bettisworth North Architects and Planners have been awarded high honors within their respective practice areas. Leah Boltz, principal, has been named a Fellow by the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). Dana Nunn, director of interior design, has been inducted into the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) College of Fellows. Boltz and Nunn work in Bettisworth North’s Anchorage office and work on projects across the state. Boltz leads marketing and business development for Bettisworth North and became a firm principal in 2020. Boltz has been active in SMPS for more than 10 years, serving as president of the Alaska chapter, sitting on numerous committees, and acting as chapter liaison to SMPS national. Boltz earned her Certified Professional Services Marketer (CPSM) designation from SMPS in 2014. Boltz guides Bettisworth North’s support of Alaska nonprofits and small businesses by providing counsel on capital projects to expand or enhance service offerings. Boltz is also the co-founder of Parks For All, an initiative to bring inclusive play to Alaskans of all abilities. She was named to the Alaska Journal of Commerce Top Forty Under 40 in 2014. Director of interior design Nunn is a 20-year professional who manages a staff of eight for all the firm’s projects. Her work centers on commercial design for health care, education, civic, and arts and culture facilities. Nunn has been active in ASID’s Alaska chapter since 2003, with roles including two terms as president, finance director, and chair of multiple committees. She has served on the national organization’s Advocate by Design Council since 2018 and volunteers for the Center for Interior Design Accreditation. Nunn also co-chairs ASID’s IMPACT committee and ASID Alaska chapter’s government affairs committee, developing and securing support for reasonable regulation of professional interior design. The focus is on legislation recognizing the impact of interior design on public health, safety, and welfare, and establishing professional registration for qualified interior designers in Alaska.

A small Fairbanks company wants to build Alaska’s biggest wind farms

A Fairbanks man and his Lower 48 business partner are advancing plans to build what could become Alaska’s biggest wind farms, one each outside Anchorage and Fairbanks. Andrew McDonnell, formerly an oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Matt Perkins, an engineer from Nevada, are taking steps to build wind farms that could be several times more powerful than the Eva Creek Wind Farm near Healy and the Fire Island Wind Project outside Anchorage. Those wind farms, currently the largest in Alaska, were built in 2012, the last major developments of their kind in the state. But today’s turbines are much more efficient, and there is strong and growing interest to support new renewable energy projects in Alaska and nationally, Perkins and McDonnell said in an interview. More wind power “will help our economy, stabilize energy costs and reduce the environmental impact of energy generation here, and allow us to participate in a broader energy transition to renewable energy,” McDonnell said. Nearly two years ago, they launched Alaska Renewables, a private company. A subsidiary of the company, Shovel Creek Wind, has filed plans with the state seeking permission to lease land for 40 years about 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks near Murphy Dome. The site is large enough to support up to 60 wind turbines producing 200 megawatts of power, McDonnell said. That is eight times more capacity than Eva Creek Wind, the largest project in Alaska. An initial phase at Shovel Creek would likely consist of 15 to 30 turbines, McDonnell said. The site was burned in the Shovel Creek Fire in 2019, which will reduce the environmental impact of development there, he said. A different subsidiary of their company, Little Mount Susitna Wind, proposes building a wind farm more than 35 miles northwest of Anchorage, across Cook Inlet and north of Tyonek. That project could support up to 80 turbines, potentially cranking out up to 250 megawatts. McDonnell said each project’s size will be determined by various factors under consideration. They include utility needs, engineering and wind constraints at the site, cultural assessments of the land, and public input once the state releases a draft review of the projects, perhaps late this year. For the most part, the projects should not be noticeable from Anchorage or Fairbanks, he said. Chris Rose with the Renewable Energy Alaska Project said the proposals, if they can be fully built, could fulfill over 20% of the current power demand from Homer to Fairbanks, along the Alaska Railbelt. Rose said that would dramatically reduce the need for fossil fuel power sources that provide much of the region’s electricity. Projects of that size can help move Alaska quickly toward the renewable energy standard proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year, Rose said. Legislation introduced by the governor last session called for the Railbelt to use 80% sustainable power by 2040, significantly higher than today. Other clean-energy efforts in the state include Alaska’s largest solar farm going up in Houston, state-led development of an electric vehicle charging network, and utilities from Homer to Fairbanks proposing $200 million in upgrades to support more renewable power. The activity comes amid an infusion of federal funds into clean energy. Rose said the wind projects could benefit substantially from tax incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August. Concern about future supplies of Cook Inlet natural gas, the primary source of power for most Alaskans, is also driving interest in renewables. Chugach Electric Association is interested in adding wind power from the Anchorage project to its portfolio when it is available, said Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman with the Anchorage-area utility. It will reduce the utility’s reliance on natural gas and reduce carbon emissions. “We have initiated feasibility studies for this project located near Little Mount Susitna (about 7 miles west of Mount Susitna) that could connect to Chugach’s existing transmission lines on the west side of Cook Inlet,” Hasquet said. “A key condition of the project is that it will not result in higher electric rates.” Purchases from the project will depend on completion of studies involving economics, interconnection and integration, and approval from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, Hasquet said. At Golden Valley Electric Association in the Fairbanks area, wind provides about 5% of power. The utility is looking to add more renewable power as spelled out in a strategic generation plan that’s designed to offset carbon emissions and control costs, said Meadow Bailey, a spokeswoman with that utility. Diesel fuel and coal are the utility’s main sources of power. Reducing Golden Valley’s carbon emissions can be a benefit to companies, such as some mining entities, Bailey said. “We need to reduce our carbon footprint because our commercial customers want to reduce their carbon” dependence, Bailey said. McDonnell said he left his university job this summer after many years to focus on Alaska Renewables. He met Perkins, who liked traveling to Alaska to participate in endurance races, not long before they formed the company. Perkins previously worked with General Electric and has helped launch clean energy startups in the Lower 48. As an oceanographer, McDonnell said, he has studied the impacts of carbon emissions on water and land, helping spark his interest in renewable energy. He has served on a solar power committee at Golden Valley Electric, where he saw the public’s growing interest in renewables. He said sites for the projects were selected based on earlier studies of wind characteristics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and elsewhere, as well as terrain features and other data. Wind prospects at the sites are being studied under state land-use permits, he said. Perkins said Alaska Renewables has received financial support from Alaska and Lower 48 investors. He declined to name them. He said clean energy projects are attracting investors because they provide a long-term, low-risk supply of sustainable energy. “The investment communities of the world are desperate to make clean energy happen,” he said. “People realize it’s an investment in the future.”

McKinley Management acquires Alaska Growth Capital

Alaska-based investment firm McKinley Management will add lending and community development to its mix of services, after recently acquiring Alaska Growth Capital BIDCO. The company will be renamed McKinley Alaska Growth Capital, the investment firm said. Alaska Growth was founded in 1997. It’s a major lender to rural and low-income regions in Alaska that are often underserved by the traditional banking system. It’s known as a Native Community Development Financial Institution and is Alaska’s leading provider of business loans using programs under the Small Business Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. McKinley Management acquired the firm from Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for the North Slope. McKinley will partner with Bristol Bay Native Corporation, a regional Native corporation of the Bristol Bay Native region in Southwest Alaska. The Native corporation will own shares in McKinley Alaska Growth and provide leadership on the board. “Alaska Growth Capital is a natural fit with McKinley’s investment business,” said McKinley chief executive Rob Gillam in a statement. “With this acquisition, we’re excited to add a company with a talented team, a long history of supporting Alaska businesses, and a commitment to supporting community development throughout Alaska. Alaska Growth Capital adds valuable capabilities to our financial platform, which enhances our ability to positively impact Alaska’s economy.” Current McKinley employee Logan Birch has been named president of the recently acquired company. Birch is a former president of Alaska Growth Capital. McKinley Alaska Growth Capital will be located in McKinley’s offices at the JL Tower at 3800 Centerpoint Dr. in Anchorage. All Alaska Growth Capital employees are being retained and McKinley is posting three new jobs there. McKinley Alaska Growth Capital will be the fourth line of business at McKinley, along with McKinley Capital Management, McKinley Alaska Private Investment, and McKinley Research Group (formerly McDowell Group).

Bristol Bay king and snow crab fisheries close due to low numbers

Two of the largest crab fisheries in Alaska will be completely closed this season as stocks continue to decline. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced closures in the Bering Sea snow crab fishery and the Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries on Oct. 10. The fisheries usually begin in mid-October. Fish and Game has the final say on whether a fishery goes forward, and there just weren’t enough crab to allow for seasons in those two fisheries, according to the announcements. This is the second year of complete closure for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, but the first for the formerly booming Bering Sea snow crab fishery. Fish and Game said in its announcement it will continue to work with the crab industry during the rebuilding phase, including on potential plans for fishing during periods of low abundance. “Understanding crab fishery closures have substantial impacts on harvesters, industry, and communities, ADF&G must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks,” Fish and Game said. “Management of Bering Sea snow crab must now focus on conservation and rebuilding given the condition of the stock.” Over the last two years, Bering Sea crab fishermen have been watching increasingly dismal survey data come back. The Bristol Bay red king crab stocks have been declining for years, and last year brought the first complete closure in decades. Snow crab harvesters, however, were shocked last year when the survey data showed that a massive portion of the mature snow crab had either died or disappeared from the survey findings. The National Marine Fisheries Service officially determined that the Bering Sea snow crab stock was overfished because of its low abundance. That triggered the process to start developing a rebuilding plan to help get the stock back to sustainable levels. The plan for rebuilding is still underway, but the most recent survey data shows a continued decline into this year. Katie Palof, a federal fisheries researcher and a co-chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Crab Plan Team, told the council at its meeting Oct. 6 that the mature male biomass—essentially, the total estimated weight of all mature male snow crabs—dropped another 40% from last year to this year, reaching another record low. All surveyed abundance was at or near all-time lows, she said. “Overall, (it’s a) pretty dire situation for snow crab,” she said. There isn’t a clear understanding why the stock is declining so drastically. The Bering Sea experienced a massive marine heat wave in 2019, which is still dispersing, even though sea temperatures are beginning to return to normal now. At the same time, some research has linked the crab mortality event to a combination of the changing sea temperature and the high crab density at the time. Prior to the major mortality event, snow crab stocks were growing. Though mature crab fell again, especially among mature males — the population that fishermen target — there are some young snow crab in the survey, said Mike Litzow, a researcher and the other co-chair of the council’s Crab Plan Team. There were essentially no immature female crab in the survey last year, and they increased by nearly 8,700% this year; mature females were down 16%, though. Palof said there are some young snow crab present, but it will take four to five years before those would be mature and could be surveyed again to see if they survive long enough to be harvestable. Fishermen and other industry stakeholders asked the council to offer as much flexibility to Fish and Game as they could to open even a limited fishery this year. Most who testified were concerned that if the fisheries are closed for multiple years, crews and supporting businesses will move on, essentially dismantling the infrastructure that exists to support the fishery now. Nikolai Sivertstol, a board member for the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, told the council to consider that most of the crab harvesters are small businesses. “We do not have the cushions to weather years on end of inactivity,” he said. “Our crews will move on. The banks will shun us. The businesses in all the local communities that support us will have to move on, too.” While several members noted that they did hear and consider the concerns of the fishermen, it was not ultimately up to them about whether to open the fishery — they just set the limits, and then Fish and Game determines the seasons based on its harvest strategy. Council member Bill Tweit said he wished the conversations about how to open a small fishery during times of low abundance could have been happening six months ago, rather than a week before the fishery was due to open. “At this point, the idea of a limited fishery is very much right now in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “What looks limited to one group may not look limited to another, and one form of a limited fishery may not meet the objectives of another.” Rachel Baker, a deputy commissioner with Fish and Game who represents the agency on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said the agency does consider the economic and social impacts and is working with the crab industry through the time of low crab numbers. “I think I speak for all council members in saying that we continue to be very concerned about the low abundance of many Bering Sea crab stocks,” she said. In addition to the snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab closures, the St. Matthew Island section blue king crab and Pribilof district red and blue king crab seasons will remain closed. The Bering Sea tanner crab fishery will open with a total allowable catch of about 2 million pounds, split between the areas west of the 166 west longitude line and those to the east. The eastern portion will have a TAC of about 1.16 million pounds, while the areas to the west will have a TAC of 850,000, according to Fish and Game. The Bering Sea tanner crab fishery is scheduled to open October 15. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

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