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Experts: U.S. Must Do More To Protect Energy Grid From Cyberattacks

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. needs to be more aggressive in putting critical energy infrastructure out of reach of cyberattacks, a top official of the government’s Idaho National Laboratory warned lawmakers.

Brent Stacey, the lab’s associate director, told a pair of House subcommittees Wednesday that the problem is bad and getting worse.

“The dynamic threat is evolving faster than the cycle of measure and countermeasure, and far faster than the evolution of policy,” he said.

There are more cyberattacks against the energy sector than any other industry. Energy companies say they are under constant assault, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Emergency Response Team responded to 79 attacks on American energy assets last year.

“Reported incidents affecting the electricity subsector have had a variety of impacts, including hacks into smart meters to steal power, failure in control systems devices requiring power plants to shut down, and malicious software disabling safety monitoring systems,” according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office statement released Wednesday.

A study this summer by the insurance company Lloyd’s of London and the University of Cambridge found that a major cyberattack on the U.S. power grid has the potential to cause a trillion dollars in damage.

“The scenario predicts a rise in mortality rates as health and safety systems fail; a decline in trade as ports shut down; disruption to water supplies as electric pumps fail; and chaos to transport networks as infrastructure collapses,” according to the report from Lloyd’s and Cambridge.

The scenario described in their report involves an electricity blackout that plunges New York City, Washington, D.C., and 15 states into darkness, leaving 93 million people without power.
“The scenario, while improbable, is technologically possible,” according to the report.

Bennett Gaines, senior vice president of FirstEnergy Service Co., said Wednesday that utilities have been effective at blocking attacks but that greater efforts will be needed. Those include the faster sharing of information between government and the industry, he said.

FirstEnergy has 10 electric companies in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

“Cyberattacks are on the rise and the behavior of cyberterrorists has become increasingly destructive,” Gaines told the House subcommittees on energy and science at a joint hearing on the threat.

The Idaho National Laboratory, the government leader in cybersecurity, said there are big challenges to preventing attacks.

Those include a lack of security experts and a widespread but mistaken belief that physically isolating a computer system from the Internet will make it invulnerable to hackers.
“The demand for trained cyber-defenders with control systems knowledge vastly exceeds the supply,” Stacey said.

He said the nation has to go beyond “measures and countermeasures” — dealing with the daily bombardment of attacks — and needs to figure out how to protect critical energy assets for the long term.

The Idaho National Laboratory is “pursuing a grand challenge to develop novel and deployable solutions to take a set of high-value infrastructure assets off the table as targets,” Stacey told the members of Congress.

Photo: The Idaho National Laboratory, the government leader in cybersecurity, has said the government needs to put more resources behind fighting cyberattacks to its infrastructure. Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr

Obama Unleashes Drilling Rigs While Fighting Global Warming

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama trying to have it both ways?

Obama is playing the roles of both climate change warrior and driller-in-chief: At the same time he hails the campaign against climate change he announced last week, he’s opening the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to drilling and is on track to lease massive amounts of coal in the West.

Renowned climate scientist James Hansen said he’s planning to write an analysis of the president’s global warming policies “probably entitled ‘Delusions at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,’ or something like that.”

Hansen, who is NASA’s former lead climate scientist and is now at Columbia University, co-authored a controversial study published last month raising the possibility that global warming could result in a 10-foot sea level rise in the next five decades and inundate coastal cities.

Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said in an interview that Obama’s climate record is mixed.

“They are in fact subsidizing the production of coal on federal land and oil and gas. And that really is not good,” said Babbitt, who served under President Bill Clinton.

He said Obama has “remarkable achievements” — including the Clean Power Plan announced last week to limit carbon emissions from power plants, vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and a climate agreement with China — that are focused on limiting demand for planet-warming fossil fuels.

But Babbitt sees a reluctance to address the supply of fossil fuels.

Obama calls his approach an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, including oil, natural gas, coal, and renewables. While Obama’s industry critics complain he is waging a war on coal and pursuing a radical environmental agenda, the president is opening up new frontiers to drilling rigs.

Obama agreed to let Shell explore for oil this summer in the environmentally sensitive Arctic Ocean. The president also proposes a 2021 drilling lease sale off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, areas long closed to fossil fuel development.

The Bureau of Land Management also is proposing a plan for the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming that would continue the federal coal leasing program and could result in 10 billion tons of coal being leased to mining companies over the next two decades.

David Konisky, an associate professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, said he sees the federal approach as more of a collection of individual agency decisions than a comprehensive Obama administration strategy guiding decisions on fossil fuels and climate.

“My sense is that there is not an overall road map here — with fossil fuel development on public lands, coal in the Powder River Basin, and oil in the Arctic, and then also trying to limit emissions from cars and trucks and power plants,” Konisky said. “There’s a bit of a dissonance going on.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell touted increases in oil drilling as well as renewable energy development in a recent speech. She called it a balance of “managing our resources to help drive our nation’s economy, without taking our eye off the America we want to hand our children.”

Jewell also pledged reforms that include changes to the federal coal leasing program, in which “companies can make a winning bid for about a dollar a ton to mine taxpayer-owned coal.”

Obama has disappointed his environmentalist allies in the past, though, and many of them are awaiting his decision on approving the Keystone XL pipeline before judging his climate legacy.

Bill McKibben, founder of the climate group 350.org, said “the president is finally taking credible action on the demand side of the equation, by beginning to reign in coal-fired power plants — that’s good to see.”

“But to meet the demands set by science, he has to be at least as strong on the supply side of the equation,” argued McKibben, who teaches at Middlebury College. “The decisions to open the Arctic to drilling and lease more of the Powder River Basin for coal mining are historic tragedies in that regard.”

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets guests after his remarks on climate change at Everglades National Park, Florida, April 22, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As Mountaintop Mining Spreads, Lawmakers Oppose Rule To Protect Streams

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are seeking to block an imminent rule protecting Appalachian streams from mountaintop removal mining, as opponents of the controversial practice say the mines are getting closer to communities and harming people’s health.

The White House is expected to announce a stricter rule for the disposal of mountaintop-removal mining waste into streams. Some Republicans in Congress are describing the move as the latest campaign in the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which has jurisdiction over mining, has been holding hearings and calling the rule a job killer. The chairman, Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO), backs a measure by West Virginia Republican Representative Alex Mooney that would block the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining from implementing the rule, calling for a study within two years, then a year of review, before any new stream protections.

By that point there would be a new president in the White House and different leadership at the Office of Surface Mining that could be friendlier to the coal industry.

“Should this stream buffer rule come to pass it would have a tremendous impact on further reducing mining in Kentucky,” Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in an interview.

Michael Hendryx, a health science professor at Indiana University, said in an interview that blocking the rule would force people living near the mines to keep suffering.

“They’re going to continue to have higher rates of disease and premature death,” said Hendryx. “There is plenty of solid evidence that mountaintop removal mining is done in a way that’s not responsible for the environment or public health.”

Hendryx, along with other scientists, has published more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles on the health impacts. Other research on the mining practice includes last year’s U.S. Geological Survey findings that Appalachian streams impacted by mountaintop mining have less than half as many fish species and about a third as many fish as other streams.

“People who live in mountaintop removal communities compared to others have higher rates of lung disease, heart disease, cancer, birth defects, and other types of health problems,” Hendryx said.

Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association called Hendryx biased and disputed his research. The coal company Alpha Natural Resources has asked the West Virginia Supreme Court for documents related to the preparation of Hendryx’s papers when he was at West Virginia University and copies of any correspondence with environmental groups.

Meanwhile, the environmental group Appalachian Voices has released maps based on satellite data showing the mining coming closer to communities, a finding questioned by industry.

The group said it’s hoping the new Obama administration rule will stop the widespread practice of states giving waivers to allow mining activity and waste dumping within 100 feet of streams.

“What we would like to see is a true buffer zone around all streams that cannot be infringed,” said Thom Kay, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices.

Opponents of the upcoming Obama administration rule said the impact goes beyond the mountaintops, with Mooney asserting at a congressional hearing last week that the “stream protection rule is intentionally designed to shut down all surface mining.” Bissett said that while federally designated mountaintop mining has diminished, other forms of surface coal mining still make up half the activity in Eastern Kentucky.

National Mining Association President Hal Quinn argued in testimony to Congress last week that the federal government has shown no need to act, and that even the Office of Surface Mining’s own analysis of an earlier version of the rule said it would cost 7,000 jobs. Industry backers accuse the agency of manipulating job loss estimates and not consulting with the states.

The Obama administration is not providing details on the upcoming rule, which is expected to be released in June.

Office of Surface Mining Director Joseph Pizarchik recently told Congress that the rule would be a “wash” in terms of job loss, with only a couple hundred jobs gained or lost as a result.

Photo: ilovemountains.org via Flickr

Paul Hopes His Opposition To Patriot Act Boosts Campaign Support

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — As his fellow Republican Kentucky senator, Mitch McConnell, pushes this week to reauthorize the Patriot Act, Rand Paul took his presidential campaign to Independence Mall on Monday and said he’d do whatever he could to kill the law and the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

“One senator came up to me and said, ‘If you defeat the Patriot Act, what will happen? How could we possibly survive?'” Paul said on a muggy afternoon, outside the Philadelphia hall where the Constitution was adopted. “And I said, ‘Maybe, just maybe, we could rely on the Constitution for a few hours.'”

Paul’s vow to fight the Patriot Act sets up a showdown with McConnell, and it’s an important moment for his campaign. Polls show Paul mired in the middle of a crowded field of Republican contenders, and he’s hoping his threat to filibuster over the mass collection of phone records will bring back the excitement of the 13-hour anti-drone talkathon on the Senate floor two years ago that launched him into national prominence.

“If he pulls this off, I think it will be important in reminding the libertarian/civil liberties-leaning people what it was they liked about this guy in the first place,” said Brian Doherty, senior editor at the libertarian Reason magazine and author of a book about Paul’s father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Rand Paul, who said he intended to filibuster the provision, said this week’s battle over reauthorizing the Patriot Act would be “a great and momentous debate” over the Constitution’s right to privacy. The act, which passed by lopsided margins following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, handed largely unchecked powers to federal investigators to combat terrorism. Since then some courts have found provisions unconstitutional.

But Paul didn’t sound confident of winning. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to defeat his filibuster, but he said, “The rules are tricky in the Senate.”

“We do not have the votes to ultimately defeat the Patriot Act. I can delay it. … What I will demand is we have time on the floor to debate this, and I will demand that amendments that we put forward are given a chance on the Senate floor,” Paul said, surrounded by a crowd of youthful supporters.

Paul’s position on the Patriot Act puts him at sharp odds with his rivals for the Republican nomination. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the National Security Agency’s data collection program important for protecting the nation’s security, and “the best part of the Obama administration.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has also defended the program, as has South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wants changes to the program but doesn’t go as far as Paul. Paul said he’d offer amendments with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who’s also threatening a filibuster.

Time is running out for the Patriot Act, making Paul’s filibuster threat far more effective. Section 215, used to justify the bulk collection of phone data, is set to expire June 1, as is the “lone wolf” provision, meant to surveil targets not directly connected to terrorist cells, and a measure that allows the government to use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations.

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Congress is scheduled to leave for a weeklong Memorial Day break at the end of this week, so timing is tight. Complicating the debate is an appeals court ruling this month that the mass collection of phone records is illegal because it wasn’t properly authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The court let the program continue temporarily, effectively giving Congress a chance to rewrite the surveillance law. The House of Representatives, with the president’s support, passed the USA Freedom Act last week with changes to the bulk collection system, but Paul said the measure didn’t go far enough.

His filibuster threat was cheered by a crowd that had paid $45 apiece to hear him, in a suit and cowboy boots, speak earlier Monday at the National Constitution Center (they’ll also get copies of his book when it comes out May 26.) “It’s a good idea,” said Robert Reed of Pine Hill, N.J. “There is too much government.”

But McConnell, the Senate majority leader, was dismissive Sunday of the filibuster threat being made by his fellow Kentuckian.

“Everybody threatens to filibuster. We’ll see what happens,” McConnell said in appearance on ABC.

McConnell wants to continue the bulk collection of phone records, and he’s pushing for at least a two-month reauthorization of the Patriot Act to allow time to negotiate.

Paul won supporters two years ago when he launched a filibuster in protest of what he deemed a risk of drone strikes to U.S. citizens on American soil. But Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said in an interview that Paul now had a fine line to walk as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination between firing up libertarian-minded backers and not appearing weak on national security and foreign policy.

“Foreign policy is driving him down in the polls, but it’s stances like this on the Patriot Act that are still sparking interest in him,” said O’Connell, who advised the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “He has to be able to use the Patriot Act debate to leverage it into a wider foreign-policy debate.”

Paul, who’s feuded with the hawkish McCain on foreign policy issues, said Monday that American intervention had backfired in Iraq and Libya.

“We get rid of the strongman, and we have chaos and we have the rise of radical Islam,” he said.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaking at a physician roundtable at the Chaparral Suites in Scottsdale, Arizona. January 15, 2015. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Feds Agree To Diversify Outer Banks’ Wild Horses

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As the summer tourist season approaches on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, there’s a growing hope among horse advocates that the iconic wild horses of Corolla can be saved from a fate of inbreeding and deformities.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which considers the horses “nuisance animals” that compete with federally protected birds for habitat, has loosened its stance and is allowing the introduction of new horses into the threatened herd in order to bring in fresh genes.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” said Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which protects the Spanish mustangs.

The horses have survived on a narrow barrier island in the northern edge of North Carolina’s Outer Banks for some 500 years, believed to be descendants of colonial mounts that swam to shore after Spanish galleons ran aground on the shoals and sandbars of the Outer Banks.

They are some of the last remaining wild horses in the Eastern United States and a hugely popular tourist attraction. But the herd of about 100 horses has become severely inbred and is down to a single maternal line, resulting in deformities and fears of extinction.

Representative Walter Jones (R-NC), repeatedly pushed a bill to allow the herd to grow to 130 horses and to let the Corolla Wild Horse Fund bring in horses from a different island at the far southern tip of the Outer Banks in order to infuse fresh genes into the herd. But the Fish and Wildlife Service successfully opposed the bill — some of the horses cross into the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, and the Fish and Wildlife Service considers them a problem.

Under pressure from horse advocates and members of Congress, though, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now letting outside horses join the Corolla herd under a new management plan for the horses.

“We aren’t objecting to the new horses for genetic diversity, and we are part of the new management plan for the Corolla herd,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund has taken advantage of the green light by quickly adding a four-year-old stallion, Gus, bringing him to join the herd from Cedar Island, some 100 miles to the south.

“I DNA tested him first to make sure that he was indeed a colonial Spanish mustang…so that is the first introduction of new colonial Spanish banker strain genes into the herd in five centuries,” McCalpin said.

Now McCalpin hopes to add a pair of Cedar Island mares.

“I actually prefer that they use mares. They incorporate into a population easier, a stallion is going to receive a challenge from other stallions and may not succeed in actually getting in and contributing genes,” said Gus Cothran, an expert in equine genetics at Texas A&M University who has studied the herd.

He said the introduction of new horses gives him hope for a herd he identified in 2012 as dangerously inbred.

“The concern is whether it’s too late,” Cothran said. “I don’t think so, but that would be something to think about.”

McCalpin is still pressing for Congress to pass Jones’ bill letting the herd go up to 130 horses. Without it, she fears the Fish and Wildlife Service might decide at any time to limit the herd.

“This has got to be our year because I’m basically just holding the population steady because of birth defects,” she said.

Photo: Corolla Wild Horse Fund via Flickr

Impact Of Proposed Crayfish Protections On Mining Industry Uncertain

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list species of Appalachian crayfish as endangered, with potential consequences for the struggling eastern Kentucky mining industry.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that the Big Sandy crayfish, which lives in streams in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, is in danger of extinction. The agency is also proposing to list the Guyandotte River crayfish, found at a single site in Wyoming County, W.Va.

The proposed endangered listing follows a 2013 settlement agreement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that sued to get protection for the crayfish, saying mountaintop removal coal mining was destroying its habitat.

“For decades coal companies have gotten away with polluting Appalachia’s water and killing its species, but it is time for the endangered species act to start being enforced in Appalachia,” Tierra Curry, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Monday.

The Kentucky Coal Association, an industry trade group, referred questions to David Ledford, a biologist and president of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, which has worked with coal companies on environmental restoration of mining areas.

Ledford said he doesn’t think the proposed listing will have a large impact on Kentucky mining operations.

“It’s my opinion that at this point it’s not going to be that big a deal for the mining industry,” he said. “It’s generally way downstream from where the mines are.”

Mike Floyd, a federal wildlife biologist in Kentucky, said mining is just one factor in the decline of the crayfish, which live beneath loose boulders in streams and rivers. The crayfish are threatened by human activities that add silt and sediments to the streams, he said.

“That can come from a number of different sources. Mining would be one, but it could be anything,” Floyd said. “It could be road development, simple land development … All those sorts of things that come along when people are around.”

If the crayfish are listed as endangered, then federal agencies that issue permits for activities like mining and road construction would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about how to keep them from harm, Floyd said.

The Big Sandy crayfish is found in four isolated populations across the upper Big Sandy River watershed in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There is quite a bit of mining going on in the Big Sandy drainage basin, which is where this would be, Pike and Floyd counties in Kentucky,” Floyd said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments for 60 days on the proposed listing before making a final decision on listing the crayfish.

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo credit: Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University, via Flickr

Obama Administration Puts Out Fracking Rules For Federal Lands

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration issued its first major fracking rules Friday with standards for wells on federal and Indian lands, requiring disclosure of chemicals and covered storage of waste.

While the vast majority of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, happens on state and private lands, there are more than 90,000 oil and gas wells fracked on federally managed lands.

“Many of the regulations on the books today haven’t kept pace with advances in technology,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters. “In fact, some are the same ones from when I was working on drilling and fracking operations in Oklahoma over 30 years ago.”

Fracking created an American energy boom but remains controversial, with concerns ranging from earthquakes to the possibility of groundwater contamination. New York state has banned fracking altogether.

The regulations for federal lands, which go into effect in 90 days, will require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used for fracking, in which high-pressure water and chemicals are pumped deep underground to break shale rock and release the oil and gas trapped inside.

Companies also will have to use covered storage tanks for fracking waste rather than open pits, a requirement that was made in order to give “greater confidence that we are in fact protecting groundwater,” said Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management.

The rules also include requirements for companies to test the durability of a well and for the construction of strong cement barriers between the wellbore — the hole that forms the well — and groundwater. The oil and gas industry and environmentalists both declared themselves to be disappointed with the new rules.

The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main lobbying group, called them a “barrier to growth.”

“A duplicative layer of new federal regulation is unnecessary, and we urge the BLM to work carefully with the states to minimize costs and delays created by the new rule to ensure that public lands can still be a source of job creation and economic growth,” Erik Milito, the group’s director of industry operations, said in an email.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance immediately filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Wyoming seeking to block the new rules.

The chairman of the Senate’s environment committee, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), said he and other senators have introduced legislation seeking to prevent the federal government from regulating fracking.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), said President Barack Obama is working to “appease radical environmentalists.

Environmental groups called the new rules an improvement but said they wanted a ban on fracking on public lands, or at least stronger protections.

“These rules put the interests of big oil and gas above people’s health and America’s natural heritage,” said Amy Mall, senior fracking policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Among the environmentalists’ complaints is that the rules don’t require disclosure of fracking chemicals until 30 days after a well is drilled, and that the disclosure then is to appear on an industry-run website.

The Interior Department defended its decision not to demand disclosure before the well is drilled. Companies often don’t know which chemicals are going to work before they start the fracking job, said Janet Schneider, assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

“What we think is most important and what the public is going to be most interested in is actually what went down the hole rather than what a company thought they might potentially use but didn’t,” she said.

Interior Secretary Jewell said that while some states have strong fracking rules, others have none, and the federal rules could be a model. Brian Deese, special climate and energy adviser to the president, told reporters that the industry also can use the rules to help ease public concerns.

“Ultimately this is an issue that is going to be decided in state capitals and localities as well within the industry,” Deese said.
___

Kevin G. Hall of the Washington bureau contributed.

Photo: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Obama Plan Would Close More Of Alaskan Refuge To Oil Drilling

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The White House is proposing to designate the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a wilderness area permanently off limits to drilling.

The proposal sets up a showdown with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She said the White House also intends to put much of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling in the new five-year offshore leasing plan to be released this week.

Murkowski described the moves as “a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive.”

“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” Murkowski said in a written statement. “I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.”

Obama’s proposal to designate 12.3 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness would require congressional approval, and there is no chance the Republican-controlled Congress will agree. But there are heightened protections the Interior Department will start implementing on its own.

The proposed wilderness designation includes the 1.5-million acre coastal plain of the refuge, estimated to contain about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Politicians have battled for decades about whether to open the area. President Bill Clinton vetoed a bill in 1995 that would have allowed drilling.

Obama announced the proposed wilderness designation on Sunday in a YouTube video. He called the Alaskan refuge an “incredible place, pristine, undisturbed,” that supports caribou, polar bears and fish. He said the Interior Department has put together a comprehensive plan to protect the area.

“I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure they take it one step further, designating it as a wilderness so we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations,” Obama said.

Environmental groups praised the proposal.

“This is a big deal. In the history of the Arctic Refuge, this is the closest that we have come to advancing wilderness for the coastal plain,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

But Alaska Gov. Bill Walker called it a blow to a state that’s already suffering a huge loss of revenue as a result of low oil prices. Walker said he “will consider accelerating the options available to us to increase oil exploration and production on state-owned lands.”

Murkowski, who has control over the Interior Department’s budget in the Senate, threatened retribution for the wilderness proposal as well as the upcoming offshore oil and gas leasing plan. She said the leasing plan “will effectively ban development in large swaths of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas” in the Alaskan Arctic.

Murkowski said it’s not clear how the new restrictions will affect offshore Arctic areas already under lease by Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil.

“These decisions simply cannot be allowed to stand,” Murkowski said. “I have tried to work with this administration, even though they’ve made it extremely difficult every step of the way, but those days are officially over. We are left with no choice but to hit back as hard as we can.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Expect Cheap Oil To Stay Awhile

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The federal government forecasts that low oil prices will continue through the year as a result of the global petroleum glut.

Oil prices have plummeted by more than half since a high of $106 a barrel in June, giving motorists the gift of cheap gasoline but wreaking havoc on energy markets and states that rely on oil tax revenue. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast Tuesday that the situation is going to continue as producers in America and around the world keep pumping more oil despite the glut.

U.S. benchmark crude prices have plummeted to $45 a barrel. The federal forecasters expect little recovery, estimating an average $55 a barrel price this year.

The agency said Tuesday that it “expects global oil inventories to continue to build in 2015, keeping downward pressure on oil prices.”

The price forecast, released as part of the agency’s short-term energy report, expects a rise to an average of $71 a barrel in 2016 as drilling growth eventually slows in response to the low oil prices, especially in America, and petroleum demand increases in China and the United States. That’s still far lower than in the past few years, though, when prices around $100 a barrel started to seem normal.

Motorists are a big winner in the oil price crash.

Gasoline prices are averaging $2.18 a gallon nationally, according to the AAA motor club, more than $1 a gallon lower than this time last year.

The Energy Information Administration forecasts that gasoline prices are going to average $2.33 a gallon this year and $2.72 next year.

“With lower gasoline prices, the average U.S. household is expected to spend $750 less in motor fuel costs in 2015 than in 2014,” said Adam Sieminski, head of the agency.

A major question, though, is what the price crash will do to the renaissance in American drilling, which has skyrocketed through fracking for oil and gas within shale rock. Some oil companies have reduced spending, and producers are cutting the number of drilling rigs.

The federal forecasters believe the low prices will slow, but not stop, the growth in American oil production that has transformed global energy markets.

Major oil companies are expected to follow through on the investments they’ve made in highly productive areas like the Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas, even as companies start “redirecting investment away from marginal exploration and research drilling.”

“We see an impact (on U.S.) production but we don’t see a massive downturn,” said Howard Gruenspecht, deputy administrator of the EIA.

The agency expects U.S. drilling activity to start declining in less profitable fields this year as prices average less than $50 a barrel, with production forecast to dip by 190,000 barrels a day through the late spring into summer, before oil prices begin to rebound.

As the prices start going up toward the end of the year, the nation’s “drilling activity is expected to increase again as companies take advantage of lower costs for both leasing acreage and drilling services, causing production to resume rising,” the EIA said in its report.

The agency expects U.S. oil production to average 9.3 million barrels a day this year, up from the 8.7 million barrels a day in 2014.

The EIA forecasts U.S. production to reach 9.5 million barrels a day in 2016, the nation’s second highest output since record drilling in 1970.

The agency warned, though, that its forecasts could be wrong.

“The recent declines in oil prices and associated increase in oil price volatility continue to contribute to a particularly uncertain forecasting environment,” the agency said.

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

Congress Is Ready To Pass Keystone, But Is Pipeline Even Viable?

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, the nation’s noisiest referendum on energy and the environment, is reaching a climax in Congress after six years.

The new Republican-controlled Congress has put the 1,179-mile Keystone XL first on its agenda, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling the pipeline a “shovel-ready jobs project.” A bill forcing the president’s approval of the project is expected to pass the House of Representatives this week and the Senate as soon as next week.

President Barack Obama plans to veto the bill, despite his own State Department downplaying the environmental damage. The president, who’s expressed doubts about the economic benefits, said he was waiting for a Nebraska court ruling on the route and a final State Department ruling before deciding whether Keystone should go.

Amid the theatrics, there are debates over how many jobs Keystone would create and what impact it would have on the economy and climate change. And the worldwide oil glut raises questions about whether the pipeline to bring Canadian crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast is needed or even viable.

The global oil market has changed dramatically since the project was proposed more than six years ago. U.S. oil production has soared in the meantime, helping to create a global oversupply that’s driven oil prices down by more than 50 percent since June.

It’s particularly expensive to drill the heavy oil-sands crude that would flow through Keystone from the province of Alberta, and the low oil prices make financing new drilling operations much more difficult. The global energy research firm Wood Mackenzie forecasts that $59 billion worth of Canadian oil and gas projects might be delayed over the next three years as a result of a plummet in investment.

“If I were TransCanada right now I would not be in a rush to build this pipeline,” said Chris Lafakis, senior economist for Moody’s Analytics.

Tapping the thick Alberta crude produces more planet-warming gases than conventional sources of crude, and environmental groups have made blocking the pipeline their national obsession.

But during the years of often-overheated political rhetoric from both sides, the energy markets have changed. Oil companies got tired of waiting for Keystone and increasingly turned to rail to ship crude. Cost estimates for the pipeline skyrocketed, and energy investors are reeling from the massive drop in oil prices in recent months.

“Right now with oil prices down and a glut of oil on the global marketplace, the answer is no, we don’t need Keystone right now,” said Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at the Price Futures Group in Chicago.

But Flynn, a Keystone supporter, added that energy markets might change again and the pipeline would be cheaper and safer than shipping the crude to refineries by rail.

“If you look at the big picture of where global demand for oil is going to probably go in the next 10 to 20 years, it’s going to be needed somewhere down the road,” Flynn said.

But even Brookings Institution energy expert Charles Ebinger, also a Keystone supporter, said the crash in oil prices meant TransCanada might need to postpone the project should it receive the long-awaited federal approval to go ahead and start building.

“I think there’s a strong chance there would be a delay in construction,” Ebinger said.

TransCanada and its allies in Congress, however, are refusing to acknowledge a possibility that the project has lost even some of its luster.

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the pipeline was meant to last for the long term and that decisions weren’t made based on “short-term views or changes in commodity prices.”

“There is demand now and for decades to come for oil … pipelines are the safest and most efficient and cost-effective way to move large volumes of oil longer distances,” Howard said in an email.

Alberta oil producers are increasing production despite the supply glut, and some major new projects planned in the oil sands are moving ahead because billions of dollars already have been sunk into them.

But other planned projects are at risk of delay and might end up canceled, said Lafakis, the senior economist for Moody’s Analytics. Lafakis said he put the break-even price for Canadian oil sands projects at $75 to $85 a barrel. Prices dipped below $50 this week.

“The smaller projects, especially from medium- and small-sized players in Canada, those are the first that will be cut as a result of those investments no longer being economical,” Lafakis said. “Like the U.S., there will be a reduction in Canadian output.”

Meanwhile, the rhetoric is heating up on both sides in Congress, leaving some analysts shaking their heads at how Keystone XL has become so hyped. The proposed pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands and the Bakken formation of the Great Plains, while growth in U.S. oil production over just the past three years has already added more than triple that amount to the world market, said Robert Bryce, a senior energy fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute research center.

“Clearly, the economics are threatening the project,” he said. “There’s no doubt the Republicans in Congress are going to pass a bill that intends to force approval. But they can’t make the pipeline get built.”

AFP Photo/Spencer Platt

EPA Rules On Coal Ash May Disappoint Environmentalists, Buoy Industry

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The federal government is about to announce its first rules for the handling and storage of potentially toxic coal ash, months after tons of the waste spilled into a major river in North Carolina.

Environmental groups, though, are preparing for disappointment. The Obama administration appears likely to refuse to designate the material as hazardous and could let states decide whether to enforce the rules.

“It will be incredibly disappointing and reckless if EPA doesn’t solve the problem that it knows how to solve,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release the new rules Friday. In the meantime, utility industry officials and environmental groups have been lobbying federal regulators in a series of meetings the past several weeks with the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Coal ash is the dustlike material that’s left over when pulverized coal is burned to fuel electrical power plants. It’s stored in about 1,000 sites nationwide, including in ponds and landfills. It’s known to contain toxic materials such as arsenic and selenium and, according to the EPA, without sufficient protection the contaminants in coal waste can leach into groundwater and migrate to sources of drinking water.

The federal government always has left it up to the individual states to manage coal ash storage and disposal, and the result is an inconsistent patchwork of regulations.

Pressure for federal intervention began in 2008, when a dike rupture at a Tennessee power plant spilled more than 1 billion gallons of ash slurry that covered 300 acres and flowed into two rivers. But the Obama administration delayed action until a federal court order last fall demanded that it get moving, setting up Friday’s announcement of how the EPA is going to deal with coal ash.

Federal disclosures show that more than two dozen utilities and other energy interests have had their lobbyists working in Washington to influence coal ash decisions this year, including Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C, which in February spilled up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina and has ongoing problems disposing of more than 100 million tons of the ash elsewhere in the state.

On the other side, lobbyists for the Southern Environmental Law Center and the League of Conservation Voters have been pressing for federal intervention.

If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste it will mean strict and costly new rules for the material, backed up with federal enforcement. But if the agency decides it’s non-hazardous, the new requirements will be more modest and citizens might have to sue to get them enforced.

Most analysts expect the EPA to declare the coal waste non-hazardous, based on signals from the agency.

Clearview Energy Partners, an energy research firm in Washington, said in a research note that the EPA appears to have been influenced by state regulators worried that a hazardous designation would prove costly for municipal landfills that have accepted coal ash.

Influential members of Congress are also pressing the EPA not to start policing coal ash. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, said states have “responsibly and effectively managed coal ash” without federal intervention.

“In the new Congress, my colleagues and I will intently review the impacts this rule could have to our economy and electricity reliability as well as highlight how states are leading the way on properly disposing and recycling coal ash,” Inhofe said in an emailed statement.

The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry trade group, favors new rules — as long as coal ash is allowed to be managed as non-hazardous. The Environmental Protection Agency has previously “concluded on four occasions that coal ash need not be regulated as a hazardous waste, and we agree with the agency on that point,” said Jim Roewer, executive director of the group.

Declaring coal ash a hazardous waste also would hurt the companies that recycle coal ash and make it into building materials, Roewer argued.

Photo: Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Supreme Court Says No To BP Appeal Of Oil Spill Settlement

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear BP’s appeal of the settlement agreement forcing the company to pay billions of dollars to businesses deemed hurt in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Monday’s decision means the British oil giant must continue to make the payments under the agreement it signed after the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP argued that the claims administrator and the judge overseeing the settlement were misinterpreting the terms of the deal and that the process was riddled with fraud. BP said it was being forced to pay businesses that couldn’t prove their losses were a result of the massive oil spill.

BP took out ads in national newspapers blasting the payouts as unfair and launched a legal fight through the appeals court system. The Supreme Court, in an unsigned order without explanation, declined Monday to review lower court rulings that went against BP.

Most recently, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had denied BP’s claim 2-1 in March. Federal Judge Leslie Southwick wrote at the time that BP needs to live with the settlement it signed, adding that “there is nothing fundamentally unreasonable about what BP accepted but now wished it had not.”

Attorney Joe Rice, a lead negotiator for the plaintiffs against BP, said Monday that BP’s “cruel antics” in the courts had muddied the process of getting payments out.

“BP has over and over again painted itself the victim, when in fact it harmed thousands of Americans in the largest oil spill this country has seen,” Rice said.

BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said Monday that the company remained “concerned that the program has made awards to claimants that suffered no injury from the spill — and that the lawyers for these claimants have unjustly profited as a result.”

“On behalf of all our stakeholders, we will therefore continue to advocate for the investigation of suspicious or implausible claims and to fight fraud where it is uncovered,” Morrell said in a statement.

The settlement is turning out to be more costly than the company had expected. BP initially set aside $7.8 billion for the payouts, but it now expects they might go “significantly higher” than $9.2 billion.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 workers, led to the biggest offshore oil disaster in U.S. history, and did major economic damage to Gulf Coast businesses. But BP argued that some businesses that received payouts as a result of the settlement agreement — among them an adult escort service and a global nuclear consultant — never proved the spill had cost them revenue and shouldn’t have received the money.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said BP had “buyer’s remorse” and that the settlement didn’t require proof from businesses that the spill directly caused them losses.

The settlement, they said, is based on a formula that takes into account how far the business was from the site of the spill and compares revenue for certain months before and after the accident. Under the formula, if a business met the criteria its loss was presumed to be spill-related.

Plaintiffs attorneys Stephen Herman and James Roy said in a statement Monday that “today’s ruling is a huge victory for the Gulf, and should finally put to rest BP’s two-year attack on its own settlement.”

Photo: ideum via Flickr

Appalachia Gathers Dissent To Gas Pipeline Bound For Eastern North Carolina

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WAYNESBORO, Va. — Fred Powell was born under the misty mountain ridges that hug southwest Virginia, beneath the Appalachian Trail and where Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, in a farmhouse his great-great-grandfather built in 1832.

Part of the so-called “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” during the Civil War, farmers have long worked the land, raising cows and crops, joined in recent years by wineries and craft breweries that attract day-trippers from the college town of Charlottesville.

This quiet area is being roiled by plans announced in September to put it in the path of a 42-inch pipeline from West Virginia through North Carolina. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, primarily a project of Dominion Resources and Duke Energy, would ship natural gas 550 miles from the fracking fields of the Marcellus and Utica shales to economically struggling counties in eastern North Carolina, where there are hopes it will help to attract industry.

Powell, like others in Virginia’s Nelson and Augusta counties, is refusing to allow Dominion Resources to come through his farmland and survey for the pipeline right of way, saying they’ll do whatever they can to try to stop the $5 billion project.

“We’re not against pipelines, but the location for this is terrible,” said Powell, 65, whose fears range from water contamination to an explosion.

More than 100 people turned out on a bone-chilling November day to protest the pipeline in Waynesboro, accusing their state’s politicians of selling them out and invoking the spirit of the Revolution.

“What is left to us but to rise up on our own, like in 1776?” said Tracy Pyles, a member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors.

The view is different in the lowlands of eastern North Carolina, where the pipeline would deliver its cargo after narrowing to 36 inches. Opposition does exist, as seen at a mid-October public hearing in Rocky Mount, but so does a powerful sense of opportunity.

The plans call for the pipeline to end in rural Robeson County, where the most recent Census Bureau statistics showed 1 in 3 residents living in poverty. It’s among the poorest areas in the nation, with the highest violent-crime rate in North Carolina.

“We need help,” said Greg Cummings, the economic development director for Robeson County, who expects there will be feeder lines to increase the availability of natural gas for industrial parks in the area.

“It’s going to play a major role as far as helping us to market our industrial parks,” Cummings said. “The majority of companies manufacturing today, 90 percent of them, they are asking for natural gas.”

Keith Dimsdale, who owns a Chick-fil-A in Smithfield, N.C., said there also were opportunities in Johnston County, which has undeveloped sites without access to natural gas.

“We’re very positive about the jobs it would bring to the community putting in the pipeline, as well as getting the natural gas available for industry,” said Dimsdale, chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce.

The North Carolina section of the pipeline is planned to roughly parallel the Interstate 95 corridor, entering the state in Northampton County, northeast of Raleigh.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, is a big pipeline supporter. So is Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who called it a “game changer” for his state’s economy. The pipeline is proposed to have a spur to Virginia’s populous Hampton Roads area, near the coast.

But in the eyes of many in the mountainous region along the border of Virginia and West Virginia, the project would just mean destruction. The pipeline, mostly to be buried about 3 feet deep, would have a 125-foot-wide construction right of way. A coalition of nearly two dozen groups with concerns about the project has formed, calling itself the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance.

Opponents of the pipeline argue that the area’s karst topography of limestone, susceptible to sinkholes, is an unstable place to build a pipeline, which could contaminate the drinking water.

They predict damage as the pipeline carves into the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, saying it would threaten sensitive habitat. Some speak of fears for their children and the explosive potential of a highly pressurized natural-gas pipeline near schools. People whose land has been in their families for generations fear that Virginia-based Dominion Resources will use eminent domain to force the pipeline through.

“We’re just everyday people who feel like we are getting run over,” said Nancy Sorrells, who is on the Augusta County water and sewer board.

Chet Wade, vice president of corporate communications for Dominion Resources, argued that there’s a lot of misinformation about the project, including “completely fabricated” claims that the natural gas is meant for export. He said worries of polluted water were overblown and that pipelines were commonly built in karst areas. Schoolchildren have nothing to fear, he said.

The plan comes as utilities such as Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, which would own 40 percent of the pipeline, increasingly turn to natural gas made cheaper by the boom in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. Duke has retired half its 14 coal-burning power plants in North Carolina in the past three years, while opening five natural gas-fired plants.

Nearly all of the 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day that would run through the pipeline has been reserved by utilities such as Duke, Piedmont Natural Gas, Virginia Power Services Energy and Virginia Natural Gas. While the proposed pipeline may not lower energy bills for consumers, the utilities say it might prevent spikes during extreme weather.

Dominion asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Oct. 31 to start the process for approving the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The company hopes to begin construction in 2016, with the natural gas coming through two years later.

Wade said that more than 70 percent of the landowners along the planned route weren’t resisting Dominion’s efforts to survey. For those who are refusing, though, Virginia law gives natural gas utilities the right to survey on private property, Wade said, and the company intends to assert that right.

The company said it sent letters to 226 landowners in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina in a last-ditch effort to gain entry to properties for survey work before going to court. Once it’s time to obtain the land needed for the pipeline, Dominion would offer money to the affected landowners. Should they refuse to sell, the company is prepared to take their land through eminent domain, with a judge setting the value for the easement.

That doesn’t sit well with many in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. On a recent weekend, locals packed into the Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, so many that workers had to direct traffic in the parking lot, with families munching burgers and pizza topped with bratwurst from the nearby Double H Farm. Adults sipped glasses of Full Nelson Pale Ale and Kolsch 151.

Brewer and co-owner Taylor Smack is jumping into the pipeline fight, arguing that it’s wrong for the government to give Dominion the right to seize people’s land.

“I understand and appreciate that this new fuel source is important for our entire country,” he said. “But this isn’t the government stepping in for the greater good; Dominion will make billions of dollars with this gas and foul thousands of citizens’ properties.”

Not far away, Powell stood on his land in front of a bale of hay that he said marked where the pipeline would run. His wife and grown son joined him in the cold, beneath the red and gold autumn blaze of the mountains, pledging to confront the pipeline developers.

“We’ll take it as far as it’s possible to take it,” Powell said.

Photo: Fred and Bonnie Powell stand on their Augusta County, Va., farmland that lies on the proposed route of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina, on November 1, 2014. The Powells are not allowing Dominion Resources to survey for the right-of-way. “We’re not against pipelines but the location for this is terrible,” Fred Powell said. (Sean Cockerham/MCT)

On The Last Frontier, A Democrat Fights A Rising GOP Tide

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Control of the U.S. Senate might be decided by a race in which the campaigns fight over snowmobiling skills and where an endorsement from the nominee of a secessionist party who went to federal prison for corruption could help to sway the outcome.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) is battling for his political life in a state that votes Republican and hasn’t elected another Democrat to statewide office in 16 years, a state where Mitt Romney trounced President Barack Obama two years ago.

Republicans need to pick up six seats to take control of the Senate, and with GOP candidates looking strong in states such as Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana, Alaska could make the difference.

While the race has long been considered a tossup, the latest polling suggests that Republican challenger Dan Sullivan, who entered Alaska public life when then-Gov. Sarah Palin named him attorney general in 2009, has seized a narrow lead with a relentless effort to tie Begich to Obama.

The latest average of recent polls on the website Real Clear Politics shows Sullivan ahead by just under 5 percentage points.

“You’ve got the Sullivan campaign saying with every breath that Begich votes with Obama 97 percent of the time,” said Ivan Moore, a pollster and political consultant in Anchorage. “And you’ve got Begich asserting his independence from Obama with every breath.”

The race, and potentially control of the Senate, will be decided by voters such as Wendy Loya and Eland Conway. On a golden fall day in Alaska’s stunning Chugach Mountains, with a bite in the air promising the long subarctic winter to come, they hiked a trail accompanied by a husky and a malamute.

Loya, an ecologist, is voting for Begich, even though she thinks he veers too far to the right. Conway is going for Sullivan. Like many other Alaska voters McClatchy interviewed, he said his support for the Republican was less about Sullivan himself than tossing out the Democrat.

“It’s not necessarily what I like about Sullivan, it’s what I don’t like about Begich,” said Conway, operations officer at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Republicans have been eyeing Begich for defeat since 2008, when he unseated Stevens, the airport’s namesake and a legendary figure in Alaska who spent 40 years in the Senate. Stevens had been convicted of corruption a week before the election — a conviction tossed out a year later — but Begich still beat him by only about 1 percent of the vote.

Since that election, Begich has broken with the president on some big issues, including helping to stop a proposal that would have required background checks for anyone who buys a firearm at a gun show or over the Internet. But his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act is a sore point with Alaskans such as Lidiya Zyatitsky. She backed Begich in his last election, but said she’d now support the Republican.

Steve Rollins, who plans to vote for Begich, said he’d expected the senator to be drawing more support and was getting worried.

“He has to distance himself away from Obama’s track record,” said Rollins, the dean of the library for the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

Begich is trying to do exactly that. One of his TV ads shows him snowmobiling — in Alaska it’s called snow machining — at 21 degrees below zero on the icebound Arctic Ocean. “I’m Mark Begich. I fought for five years to get the permits so we could drill under this ice, and we won,” he says to the camera.

Sullivan fired back with an ad featuring X Games medalist Cory Davis of Soldotna, Alaska, accusing Begich of “pretending to ride” a snow machine. “I’m tired of the phony politicians and Mark Begich’s laaaame tricks,” Davis says. Begich says he was really riding, and that he in fact got frostbite.

The race also includes the figure of Victor Kohring, a former Republican legislator and notorious moocher — known for begging hamburgers from a corrupt oilman at McDonald’s — who in 2011 pleaded guilty in a bribery case. In August he won the U.S. Senate nomination of the Alaskan Independence Party, which advocates a vote on the state seceding and becoming an independent nation.

Kohring then abruptly dropped out — leaving the independence party without a candidate — and endorsed Sullivan.

Kohring had just a few percentage points of support at the most, but in such a close race it could make a difference if those votes swing to Sullivan. Begich’s campaign manager, Susanne Fleek-Green, said it “reeks of an orchestrated attempt to deliver Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat for Dan Sullivan.”

While his campaign downplays the importance and accuracy of polling in Alaska, Begich is well aware of the challenge he faces.

“One thing that people know about me, I will campaign like a mad dog,” Begich said in an interview. “I will be everywhere, talk to everybody.”

As the darkness of Alaska’s winter approaches, with moose hunting season over and Alaskans shopping for big screen TVs or planning Hawaii trips with the $1,884 oil dividend checks they all get from the state, Begich rose on a recent fall Saturday and went to meet Korean-American voters.

From there he shuttled across town to speak with students eating pizza at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He then did a radio interview, crashed a wedding and ended up at an Asian and Pacific Islander get-out-the-vote rally. “Tongans for Begich” campaign bracelets were passed out.

The next morning found Begich at an African-American church, where some 30 hands shot up when the pastor asked how many had met him — compared with just a few for the governor. Next was a speech to a commercial fishing group, then a candidate forum and finally a Hispanic rally at a Mexican restaurant.

Sullivan, a former official in the Bush administration, had no public events that weekend and refused requests for an interview about his campaign. But he has the backing of voters such as Bev Rhymer, a stay-at-home mom and rental manager who said, “Just about everything Obama tries to do I feel is really detrimental to our country” and that she appreciated Sullivan’s background as a Marine officer who was now in the Reserve.

Begich might also be suffering from what even supporters said was a bad decision to run a television ad that tried to attack Sullivan’s record as state attorney general by linking him to a horrific crime in which an older couple was killed and their toddler grandchild sexually assaulted. The fact-checking website PolitiFact gave the ad a “Pants on Fire” rating, and Begich pulled it from the air after the lawyer for the victims’ family demanded he do so.

Begich benefits, though, from an unprecedented ground operation in the Last Frontier. He has 16 field offices across the vast state, from the panhandle forests to the Bering Sea coast, dwarfing the Sullivan operation. One, in the fishing town of Dillingham, population 2,400, is in a laundromat.

Campaign phone calls to voters are being made in the indigenous Yup’ik Eskimo language. Begich has put together a squadron of rural staffers, local people, going door to door to get their neighbors registered, spreading the campaign slogan of “True Alaska” from the mountains to the tundra. Whether it’s enough to beat Sullivan’s advantage in places such as the Mat-Su, the home of the Palin clan, and the Kenai Peninsula remains to be seen.

“What’s going to be key is who gets their supporters to turn out,” said Alaska pollster Moore. “Even in elections as momentous as this, only a fraction of people show up to vote.”

Photo: SenateDemocrats via Flickr

Palin Goes 0-For-Two In Alaska As Clout Disappears Nationally

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Sarah Palin has lost the magic. The defeat of her choice Tuesday in a Republican Senate primary in her home state of Alaska capped a primary season in which her favored candidates across the nation have stumbled.

A referendum to restore Palin’s signature achievement from her time as Alaska governor, a state tax on oil companies, was also headed toward defeat following Tuesday’s voting, dealing a double-whammy loss to Palin in her home state and highlighting her declining influence.

Only four of the 15 congressional candidates endorsed by Palin nationwide this year have won their primaries — a far worse record than the previous two elections, when Palin played a role as kingmaker and her approval was eagerly sought by candidates looking for an edge with Republican voters.

Palin remains talented at raising money. “But her influence on the actual political process is diminishing rapidly,” said John Feehery, a Republican political consultant and former aide to GOP leadership in the House of Representatives.

Palin had urged her fellow Alaskans to vote for Tea Party candidate Joe Miller on Tuesday in the state’s Republican primary, saying he’s needed to “restore liberty, to defend our Constitution, to build American exceptionalism.” Alaskans received automated phone messages, known as robocalls, with Palin’s voice urging them to get out and vote for Miller.

It didn’t work. Miller was easily defeated by Republican establishment candidate Dan Sullivan, who will now face incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in the general election.

Palin also lost the effort to defend her signature tax on the oil companies that operate in Alaska.

Her successor as governor, Sean Parnell, worked with the state Legislature to reverse Palin’s tax system last year, saying it was hurting oil production. Palin called the move “crony capitalism” and supported a referendum to restore the tax. But it was losing by nearly 7,000 votes with most ballots having been counted.

A poll of Alaska voters this month by Public Policy Polling found just 36 percent have a favorable view of Palin, a huge fall from the 87 percent approval she enjoyed before being tapped by John McCain as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008.

Key to her dwindling popularity at home: her 2009 resignation as governor a little more than halfway through her first term was devastating to her image in Alaska, according to Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal.

“She didn’t honor her contract, in a certain sense, with Alaska. They voted for her and she quit,” he said.

While Palin has since become more of a reality television star than a politician, her endorsement still carried weight in recent elections. The majority of candidates she supported in 2010 won. And Palin’s picks won an impressive string of victories two years later, including Ted Cruz in his upset Senate victory in Texas.

At times Palin got involved in races when her favored candidate already had picked up momentum — such as the case with Cruz. But Palin was credited with helping give a push to several underdogs.

That included Miller, who won Alaska’s 2010 Republican Senate primary with Tea Party campaign cash raised as a result of Palin’s endorsement. However, Miller went on to lose the general election to a comeback write-in effort by incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Miller didn’t come close to winning the primary this year, and most of the other House and Senate candidates listed as “Palin’s 2014 picks” by her political action committee, SarahPAC, also have not fared well.

Palin backed failed attempts to unseat incumbent Senators Thad Cochran in Mississippi and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee. Her Senate picks in Oklahoma, Minnesota and Georgia all failed to advance beyond the Republican primary as well.

Palin had more success with her Nebraska pick, following Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) in endorsing Ben Sasse’s successful campaign for the GOP Senate nomination.

Palin also joined Mitt Romney and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in stumping for Joni Ernst, who won the Republican Senate primary in Iowa, and she endorsed heavily favored Senator Tim Scott in South Carolina.

Just one of Palin’s choices for the U.S. House, Barry Loudermilk in Georgia, won the Republican primary election. Palin’s picks for the House lost in Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia.

A message left with SarahPAC asking about the endorsed candidates’ struggles was not returned.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Rand Paul Heading To Guatemala To Do Eye Surgeries

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), is just back from barnstorming Iowa, home of the earliest presidential caucus, and he’s heading next to eat barbecue in South Carolina, the first voting state in Dixie and a critical stop for Republicans who aspire to the White House.

In between, though, Paul is going about as far from the beaten political track as possible, the central highlands of Guatemala.

An ophthalmologist with a medical degree from Duke University, Paul is joining a medical mission to do eye surgeries in Guatemala as Congress continues its August break. The trip comes as Paul tries to differentiate himself from other Republican contenders, including efforts at reach out to minority groups and Silicon Valley.

Paul said he “doesn’t know” what the political implications of the trip might be, only that his work as a physician was his first passion and he doesn’t want to stop.

“It’s just something I kind of miss in my life, and I want to be able to give back,” Paul said in an interview.

He’s going with a medical team from the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah. Surgeons with the eye center do these kinds of international trips all the time, most recently in Micronesia. But bringing along an expected presidential candidate is different.

Paul’s three days of surgeries are going to be well documented. About 17 members of the press are going to accompany Paul, said Michael Yei, outreach manager for the Moran Eye Center. He said the list includes Fox News Channel host Greta Van Susteren and her crew, the Christian Broadcasting Network, The Washington Post, the National Review and the conservative website Breitbart News.

The government of Guatemala will be providing Paul with an armored vehicle and a security detail, Yei said.

Paul said the trip is an extension of his pro bono work in Kentucky, where he sometimes does eye surgeries, including three in Louisville on Tuesday.

“It’s just something I’ve been involved with for a long time and want to continue to do,” Paul said. “To keep my skills up and also to help people who don’t have insurance.”

Regardless of his own motive, the trip will have a political impact by showing people a different side of Paul, said Kevin Madden, a veteran Republican consultant.

“They won’t see him attached to just the ideological or partisan policy debates that take place in Washington,” Madden said. “He can step out of that and let people see him through a different lens, that of a doctor helping people.”

Paul has all but declared he’s running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Paul leaves for Guatemala early Saturday morning and will do surgeries in the small city of Salama from Monday through Wednesday.

He’ll also meet with Guatemalan officials, including possibly the president, although he said he doesn’t have plans to talk immigration or other specific issues.

“I think we’re going to try to keep it more humanitarian,” Paul said. “I don’t know exactly what is going to come up, but it’s not intended to be any kind of policy discussion.”

The Guatemala trip came about after Paul spoke at a American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery conference earlier his year. Paul asked about with whom he could organize an international surgery mission, and he was referred to the Moran Eye Center.

“When we first talked to him he said, ‘Hey, I want to go to India,’ ” Yei said. “And we said, ‘Nobody wants to go to India in the summer and work.’ So we were thinking he could come with us on one of our other trips.”

Paul then suggested Guatemala, where the Moran Eye Center had never operated. Paul previously had done several eye surgeries in Kentucky on Guatemalan children who were brought to the United States for treatment through the nonprofit Children of the Americas.
Paul said he’ll reunite with three of those former patients who he operated on 16 years ago and re-check their eyes and see how they’re doing.

Paul raised $20,000 through donors to help cover the Moran Eye Center’s costs for the trip, said Yei, who seemed happy to have a presidential hopeful along.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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