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The Sunday Minefield – April 21, 2024

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The Sunday Minefield – April 21, 2024


We are almost to day 100 of session, meaning just over three weeks remains until the constitutional session limit of 121 days. There is still a lot remaining to do including the budget, education, and energy. Don’t hold your breath that anything significant will happen on education or energy. The Senate Finance Committee rolled out their committee substitute for the operating budget this week. The House Resources Committee held an explosive hearing where managers from a small oil company attacked Shell and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner John Boyle. And the Alaska Republican Party held their convention this weekend in Anchorage at the Captain Cook. They elected Carmela Warfield as their new chair.

A friendly message and reminder to all our readers. The Landmine is made possible by myself and a team of awesome Alaskans. I am back in Juneau for my sixth session in a row reporting on the Legislature. If you enjoy the content we provide, please consider making a one time or recurring monthly donation. You can click here to donate. We have a donation system that makes it super easy. We would really appreciate it. And thanks to everyone who has been supportive!

Session End Approaching 

Just 24 days remain until the constitutional session limit. The House and Senate did manage to meet their agreed upon deadline last week to exchange budgets. But the budget is just one part of the adjournment package. Various energy and education priorities are being floating around, but there is still no clear alignment between the House and Senate on them. And Governor Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska) has essentially been checked out.

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A problem with the budget could arise in the House. The Senate already cut the dividend down to approximately $1,500 when you factor in the surplus “energy rebate” that was put in place last year if oil prices remain high. That’s a $750 reduction from the House number. If the dividend number that comes out of a conference committee is not acceptable to the mega PFD members of the House majority, the majority will need minority votes to get to 21 to pass the budget. The House majority has 23 members, meaning they can only lose two votes if the minority does not vote for the budget. The House majority has at least eight mega PFD folks.

The House minority will want something for their votes. Probably a guarantee of an education bill like SB 140 and funding to upgrade the railbelt intertie. Those things cost a lot. The good news is it’s the second session. So if some members of the House majority cut a deal with the House minority and the Senate, things probably won’t get too loose because it’s an election year. There will be a new Legislature come January.

The next few weeks will be interesting. The Senate majority is a fine-tuned machine, so they will be taking the lead on the budget. If things do fall apart, they have the option to extend for 10 days. But the will to stick around does not seem to be there, at least now. The weather has been great and everyone wants to get out of town. It’s also an election year so members want to go home and campaign.

No consensus on energy reforms as legislative session nears end

The following is an excerpt from this week’s edition of the Alaska Political Report. You can click here for more information about the Political Report. A subscription is $1,299/year per organization. Discounted pricing is available for non-profits and government entities. Our coverage of the budget starts with the governor’s proposed budget, and we track everything in detail through the entire process. If you have any questions or would like to subscribe, please email jeff@akpoliticalreport.com.

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Even as Southcentral nearly experienced a gas supply crisis, and with a huge number of bills circulating in Juneau, no consensus has emerged around the reforms lawmakers are considering. In January, this session was billed by legislative leaders and GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy as an energy and education session. But with just under a month to go before the constitutional session limit, the Legislature has yet to pass any major energy legislation.

Transmission, natural gas subsidies and storage in Cook Inlet, and renewables are all on the table. But whatever lawmakers end up passing is still far from clear.

In early February, a long cold snap stressed the power grid in Southcentral due to a natural gas distribution problem. This was primarily caused by an issue with some of Enstar’s storage wells in the Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage Alaska (CINGSA). Declining gas supply and production in the Cook Inlet means importing LNG is likely in the years to come.

Multiple proposals are floating around the House and Senate, including royalty relief and gas storage in Cook Inlet, a railbelt transmission organization, and funding for modernizing the railbelt energy grid.

The Political Report sat down with Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop, the co-chair of the Senate Resources Committee, and Anchorage Republican Rep. Tom McKay, the chair of the House Resources Committee, to talk about their energy priorities and get their thoughts on what might happen this session.

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Bishop’s priorities are focused on the railbelt. Gov. Dunleavy introduced legislation in February that aims to increase efficiency and lower power costs in the railbelt. Bishop referenced a trip legislators took to Iceland last year. He said after Iceland formed the equivalent of a railbelt transmission organization (RTO) between their utilities, they saw an improvement. But Dunleavy’s bills have yet to see traction in either body.

Bishop also emphasized the importance of funding the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnership (GRIP) with the federal government. This project, which in total would cost the state more than $200 million (with the same amount in federal match) would upgrade the intertie between the railbelt utilities, providing redundancy and allowing more power to be moved.

Bishop acknowledged the need for increased gas storage in Cook Inlet and also the potential for royalty relief. There are two gas storage bills, Senate Bill 220 and House Bill 394. HB 394, a bill by McKay’s House Resources Committee, is likely to be the vehicle for gas storage in Cook Inlet. Bishop said the Senate is waiting for the House to send them Cook Inlet legislation.

There are also several royalty relief bills floating around. But Sitka Republican Rep. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told the Political Report that he does not see any kind of Cook Inlet royalty relief passing the Legislature until they get proper input from their oil and gas consultant, GaffneyCline. It is not clear if that information will be provided in time for lawmakers to act before the end of session.

McKay is much more concerned with Cook Inlet. He wants to see increased gas storage and royalty relief. He acknowledged the benefit of upgrading the railbelt, but his clear priority is Cook Inlet. McKay said he is not interested in tapping the treasury – what occurred a decade ago when the Legislature approved cash credits for Cook Inlet – but instead, through royalty reduction, he believes more gas will be produced.

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McKay told the Political Report, “My agenda to address our energy needs is natural gas from Cook Inlet in the short-term and a gas pipeline from the North Slope in the long-term.”

Any energy legislation that passes the Legislature will likely be part of an adjournment package as only 27 days remain in session. And after the Superior Court ruling ruling on the correspondence program last week, education is sure to take up a lot of time in the final weeks of session. The House and Senate have different energy priorities, and Gov. Dunleavy has not made any public statements on energy in several weeks.

Early on in session, there was agreement between both bodies and Dunleavy that Alaska is facing an energy crisis. But so far, no meaningful action has been taken. The Legislature has the ability to extend 10 days or call a special session. But it’s an election year and legislators want to get home. Bills need to start moving quickly in order to pass before the end of session. We are watching closely and will provide updates in the weeks to come.

Other Happenings 

If you have not seen the debate I hosted on Friday between John Sims, president of Enstar Natural Gas, and Brad Keithley, managing director of Alaskans for Sustainable Budgets, on the natural gas supply issue in Southcentral, you can check it out here.

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The Alaska Republican Party held their biennial convention this weekend in Anchorage. Carmela Warfield was overwhelmingly elected as the new chair, getting more votes than the other three candidates combined. Congrats to her! And good riddance to Ann Brown, an extremely dishonest and nasty person. I stopped by for a bit yesterday to check it out. Several Republican legislators were in attendance. But my big takeaway was that many of the attendees are living in the past. The biggest and best thing the single primary and ranked choice voting did was diminish the role of the already waning political parties. But a lot of the people in both parties have failed to grasp that. These party types should familiarize themselves with the term “adapt or die.”

A House Resources Committee hearing on Monday (4/15/2024) got explosive when two representatives from the independent oil company Narwhal gave a presentation on oil leases they hold in West Harrison Bay. The West Harrison Bay Unit (WHBU) is currently controlled by Shell, but Narwhal holds adjacent leases. Check out this Landmine article to read about what happened.

Check this out. The plaintiffs in the Texas lawsuit against Furie, owned by John Hendrix, sent letters to Governor Dunleavy, Senator Cathy Giessel (R – Anchorage), Senator Jesse Bjorkman (R – Nikiski), and former Governor Bill Walker requesting their depositions and asking they preserve any correspondence related to the matter. The chickens are coming home to roost for John Hendrix.

Representative Andi Story (D – Juneau) filed a letter of intent for re-election this week. No one else has filed for the seat yet. The filing deadline to run for office is June 1.

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Representative Mike Prax (R – North Pole) picked up an opponent this week, North Pole Mayor Michael Welch. Prax was unopposed the last two cycles. Sources say Welch is running because Prax won’t request money for capital projects for the district.

There has been a lot of chatter thar former Republican Representative David Nelson is going to challenge Representative Cliff Groh (D – Anchorage). Groh beat Nelson in 2022 by 3.8 points. But that district includes JBER and it’s a presidential election year, meaning turnout will be higher. Turnout in that district was only 18.7% in 2022. If Nelson runs, that will be a race to watch.

This Week’s Loose Unit 

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There were plenty of good candidates in Juneau this week. But a weekend trip home made this week’s designee clear. This week’s Loose Unit is Anchorage. I got back on Thursday night and right away noticed the sheer amount of trash on the roads. Ok, it’s break up and this normal, I thought to myself. But the squalor I noticed this weekend was just fucking depressing. In addition to the large amount of garbage all over town, there are tents all over the place, homeless people congregating and sleeping all in public spaces, abandoned vehicles in parking lots, and just a general feeling of decay.

I went to Barnes and Noble this evening. I discovered an old Ford Expedition in the parking lot that looked like something out of Sarajevo in the 1990s. One commenter on the Facebook post said it’s been there for weeks. And one reported another abandoned and stripped vehicle in the Applebee’s parking lot, just down the road.

If you drive around Anchorage, especially Midtown, you will encounter tents all over. It’s only April. Just think how much worse it’s going to get. There’s also that large encampment at Cuddy Park. In addition to the homelessness, Anchorage just feels like a city in decline. I was driving down Lake Otis yesterday and saw several properties that were being used as storage for old cars and RVs. It looked horrible.

I remember when I moved to Anchorage in 2004. The city was clean and it felt thriving. The last decade has been a steady decline. And no one seems to want to fix it. Sure, we all talk about it. But the problems just worsen. Old roofs have been collapsing. We can’t seem to figure out how to plow the roads. Housing prices are continually rising because we can’t build more homes, which leads to people leaving and/or not moving here. The whole situation is depressing. We have to fix this town.

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If you have a nomination for this week’s Loose Unit, or if you have any political news, stories or gossip (or any old pics of politicians or public officials) please email me at jeff@alaskalandmine.com.





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Alaska

Federal bill would add veterinary care to IHS duties to address rabies, other risks in rural Alaska • Alaska Beacon

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Federal bill would add veterinary care to IHS duties to address rabies, other risks in rural Alaska • Alaska Beacon


The Indian Health Service provides medical and dental care to the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and elsewhere in the nation. What it does not provide, however, is veterinary care for animals living with the IHS’ human clients.

A bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is an attempt to change that.

The bill, called the Veterinary Services to Improve Public Health in Rural Communities Act, was introduced by the Alaska senator last week. It would add veterinary services to the federal agency’s duties. That is important in rural Alaska, she said, where regular veterinarian care is notoriously scarce and where diseases in wild animal populations pose threats to domestic animals like dogs and, potentially, people.

The bill would direct the IHS to work with tribal organizations to provide veterinarian services, including spaying and neutering of pets.

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A top concern is rabies, which is common in Alaska fox populations but also found in other animals and thus poses risks to people.

“Unfortunately, in Alaska we are experiencing more frequent rabies outbreaks in wild animal populations. Rural communities are disproportionately at higher risk of rabies transmission to humans due to uncontrolled dog populations in remote areas of Alaska — which is particularly concerning given the challenges of providing health care in many rural and remote villages,” Murkowski said in a statement. There are vaccination and voluntary veterinary services trying to address the problems, but those “are simply not able to meet the growing need for services. My bill would help bolster the veterinary workforce in Alaska, creating healthier and safer communities across the state,” she said.

Alaska Native children, research shows, are at elevated risks for dog bites, which could, in turn, expose them to rabies or other diseases that can spread between animals and people, also known as zoonotic diseases. A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Alaska Native children’s rate of hospitalization for dog bites was about twice that of the general U.S. child population. Indigenous children in the Southwestern and Northern Plains states also had high rates of hospitalization for dog bites, the study found.

Dog bites and exposure through them to rabies and other diseases is a problem in Indigenous communities throughout the circumpolar north, and “dog bites have become an important  public health burden” in those places, said a 2022 report by Canadian researchers that synthesized 257 individual studies.

Rabies is endemic, meaning entrenched, in the Arctic fox and red fox populations of northern Alaska, Western Alaska and the Aleutians, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But rabies has been found in other wild animals, such as caribou and polar bears, according to the department.

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Last summer, North America’s first confirmed case of a rabies-infected moose occurred in the Bering Strait-area village of Teller. The moose, found wandering in and around the community, was euthanized and found to be carrying the Arctic fox variant of the rabies virus, which is different from the red fox variant, the Department of Fish and Game said.

Among the provisions in Murkowski’s bill is a directive for the veterinary officers from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to provide services to the IHS, a directive for a study about the feasibility of delivering oral rabies vaccines in Alaska’s Arctic region and inclusion of the IHS as a coordinating agency in the National One Health Framework, which is addressing zoonotic diseases and federal agencies’ readiness to respond to them.

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Alaska's pristine rivers are turning a rusty orange even when seen from space, likely because of melting permafrost: study

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Alaska's pristine rivers are turning a rusty orange even when seen from space, likely because of melting permafrost: study


At least 75 of Alaska’s brooks and streams have been turning a dirty orange likely due to thawing permafrost, with some rivers so impacted that the discoloration can be seen via satellite, a new study says.

This phenomenon, which researchers say comes amid unusually rapid warming in the region, was first observed in the northwestern state in 2018, scientists told Business Insider’s Jenny McGrath in January.

The researchers have been stumped by it for years. But their findings, published Monday in the peer-reviewed Communications Earth & Environment journal, say that the waterways’ rusty color likely comes from minerals uncovered by the thaw.

Previously locked beneath Alaska’s permafrost, these minerals are now exposed to water and oxygen, causing them to release acid and metals like zinc, copper, iron, and aluminum, the study said.

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The dissolved iron is thought to be the main culprit behind the “rusting” of the rivers, which typically occurs in July and August when the thaw is the most pronounced.

But the implications of the melt go far beyond color. These waters are becoming so acidic that some are registering pH levels of 2.6, or between the equivalent of the acidity of lemon juice and orange juice.

Pure water has a pH value of 7. Rivers and lakes typically have a pH value of 6.5 to 8, and acid rain has a pH value of 4.2 to 4.4.


An image of the clear Akillik River in 2016 and the orange river in 2018

A stream tributary of the Akillik River in Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska turned orange between 2016 (left) and 2018 (right).

Jon O’Donnell/National Park Service

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“These findings have considerable implications for drinking water supplies and subsistence fisheries in rural Alaska,” researchers wrote.

They added that the region has already suffered the “complete loss” of two fish species due to the acidity: juvenile Dolly Varden trout and the Slimy Sculpin. Chum salmon and whitefish are also at risk of population decline, they said.

The changes could be devastating for indigenous tribes in the region, which rely heavily on fishing, researchers noted.

The 75 orange streams observed were scattered across northern Alaska over a span of about 600 miles, the study said. All of them were in remote areas, miles away from human activity that could impact land, such as roads or mining.

Researchers highlighted satellite images of the Agashashok River, a tributary of the Kuguroruk River, and the Anaktok Creek tributary of the Salmon River in northwest Alaska. They said all three have turned considerably redder in the summer months of the last 10 years.

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An orange tributary joins the Kugaroruk River in Alaska.

An orange tributary joins the Kuguroruk River in Alaska.

Joshua Koch, US Geological Survey



Scientists warn that Alaska is warming at a rate two to three times the global average.

The Biden administration projected in November that the state would need an estimated $4.8 billion in infrastructure repair and adaptation over the next 50 years due to rising temperatures and damage from flooding, erosion, and permafrost thaw.

According to the administration’s multiagency report, Alaska’s fishing and tourism industries, which collectively provide more than 90,000 jobs and $2.57 billion in wages, are also at risk, with fish stocks expected to collapse and winter tourism likely falling.

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For Alaska politicians, embracing renewable energy is about the economy — not the environment

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For Alaska politicians, embracing renewable energy is about the economy — not the environment


In the third convening of an annual renewable energy conference, Gov. Mike Dunleavy touted economic concerns — not environmental ones — in promoting the state’s green energy potential.

Dunleavy, a Republican, on Wednesday called legislation adopted by Alaska lawmakers earlier this month “historic,” referring to a bill to enable the state to develop carbon sequestration regulations, another to create a unified transmission organization along the Railbelt that could facilitate the integration of renewable energy projects, and a third to facilitate loans for new renewable energy projects.

Altogether, the legislation, which will also exempt new renewable energy projects from property taxes, could transform Alaska from a state reliant on fossil fuel production to one that increasingly moves toward renewable energy and carbon neutrality.

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But climate change — driven by carbon emissions — was not referenced by the governor or the lawmakers who spoke about the legislation at the conference in Anchorage. Rather, they spoke about carbon sequestration and renewable energy possibilities as means for lowering Alaskans’ energy bills and attracting additional investment in the state — including from carbon emitters like oil and gas companies.

“We need to make sure that our industries, our oil base, can stay competitive,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who accompanied Dunleavy onstage at the conference to speak about legislation passed earlier this month.

[Warning of shortfall next year, Enstar takes step toward pipeline that could receive natural gas imports]

When Alaska-based oil producers “try to sell their oil, the buyers are now looking at the carbon footprint,” Stedman added. “We want to make sure that our partners in Prudhoe Bay and all the other oil fields are competitive in that marketplace, or we’re going to be punished by having a harder time selling it and probably lower prices.”

For three years, Dunleavy has convened the annual conference to address renewable energy. He has used the platform to tout his efforts to promote carbon offsetting — keeping trees standing on state land to raise revenue from companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint — and carbon sequestration — injecting carbon deep underground — to entice investment in Alaska even as some oil and gas companies increasingly shy away from new development in the Arctic.

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The state has yet to begin selling carbon offsetting credits, and carbon sequestration legislation has not been transmitted to the governor for his signature. But Dunleavy said Wednesday that Alaska’s carbon storage capacity “is absolutely significant.”

Twenty-four states have adopted greenhouse gas reduction targets. Alaska is not one of them, and at the conference, Dunleavy reiterated that he had no intention of developing such a target.

In a speech to conference attendees, Dunleavy said Tuesday that he’s “agnostic as to the electron.”

“Within the energy sphere, there’s a lot of people that focus on reducing or eliminating carbon. My focus is on providing the cheapest electricity possible to Alaskans so that we can afford to live here, we can afford to bring industry here. In that process, I do think we’re going to minimize carbon with our carbon capture and our carbon offsets and technology as we go into the future,” Dunleavy said.

“We can’t afford to pick and choose what energy sources we’re going to use,” said Dunleavy. “We need all of it, and we need it as soon as possible.”

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Dunleavy’s views are in line with those of Republicans nationally, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center that found few Republicans see climate change as a top priority for the country, but many support some proposals to address climate change — including developing carbon capture technologies.

The governor was joined at the conference by a bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers, all of whom had recently supported the energy bills that Dunleavy celebrated. Despite disagreements with lawmakers earlier in the session, Dunleavy struck a celebratory tone when speaking about the Legislature.

“The work that they did this year and the work that they’ll do in the years to come will absolutely transform this state,” he said. “I think what happened this year bodes well for next year, the year after, with regard to our ability to work together to get some important bills passed in our House and our Senate.”

Rep. Will Stapp, a Fairbanks Republican, said he is skeptical of some of the Dunleavy-backed carbon policies, including sequestration and offsetting, but that the legislation laid a framework for moving “in a positive direction.”

“What does that look like? To me, that looks like the ability to move the cheapest electron up and down the Railbelt system, no matter where it comes from, no matter how it’s generated, to the consumer at the cheapest rate possible.”

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House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, said in an interview that climate change is “one of the major issues facing our generation” but talking about renewable energy in terms of economic benefits was to “meet people where they’re at.”

“It’s kind of hard to worry about the climate when you’re not able to afford groceries or to heat your home or anything else related to energy,” said Schrage. Alaskans are “feeling the cost of energy more than they’re feeling the impacts of climate change.”

“We need to do things in a cleaner, more renewable way, but we also have to meet our energy needs today and that’s going to require oil and gas. It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” he said.

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