Alaska editorials

By: The Associated Press
February 22, 2016 Updated: February 22, 2016 at 10:35 am
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By The Associated Press (AP) — Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Feb. 21, 2016

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Price slump, supply glut a one-two punch to Alaska LNG timeline

For anyone pinning their hopes on the Alaska LNG natural gas pipeline as a savior for the state's budget crisis, last week brought tough news. Flanked by executives for oil and gas producers BP Alaska and ConocoPhillips, Gov. Bill Walker held a press conference stating that the continued oil and gas price slump is making the pipeline project's path to economic viability difficult. The uncertainty, the governor said, makes it unlikely the line's partners will come to agreement on terms in time for legislators to draft an amendment to the Alaska Constitution that would provide certainty for the natural gas tax structure.

After the back-and-forth over oil production taxes in recent years, such certainty was seen as a cornerstone for progress on the line. Without it, and with natural gas prices at their lowest level in more than a decade, when and if the line's construction will begin is much more uncertain. While that's unfortunate for the state, it would be more unwise — and potentially hazardous to the state's economy — to try to force the completion of an economically questionable project.

When oil and gas prices were riding high a few years ago, the natural gas pipeline's construction seemed far more assured. Producers were committed to moving forward with preliminary engineering and design, purchasing property on the Kenai Peninsula that would eventually house pipe yards, processing facilities and right-of-way for the pipeline. But the oil and gas price crash that began in late 2014 caused producers to rein in their exploration and development of new resources — and even, in some cases, to shutter fields that were already producing but suddenly cost more to operate than could be made from the sale of the oil and gas they produced. With existing fields being taken offline where all the necessary infrastructure was already in place, the development of a field that would require an 800-mile pipeline to bring gas to a place where it could be taken to market suddenly looked like far more of a gamble.

To be sure, Alaska has a tremendous reservoir of natural gas — one that should prove valuable for the state for decades once it is brought to market.

But even doing back-of-the-envelope math, the challenges facing the state and producers as partners trying to keep the line moving forward are clear: Even if it moved forward on its original timetable with prices as high as they were in 2012 and 2013, Alaska's natural gas was going to be competing with a host of other producing sites in the Middle East and on the Pacific Rim to supply demand. With gas now selling for about half what it did then, the path toward recouping a $45 billion to $65 billion investment in the pipeline is far murkier.

For producers and the state, pushing forward as though nothing had changed with regard to the economic underpinnings of the project would have been foolhardy.

For Alaska in particular, the budget crisis caused by collapsed oil prices and diminished production means the state has far less flexibility than it once did to take gambles. A 25 percent stake in a $45 billion to $65 billion pipeline being built in hopes prices will recover by the time gas is flowing to tidewater is one heck of a risk.

The acknowledgment that the path forward for the Alaska LNG line is unclear is bad news for the state. But it was inevitable given the state of the oil and gas market, and the state and producers should be credited for owning up to this reality.

Gov. Walker and the oil and gas executives present at last week's meeting said preliminary work will continue, aiding to move the project along more swiftly if prices turn around or an economic case for the line becomes more clear. That's an appropriate level of commitment given the situation.

Alaskans have waited since before statehood for North Slope natural gas to be developed. Waiting a little longer to avoid a bad gamble shouldn't be too hard to bear.

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Feb. 20, 2016

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: National parks are an important part of the state economy

Denali National Park and Preserve is much more than the mountain and the surrounding wondrous scenery. It's an economic engine for residents of the small nearby communities and for those who arrive in the area to run a business just for the busy summer tourist season.

One study from 2010 and cited by the National Park Service shows that, in 2008, estimated visitor spending associated with Denali National Park totaled $154 million. Of that, $50 million was for transportation — vehicle rental and air, rail and bus travel — and $17.7 million was spent on tours.

Denali is clearly Alaska's premier park destination and is one of its main visitor industry moneymaking engines.

But engines need regular maintenance if they are to keep operating at a high output.

Denali National Park has a maintenance backlog of $52.6 million, according to a September 2015 annual Park Service report. The biggest chunk of that delayed maintenance is for roads, bridges, tunnels and paved parking areas and paved roads and totals $26.8 million. Unpaved roads in the park need an estimated $13.6 million in work. Buildings, housing, campgrounds, trails and water and sewer systems account for most of the rest of the deferred maintenance in Denali.

Denali isn't the only National Park Service unit in Alaska needing attention, according to the annual report. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve needs about $19.4 million of work. Katmai National Park and Preserve needs about $12 million of overdue attention. A dozen other Park Service units in the state need lesser amounts of maintenance, a few of them still in the millions of dollars.

It won't be long before Alaska's coveted visitors begin the yearly trek north to our state, bringing with them the annual — and much-needed — boost to our economy. Whether they come to visit Denali or to spend time in any other part of the state, we want them here and we want them to go back home with a positive experience.

And that means taking care of what's here.

Other states are in the same predicament as Alaska with regard to National Park Service conservation units. That's because those units — parks, refuges, preserves, monuments, historic sites and such — have a combined $11.93 billion of overdue maintenance, as of a 2015 agency report.

It's unlikely, of course, that the nation will snap its fingers and come up with the money to fix it all. That's not realistic.

President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year does include a 9 percent increase, to $3.1 billion, in Park Service funding over the current year's approved amount, but Congress has the final say. A February statement from the Park Service said the budget proposal includes funding for the agency's highest priority items on the deferred maintenance list, with the aim of restoring and maintaining "all 7,186 highest priority non-transportation assets, such as visitor centers, trails and campgrounds, in good condition over the next 10 years."

Funding to fix up the parks could get some further help from the private sector in the budget proposal.

President Obama proposes increasing the amount of money available in the Park Service's Centennial Challenge Fund, which provides matching federal dollars to private donations, though not all of the money in the fund is dedicated to maintenance. As of early February in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, $33 million in donations was matched with $15 million in federal funds, according to the Park Service.

Taking care of our national parks, refuges and preserves is essential, not only for the benefit of those walking the trails and taking in the beauty today but also for those who will want to walk them and enjoy them in the decades to come.

The National Park Service system celebrates its centennial this year, in August. The nation's first national park, Yosemite, was established well more than 100 years ago; the centennial this year marks the creation of the administrative system that was put into place to manage what was at the time a collection of 14 national parks, 21 national monuments and two other protected sites.

This centennial of the Park Service can serve as a call for citizens to increase their enjoyment of the parks and to encourage greater attention to the upkeep of these national treasures. How we do it in these difficult financial times is a challenge, but it's one that shouldn't be avoided.