Alaska Digest

Posted: Monday, April 17, 2006

Firms compete for image contract

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JUNEAU - Eight companies are bidding on a public-relations contract to find out whether Americans really think Alaska is a state of freeloaders, and what other perceptions the nation has of the Last Frontier.

The winning bidder will be paid up to $150,000 by the governor's office to document the truths and lies about Alaska and where people get their information about the state. The company will then be charged with coming up with ways to deal with the misperceptions.

The final phase of the two-part project, which will be a separate contract, will be a campaign to change the nation's attitude and lift the reputation of Alaska.

The names of the eight bidders are confidential until a winner is announced, said Shawn Henderson, procurement officer for the governor's office.

Gov. Frank Murkowski authorized the PR campaign in reaction to last year's rejection of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and the shellacking the state received over Congress' earmarking money for two "bridges to nowhere" in Ketchikan and Anchorage.

Alaska's place as a top recipient of federal funding, while sitting on an oil revenue surplus of $1.4 billion, may also contribute to a perception of the state freeloading off federal taxpayers.

State's oil industry coming under fire

ANCHORAGE - Enthusiasm on the North Slope over record high oil prices is being tempered by criminal and civil investigations of oil operations in Alaska.

Recent weeks have seen probes by federal and state environmental regulators, federal prosecutors, pipeline regulators, members of Congress and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The most acute problem for the oil industry is the March 2 spill in the giant Prudhoe Bay oil field, run by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. The leak from a hole in a corroded pipeline spewed an estimated 201,000 gallons of oil onto nearly two acres of tundra.

The oil spill was the largest ever on the North Slope.

State pollution regulators, as well as U.S. Department of Transportation officials, have ordered BP to fix numerous corroded spots in the pipeline and improve maintenance before putting it back in service.

Dealing with the spill costs millions of dollars a day in lost oil flow, and BP and its partners in Prudhoe, the nation's largest oil field, have spent $6 million so far on the cleanup, BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said.

Beaudo on Friday confirmed that federal investigators are conducting a criminal probe into the spill.

Another incident, at a drilling rig working at a site called Oooguruk in the Beaufort Sea, is drawing interest from federal investigators. Drilling company Nabors Industries disclosed a criminal investigation in a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Oil tax plan criticized

ANCHORAGE - Former members of Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration said the governor's proposed overhaul of the state's oil tax policy could spark giant legal battles with some of the world's most powerful energy companies.

Murkowski's plan to tax oil profits marks a huge potential change to the current system, which instead bases the tax on the value of the oil at the wellhead.

Mark Myers, the state's former oil and gas director, said the state doesn't have the large and expert bureaucracy needed to calculate the true profits and costs.

Converting the state's entire oil tax protocol to a profits-based system could provoke ongoing legal wrangling over what defines profit and production costs, Myers said.

Two other former state officials, Marty Rutherford and Dick LeFebvre, attended the talk.

The three were among seven top officials in the Department of Natural Resources who left their jobs last October. They said at the time that Murkowski was giving up too many financial concessions to the oil companies in negotiating a natural gas pipeline, and disagreed with state negotiations to restructure oil taxes.

Warming climate increases fire danger

ANCHORAGE - The internal time clock for Alaska's boreal forest calls for a good, healthy forest fire every 150 years or so.

The trouble is, fires in the forest that covers Alaska from below the Brooks Range to above the Panhandle have been coming fast and frequently. Climate warming has accelerated conditions ideal for conflagration, contributing to record fire seasons and starting a trend that forest managers fear has changed the forest into the next century.

"It's sculpting or shaping our forest to be something that we haven't seen," said Glenn Juday, professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Warmer summers are just part of the story. Unprecedented spring snow melt has added as much as month more to the firefighting season, allowing grass to dry sooner and spread flames as never before.

Drought at the end of the summer has extended fire season, sometimes until the snow flies in September.

The National Climatic Data Center reported 8.5 million forest acres burned in America in 2005. Alaska accounted for more than half, 4.4 million acres, the third-largest season in state history. The No. 1 season was 2004, when 6.6 million acres burned.

"You're getting more fires, bigger fires, more severe fires," Juday said. "When they burn, they burn hotter and more severely, and the interval between fires is getting shorter."

Tribal council creates subsistence project

KODIAK - Promoting self-sufficiency and connecting locals to the island's traditions are aims behind a new subsistence education project.

The Woody Island Tribal Council is sponsoring subsistence education in organic gardening, fishing and native plant gathering.

"Getting your own food, there's nothing that beats that," said Freya Holm, special project coordinator.

Holm said it's important to connect to food in a way more meaningful than picking it up at the grocery store.

"People have a better understanding of how food systems work when they're involved in all facets," she said.

Participants will learn Alutiiq names for plants and traditional uses.

"The usefulness will be connecting people to the past and helping to keep the Alutiiq language alive," Holm said.

Many of the plants grown will be ones with a history on the island, including cabbage, rutabagas and potatoes.

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