Northwest Digest

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Stripped-down gas bill passes Senate

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JUNEAU - The Alaska Senate on Monday approved without debate a bill to give Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration more time to summarize public comments on a proposed natural gas pipeline contract and negotiate changes to the deal.

The bill passed 16-0, but may be brought up again the next time the Senate meets for a reconsideration vote.

If the bill passes the full Legislature, the Murkowski administration will have 120 days instead of 30 to make changes to the contract. The administration then plans to return to lawmakers for changes to the Stranded Gas Development Act and a vote on the contract.

The bill is a stripped-down version of a bill Murkowski introduced this special legislative session that would have granted him the authority to negotiate a freeze on oil taxes as part of his proposed contract with the state's three largest oil companies.

The fiscal contract with BP PLC, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. would set the tax and royalty terms with the state for building the $20 billion pipeline.

A Senate committee removed nearly all the provisions of the bill before passing it out. Several legislators have said they are concerned about granting that much authority to Murkowski when they have not yet seen the contract changes that are being negotiated.

The bill goes next to the House. The special session ends Thursday.

Bush OKs payments to timber counties

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - The Bush administration has agreed to hold off selling some national forest lands and will support one more year of payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging, lawmakers said Monday.

Western lawmakers have been seeking up to $401 million to maintain payments next year to 700 rural counties in 41 states, primarily in the West, which lost revenues from the sale of federal timber when logging was cut back to protect the northern spotted owl, salmon and other fish and wildlife.

The administration had proposed selling 300,000 acres of national forest lands around the country to raise $800 million toward continuing the payments over five years, but it had run into tough bipartisan opposition.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, agreed in a letter to support a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which has pumped $2 billion into counties the past six years and is set to expire at the end of September.

Rey also acknowledged that time is running out for Congress to act on the administration's proposal to sell the isolated parcels of national forests.

"By doing a one-year extension, it makes it possible for the program to continue," said Rey spokesman Dan Jiron. "At the same time we are really looking forward to working with members of Congress on the long-term extension with offsets appropriate to our efforts for secure rural schools."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the deal came after he agreed to stop blocking five Bush administration appointments to the departments of Agriculture and Interior.

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