Posted: Monday, July 12, 2004

Warmer weather not helping with wildfires

JUNEAU - Warm weather and lower humidity whipped up several fires in the Interior on Sunday, prompting officials to close a two-mile section of the Taylor Highway.

"The Chicken fire is bumping the road," said Bert Plante, fire information officer at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. "It's blowing down hard on the road."

Fire officials also were keeping a close eye Sunday evening on the 338,000-acre Boundary complex of fires north of Fairbanks.

Fire information officer Frances Reynolds said a "red flag warning" was issued Sunday evening for strong, gusty winds and low humidity for the middle Tanana Valley.

"So that causes us a degree of concern for the Boundary fire, in particular," Reynolds said.

Fire engines were patrolling the Steese Highway prepared to put out any fires threatening residents along the road, Reynolds said. Some local residents were reporting smoke, but fire officials believe that may have been due to the ignition of islands of unburned fuel within the area already burning.

The northern flank of the Boundary fire was "up and running," Plante said, but that is mostly backcountry.

The warm, drier weather also picked up the Wolf Creek and Camp Creek fires, Plante said.

In the Evansville fire near Bettles and the Waldron Creek fire, just upstream from the Yukon River crossing, the fires were at the tops of the trees, with the wind pushing them, Plante said. As of Sunday afternoon, though, he said, neither fire was threatening any structures.

"Unfortunately, the long-term forecast right now is indicating we're going to have some more weather like this," Plante said.

Lawmakers hope to tax undeveloped gas reserves

JUNEAU - Two Democratic legislators want voters to decide whether oil companies should pay a tax for not developing massive reserves of natural gas on Alaska's North Slope.

Reps. Eric Croft and Harry Crawford of Anchorage are planning a petition drive to get the question on the 2006 election ballot.

They want to ask voters if companies should pay a "reserves tax" on natural gas if they leave it in the ground, instead of piping it to market.

They want to have petitions ready to circulate at the Alaska State Fair, which starts Aug. 26 in Palmer. But they have not yet submitted the proposed initiative to the state Division of Elections, which must approve it before petitions can be circulated.

Croft and Crawford said they are still working on the language of the petition. They want to structure the tax so it does not hurt investment, especially from the smaller independent oil companies becoming more interested in the North Slope, they said.

The general idea is to tax the companies that have long held state natural gas leases unless they act to get it to market. The tax might raise $300 million to $400 million, Croft said.

Crawford said the big oil companies don't want to bring Alaska gas to the Lower 48 because it would drive down the high prices that boost their profit margins.

"I think they'd like to keep a tight market down there," Crawford told the Anchorage Daily News.

Tankers have year without spills

ANCHORAGE - Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil out of Prince William Sound last year had their first spill-free year since they began shipping crude from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline terminal in 1977.

"It's a very notable achievement," said Larry Dietrick, director of spill prevention and response for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

He attributed the lack of spills to more modern tankers, better technology and better management in tanker operations.

Four tanker operators shipped about 330 million barrels - or 450 loads of crude oil - from the tanker dock at Valdez last year.

Alaska Tanker Co. carried oil for BP; Polar Tankers Inc., a subsidiary of Conoco Phillips, shipped oil for that company; SeaRiver Maritime Inc. carried oil for Exxon Mobil; and Seabulk Tankers hauled crude from Valdez to the Tesoro refinery at Nikiski.

Anil Mathur, president of Alaska Tanker, based in Beaverton, Ore., said avoiding spills is a matter of good equipment, diligent inspections and rigorous management.

"People have to understand that our hazards never go away," said Mathur, whose company operates eight ships exclusively for the Alaska trade. His company encourages employees to report "near misses" in all operations.

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