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Alaska lawmakers focus on energy bills as session deadline nears

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Alaska lawmakers focus on energy bills as session deadline nears


JUNEAU — The final hours of Alaska’s legislative sessions are often dedicated almost entirely to budget negotiations. Not this year.

With under 60 hours remaining until the Alaska Legislature must adjourn its session, lawmakers on Monday appeared to focus their attention on energy bills.

Legislators began the session declaring that they would focus on policies to address a looming shortage of Cook Inlet natural gas, but with hours remaining in the session, no significant energy legislation had passed both chambers, and the possibility of agreement between Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the House and the Senate on key measures appeared to be slipping away.

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Disagreements over key bills could mean lawmakers fail to adopt them before Wednesday’s end-of-session deadline — potentially compelling Dunleavy to call lawmakers into a special session to continue working on the bills.

Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said that the House and Senate had struck an agreement under which the Senate would pass a carbon sequestration bill and the House would pass a bill that creates an integrated energy transmission system — potentially allowing both policy pieces to be adopted this year.

Neither had happened as of 5 p.m. on Monday, when the House concluded a two-hour debate on a lengthy list of amendments to the transmission bill.

“We’re waiting for that,” said Stevens, adding that senators “hesitate to send” the carbon storage bill to the House until the House makes “some progress” on their side of the bargain.

The two energy bills — carbon sequestration and transmission — are second only to the budget in importance this session, according to Stevens.

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Stevens said the governor may call lawmakers into a 30-day special session if they don’t pass the energy-related bills by Wednesday.

“He’d be right to do that, because it’s really crucial. The problem we’re having with the House is — they can’t move very fast, so they can’t get that energy (transmission) bill to us,” said Stevens. “What happens if we just don’t do it? Well, I would guess the governor would call us into a special session.”

When asked if Dunleavy was prepared to call the Legislature into a special session if the two major energy bills failed to pass, Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said on Monday that “there is time remaining in the session to pass both bills.”

The House was expected to have its final vote on the transmission bill on Tuesday.

Lawmakers repeatedly delayed floor sessions on Monday as they met behind closed doors to discuss the energy provisions. The crush of bills gumming up the process was exacerbated by the House’s 12-hour debate on Saturday over a divisive transgender sports ban, which left a feeling of acrimony among legislators.

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The House was scheduled to hear House Bill 307, meant to modernize the Railbelt electric grid, on Sunday. The bill was ultimately rescheduled for Monday.

Rep. Will Stapp, a Fairbanks Republican, said the bill was focused on “addressing and eliminating wheeling and pancaking rates, and creating a more equitable system for energy across the Railbelt.” Stapp called the current system of regional utilities “geographic fiefdoms.”

“It has been very challenging to be able to get all the different organizations and stakeholders in a room to agree on something,” said Stapp, adding that “time and inertia” would not help the bill.

Several Republicans representing districts in the Kenai Peninsula raised concerns about the measure, mirroring the opposition of the Homer Electric Association.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican, said part of his concern was because Cook Inlet natural gas was in his “backyard” and he was worried the bill would encourage a move away from that natural gas and toward renewable energy production, including from wind and solar projects.

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“No internal resource production statewide. No Cook Inlet natural gas, no gas pipeline, no anything. We will be a resource state that essentially imports our energy needs,” said Ruffridge.

The proposal for an integrated transmission system has divided Railbelt utilities. The bill is seen as a priority for Dunleavy, whose energy policy adviser Andrew Jensen discussed the measure with lawmakers in the Capitol Sunday after 10 p.m. Jensen was back in the House gallery when debate began around 3 p.m. Monday. Jensen declined an interview request on Monday.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said that lawmakers could “absolutely” pass the necessary bills by the Wednesday deadline.

“It’s an ever-moving target, though,” she added. “At this point in time, I think that we can. But, like I say, it’s always fluid around here.”

Tilton said the transmission bill and carbon storage bill are “high priorities” for the House “because it’s important to help with the cost of energy.”

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Meanwhile, the Senate was scheduled on Tuesday to pass House Bill 50, which would develop a statutory framework for the state to lease depleted gas reservoirs to store carbon dioxide deep underground.

Once pitched as a way to generate significant new state revenue, a carbon storage bill is now being supported as a way to boost oil and gas industry investment in the state. It’s unclear how much carbon sequestration could cost or benefit Alaska. The Department of Revenue stated that “the tax revenue potential of the bill is uncertain at this stage.”

The House was also expected to take a final vote Monday on House Bill 223, which would provide royalty relief to natural gas producers. However, even if the bill passes the chamber, key Senate members have raised concerns over the prospect of forgoing state revenue without the guarantee of increased production.

Stevens said the most important task of the session remains passing the budget. Lawmakers have yet to agree on what is seen as one of the most critical — and contentious — parts of the budget, the size of the Permanent Fund dividend. The Senate favors a payout of roughly $1,600 to eligible Alaskans, while the House proposal — which would require a sizable draw from already-depleted state savings — called for a nearly $2,300 dividend.

Stevens said the Senate was “having trouble getting meetings with the House” to discuss the budget. “But now they have agreed to meet with us,” he said Monday afternoon.

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Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who is one of the chief budget negotiators, said Monday afternoon that the budget negotiations would need to be completed by 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

If the conference committee does not complete its work by early Tuesday morning, it will become increasingly difficult to complete the task of approving the spending plan in both the House and Senate before the Wednesday night deadline.

“People don’t like to be here until midnight, but if we have to be, we’ll do that,” said Stevens.

• • •





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Alaska

Bristol Bay salmon would benefit from added protection in federal law • Alaska Beacon

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Bristol Bay salmon would benefit from added protection in federal law • Alaska Beacon


As we write, tens of millions of salmon are swimming their way back to Bristol Bay. And for the second year running, those who work the 15,000 jobs the salmon provide each year can celebrate that the proposed Pebble mine no longer threatens to contaminate the headwaters of the greatest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world. 

At least for now. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued Clean Water Act protections for this amazing fishery in January 2023. That news was welcomed by residents of the region and scores of businesses that are reliant upon the Bristol Bay fishery, along with its $2.2 billion annual economic impact. Since then, Pebble and the state of Alaska have filed four lawsuits in an attempt to keep this ill-conceived, acid-producing mine on life support. Math and science aren’t on their side — not only would the mine irreversibly harm a fishery that could, if not contaminated, continue to produce and provide jobs for centuries to come, but the state of Alaska made a basic math error in one of its lawsuits, leading it to inflate the amount they’re suing American taxpayers for by $630 billion. Clearly, those seeking to exploit Bristol Bay at the risk of its sustainable fishery aren’t taking “no” for an answer.

Fortunately, on May 1, Rep. Mary Peltola introduced the Bristol Bay Protection Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill would codify EPA’s Clean Water Act protections, which protect the headwaters of Bristol Bay, where the Pebble deposit is located, from mining activity. Rep. Peltola’s bill makes the protections Tribes, fishermen and Alaskans fought for in a decades-long battle over the fate of the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery more difficult to overturn by administrative action alone. Thank you, Rep. Peltola, for this much-needed legislation. 

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We’ve each been involved in Bristol Bay’s fishery for decades, one in the lodge business and one running a commercial fishing and direct marketing business. One of us brings people to the fish and the other brings the fish to people. Between the two of us, we’ve got nearly 70 years of hard-won experience in Bristol Bay.  We’re not antidevelopment. We’ve both worked in Alaska’s oil fields. And we’ve both traveled to our nation’s capital to testify in front of Congress about the wonders of Bristol Bay and how it’s too valuable to risk losing. 

The proposed Pebble mine is an issue that not only cuts across party lines: it obliterates them.  The late Sen. Ted Stevens called Pebble the “wrong mine in the wrong place,” and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have both expressed their opposition to Pebble. The Army Corps of Engineers denied a key Pebble permit in 2020, during the Trump administration. These are historic positions for Alaska politicians to take, but facts, science, and public opinion are in Bristol Bay’s corner.  In addition to Alaska’s leaders (absent our current governor, Mike Dunleavy), the last three presidents of the United States have all taken actions to protect Bristol Bay and prevent the advancement of the Pebble mine. The EPA began its Clean Water Act review under Obama; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble’s permit under Trump; and the EPA finalized Clean Water Act protections under Biden. Rep. Peltola’s bill is the next,  desperately needed step. It also reflects that the majority of Alaskans have consistently opposed this uniquely dangerous project.

For roughly 20 years, the dark cloud of uncertainty that Pebble cast over the region has united local residents, subsistence, recreational and commercial fishers. That coalition, born in Bristol Bay, is backstopped by organizations, businesses and individuals from coast to coast. Over the course of this campaign, more than 4 million public comments have supported protections for Bristol Bay. Whether you’re a catch and release angler, a big game hunter, someone who loves watching the brown bears snatch salmon mid-air, or whether you just enjoy eating delicious, nutritious wild Bristol Bay sockeye, all those who have spoken in favor of protecting this amazing region can support the Bristol Bay Protection Act.

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King Salmon Stocks Decline in Alaska | Sport Fishing Mag

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King Salmon Stocks Decline in Alaska | Sport Fishing Mag


In fresh water, spawning king (Chinook) salmon can change to browns, reds or purples. Also look for a hooked upper jaw, the telltale sign of a male Chinook.
Courtesy Peter Westley

“Memorial Day weekend has long marked the traditional – and unofficial – opening of the Southcentral salmon fishing season as this is roughly when the first significant numbers of Chinook begin to return to the Kenai, Anchor and Susitna River systems, among others. Runs build in June, peaking in the Kenai River and upper Susitna drainages in early to mid-July.”

— This excerpt from the Alaska Department of Game & Fish website, published only a decade ago in July 2014, now serves as a bittersweet reminder of much better days for the Alaskan Chinook salmon fisheries.

This month marks the 39th anniversary of Les Anderson’s world record king salmon catch on Alaska’s famed Kenai River. On May 17, 1985, Anderson, an auto dealer from nearby Soldotna, hooked the salmon fishing from his boat, then took to shore to land the 97-pound, 4-ounce Kenai king. Though bigger king salmon have reportedly been caught and released by anglers since then, Anderson’s world record stands. It also stands for a magnificent fishery now gone. These days, the fight for kings is to save them.

“We’ve seen a severe decline in the king salmon stocks in the Kenai and in other Alaskan river systems,” says Shannon Martin, Executive Director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA). “We’ve had complete closures to sportfishing for kings on the Kenai and other rivers. On some rivers, only hatchery-raised king salmon may be harvested. These days, I won’t target kings anywhere,” she said.

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Chinook (King) Salmon See Major Declines

Fly fishing the Kenai River
Fly fishing the Kenai River is changing dramatically as Chinook numbers decline.
Courtesy Berkely Bedell, USFWS

Called kings around the Kenai, the species is commonly called Chinook across its range in the North Pacific. In many locations in Alaska, Chinook’s decline has been so severe in the last 30 years that the wild fishery is in peril. The stocks are diminished by all measures, including the numbers of fish returning to rivers each year, the size of those individual fish, and the seasons to catch them.

 “I remember the Kenai,” says Peter Westley, an associate professor in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “You could put your head into the mouth of one of those big fish. People are feeling pretty pessimistic, saddened, depressed, longing for the good old days.

“Across the entire North Pacific region, Chinook are not doing well,” he said. “The story is told river by river, but there are big patterns, and Chinook salmon in lots of places are circling the drain.”

Threats to Chinook

The threats to Chinook are multifold, complex, and many decades in the making — degraded habitat, dams, rising sea temperatures, and increasing predation by protected sea mammals. Add to all that fishing pressure and hatchery-raised salmon that compete with native fish. Westley says, “Unless something fundamentally changes with how we interact with them, the future for Chinook is really grim.

“On some level,” he adds, “there are Chinook, but they’re hatchery fish. The habitat is so messed up that there wouldn’t be Chinook without those hatchery fish. The evidence is saying that the hatchery fish diminish the wild fish though. In places like the Kasilof and Ninilchik, you can fish for hatchery Chinook, but the problem is that no one can distinguish what gets caught.”

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Westley presents a comprehensive vision of the threats facing Chinook when he says, “The ocean has always been dangerous and risky, but in recent years, it has become even more dangerous for fish. The Chinook’s life-history strategy of growing slowly and being in the ocean most of its life isn’t benefitting the species lately.”

The Future of Alaska Fishing

Alaska chinook swimming underwater
A chinook salmon swims up Ship Creek to spawn.
Courtesy Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

Both Westley and Martin suggest that anglers shift their expectations of Alaskan fishing and realize that the kings need help and that there are plenty of other incredible fish to go for across the state and the region.

“We need to do our part to take the pressure off Chinook salmon,” says Westley. “If they want Chinook, people should go to places where the fishing has as little impact as possible on the wild stocks, places like Ship Creek, where it’s all hatchery fish,” he says. “There are also some healthy fisheries for wild sockeye. That’s a different ball game.”

Martin, from KRSA, said she is seeing a change in mentality in many anglers.

“Anglers are looking for other species, trying to protect that run of kings returning from the ocean. At the same time, our organization advocates for fishery managers to implement paired closings with commercial fisheries to include additional restrictions and protections. This would share the burden of conservation amongst all user groups. What matters is to get eggs in the gravel and that’s what we’re looking for.”

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An Uncertain Future

king salmon caught in the ocean
Shannon Martin, with a Yakutat hatchery king salmon, caught in the ocean.
Courtesy Shannon Martin

The fight will be long and hard to help protect Chinook, one of the Western World’s totemic sport fish, food fish, and a lynchpin of Alaska’s coastal ecosystem. Only recently, in March, the State of Alaska Board of Fisheries voted to lower the spawning escapement goal for the late-run Kenai River king salmon to support additional commercial fishing opportunities for other salmon, a decision that Martin and the KRSA lamented, painfully. Martin called it a “dark day for conservation in Alaska.” She said, “We’re essentially signing off on the managed decline of a species that has defined our region.”

Anyone who’s ever seen the broad, pink-green back of a Chinook salmon rising in a turquoise-colored, glacial river’s flow, while connected to that fish only by a thin line, knows the fear and the heartache that the fish might just break off and be gone, forever.



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VIDEO: Improving the navigation in Petersburg, Alaska

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VIDEO: Improving the navigation in Petersburg, Alaska


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just released a video about the Petersburg Borough’s South Harbor dredging project.


View on Youtube.

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Located in Southeast Alaska between Juneau and Ketchikan, the Petersburg Navigation Improvements project restored the South Harbor to original design depths ranging from minus 9 to 19 feet and improved general navigation features to allow for safe passage of vessels.

The first ever dredging operation within the basin since it was built in 1982 removed about 57,000 cubic yards of material.



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