TIME climate change

NOAA Arctic Report Card Shows a Rapid Rise in Arctic Air Temperatures

Polar Bear
Hoberman Collection/UIG/Getty Images

NOAA has released its annual Arctic Report Card. It’s not fabulous

Arctic air temperatures are still increasing at twice the rate of global air temperatures, a NOAA-led report has found.

This year’s Arctic Report Card, a collaborative report by 63 authors from 13 countries, reports a disappointing continuation of Arctic warming: Alaska is seeing temperature anomalies more than 18 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the January average; temperatures are rising in the seas of the Arctic Ocean; and snow cover across the Arctic region is below average.

The report also includes an assessment of climate change’s impact on polar bears, finding a population decline in Hudson Bay, Canada, where the ice season is turning shorter. Still, polar bear numbers have stabilized elsewhere, including in the southern Beaufort Sea.

TIME Environment

Obama Has Taken Alaska’s Bristol Bay Off the Market for Drilling

Pebble Mine in Alaska
Dillingham, Alaska, a fishing community of 2,300 is the largest town and hub of the Bristol Bay region. Anchorage Daily News—MCT via Getty Images

The order indefinitely extends protection that was due to expire in 2017

President Barack Obama on Tuesday listed Alaska’s Bristol Bay as a no-go zone for oil and gas drilling, promising to protect the coastal area’s booming fisheries, as well as preserve a linchpin of Native American heritage.

The bay, home to a $2 billion annual fishing industry, supplies some 40 percent of America’s wild-caught seafood and supports local indigenous communities, the White House said in a press statement. Obama’s order indefinitely extends short-term protection for the area that was granted in 2010 and due to expire in 2017.

The Alaskan region is home to the biggest wild sockeye salmon run in the world, as well as numerous threatened species, including the endangered North Pacific Right Whale.

TIME Lobbying

Governors Lean Heavily on Industry-Funded Group on Offshore Drilling

Chevron's Jack/St. Malo Oil Platform Departs From Kiewit Offshore
Birds fly as pedestrians watch tug boats transport the Chevron Corp. Jack St. Malo semi-submersible drilling and production platform to the Gulf of Mexico from Kiewit Offshore Services in Ingleside, Texas, U.S., on Nov. 15, 2013. Eddie Seal—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Energy lobbying firm worked through industry-funded advocacy group to provide research and resources

It was a brisk February morning, and the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina were seated around a ring of tables draped with pleated beige fabric in the ornate Nest Room of Washington, D.C.’s Willard InterContinental Hotel. Sitting across the tables was Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whom the governors had invited so they could make their case for expanding offshore energy production. It was a long-awaited meeting for the governors, and they’d armed themselves with specific “asks” — that Jewell’s department open access to oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, for instance, and improve “regulatory certainty” for energy companies operating rigs off the coasts.

The get-together this past winter was but one small push in the type of broader political campaign that occurs every day in countless Washington conference rooms, watering holes and hotel suites. For the past three years, a group of eight, mostly Republican governors from coastal states has been lobbying the Obama administration to expand access to the nation’s offshore oil and gas deposits, working through an organization called the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition.

While the message from the governors that morning would have come as no surprise to Jewell, less clear, perhaps, was that the governors were drawing on the research and resources of an energy lobbying firm acting on behalf of an oil industry-funded advocacy group.

Indeed, the background materials handed to the governors for the meeting, right down to those specific “asks,” were provided by Natalie Joubert, vice president for policy at the Houston- and Washington D.C.-based HBW Resources. Joubert helps manage the Consumer Energy Alliance, or CEA, a broad-based industry coalition that HBW Resources has been hired to run. The appeal for regulatory certainty, for example, came with a note to the governors that Shell, a CEA member, “felt some of the rules of exploration changed” after it began drilling operations in the Arctic.

The governors’ efforts have produced more than just talking points. This summer, the coalition won a major victory when the Interior Department said it would accept applications to probe the Atlantic seabed for oil and gas with seismic tests, a significant step toward allowing drilling off the East Coast — drilling that has been off-limits for decades. While the federal government ultimately controls where offshore drilling is allowed, the Obama administration has made clear it will allow production where the public — and public officials — support development.

And so it appears as if CEA’s considerable investment of time and resources has paid off. Indeed, a review of thousands of pages of public documents, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through records requests, shows that much of the governors coalition work has been carried out by HBW Resources and CEA, a group that’s channeled millions in corporate funding to become a leading advocate at the state level for drilling.

The governors coalition is just one of many groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (in which CEA is actively involved), that allow powerful corporate interests to gain a direct line to state policy makers not available to common citizens or other stakeholders, all under the banner of a generic advocacy organization.

“It would be alarming I think for many people if they found out that some of the biggest polluters were running a governors group, but less so if it’s a nonprofit,” said Nick Surgey, director of research at the Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal advocacy group. “That one step removed stops the alarm bells going off, but it should really concern people.”

The documents suggest that CEA staff attended the February meeting with Jewell, but Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw did not respond to a question asking whether Jewell knew of CEA’s involvement, saying only that the department speaks with “a broad group of stakeholders,” and considers “all points of view.” She said Jewell told the governors that the department “is committed to working with them and their participation in the planning process is fundamental for any kind of coastal development.”

The Center requested interviews with staff of each of the governors — additional coalition members include the chief executives of Alaska, Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana — but none made anyone available, though Alaska responded to questions in writing.

There’s been little effort to explain CEA’s relationship with the coalition, which is currently chaired by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. The coalition’s website made no mention of CEA until recently, when one page was edited — after the Center began reporting this article — to acknowledge the organization provides “information and administrative support.” In March, when the Center first asked who staffs the coalition, Ryan Tronovich, a spokesman for McCrory, said the governors provide the staff (records show Tronovich actually consulted with CEA to answer the Center’s questions). When the Center asked again after learning of CEA’s involvement, Tronovich said in an email that he “should have been more clear,” and compared CEA’s help to that given by an intern. (The Republic Report, an investigative news website, first reported a possible connection with CEA in February when it noted that a coalition letter appeared to have been written by Joubert.)

In an interview, David Holt, president of CEA and managing partner of HBW Resources, said CEA provides assistance to the coalition at the governors’ request. He said both the coalition and CEA have an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that supports renewable as well as fossil fuels. He also characterized his organization’s role as supportive of the coalition in the same way any number of stakeholders may be.

But there’s no evidence that any other group has played a substantive role in the coalition, or that environmental organizations have been invited to any of its meetings. Earlier this month, the McCrory administration organized a meeting with federal officials to discuss Atlantic drilling; no other governors were there, but staff representing the governors of South Carolina and Virginia did attend. McCrory administration staffers told journalists and environmental organizations that the meeting was closed to interest groups so as not to “allow for the potential of the appearance of influence.” In fact, CEA and other industry groups did attend the meeting. Nadia Luhr, the legislative counsel for the North Carolina Conservation Network, wrote a letter to the administration protesting the circumstances of the meeting. She had not previously been aware of CEA’s role in the coalition, but indicated she wasn’t surprised.

“It’s just another example,” she said, “of industry having a voice where no one else does.”

Rebirth of an industry

Each May, tens of thousands of people gather in Houston for the Offshore Technology Conference, the industry’s premier event, and in 2011 they were looking for a fresh start. A year earlier, the Deepwater Horizon rig had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico just weeks before the conference, killing 11 people and leading to the largest oil spill in the nation’s history. In the aftermath, Obama placed a moratorium on deep-water drilling and canceled plans to allow drilling in the waters off Virginia.

Nevertheless, the 2011 conference was bigger than ever, with exhibit booths displaying the latest in drilling technology sprawling over nearly 600,000 square feet of Houston’s Reliant Park complex, which encompasses a cavernous exhibition center, an indoor arena that seats nearly 6,000 people, and covered outdoor booths. There were policy discussions and technical events with titles like “Active Heating for Life of Field Flow Assurance.” The first day kicked off with a panel hosted by Holt and an executive with Noble Energy that featured officials from the five inaugural states of the coalition — Texas, Alaska, Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana — who decried the federal government for standing in the way of development.

It was there that the governors of those five states announced their coalition, with a stated goal of improving dialogue between the states and the federal government. The coalition’s first chairman was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who as a congressman in 2006 sponsored a bill that would have removed the federal moratoriums on drilling in the Atlantic and Eastern Gulf. In 2010, as governor, Jindal railed against Obama’s deep-water moratorium — a moratorium that had been lifted by the time the 2011 conference was held. The governor has been a reliable friend to the oil industry, which has contributed more money to his campaigns than any other sector — more than $1.4 million over the past decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Jindal’s office did not respond to an interview request or to questions about the coalition’s formation. Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, the second chairman of the coalition, said in a written response that the founding governors, not CEA, had decided to form the coalition. When asked how CEA got involved, she wrote: “Unknown.” (Parnell recently lost a bid for re-election.)

CEA president Holt said the governors approached his group because it represents not only energy companies, but also other sectors like airlines, trucking and construction. “They knew of us and asked CEA because we represent the whole economy,” he said.

Some environmental advocates have a dimmer view of why the group was formed that May. “The Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition is a Trojan horse,” said Richard Charter, who has fought against offshore drilling for decades and is now a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, which supports marine conservation. Oil companies and other industry groups, including CEA, started a campaign a decade ago to repeal the Atlantic moratorium by lobbying officials and the public state-by-state, he said, and the coalition is the culmination of that effort. “They want to create the appearance that a bunch of coastal states are clamoring for ‘drill here, drill now.’”

Throughout its three-and-a-half-year life, the governors coalition has focused on the Interior Department’s “Five-Year Program” — the arcane, bureaucratic process the department uses to plan the nation’s offshore drilling regimen — lobbying at each incremental turn for the department to open more areas to drilling and to ease restrictions where drilling is underway. The coalition has also pushed for the federal government to share more drilling revenue with the states.

The Center requested documents related to the governors coalition from the three states that have chaired the coalition. Louisiana and Alaska provided thousands of pages, though Alaska’s response was heavily redacted. North Carolina has yet to respond to the request, which was submitted in April.

Whatever the origins of the coalition, the documents show that Holt was an early driving force. In May 2011, he and his colleagues at CEA designed a logo for the group. In July, he sent an email to Chip Kline, deputy director of Jindal’s Office of Coastal Activities,congratulating Louisiana on being named the coalition’s first chair, stressing that the governors would add a “meaningful voice” to the energy debate. When they were planning the coalition’s first meeting, alongside a Republican Governors Association gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and RSVPs weren’t coming in as hoped, Holt fired off a message saying, “REALLY need to have this OCSGC meeting to get things rolling.”

Voice of the consumer?

The Consumer Energy Alliance calls itself “The Voice of the Energy Consumer.” The group was formed in 2006, operating initially out of a small office park in Houston. Its first board of directors included executives with Shell, Hess and a wind power company, as well as geologists and representatives of “consumer” industries such as trucking. Also on the board: Jim Martin, chairman of the 60 Plus Association, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to the elderly advocacy group AARP, but which is also part of the well-financed political network led by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists with major stakes in oil and gas.

Holt, 48, who speaks with folksy Texan charm, has been the alliance’s only president. Before starting CEA, he had worked in government affairs for Hart Energy, an industry publishing company, and before that, he says, as legal counsel to the top oil and gas regulator in Texas.

The alliance says it seeks to improve understanding of the nation’s energy needs and advocates for lower energy prices through an “all-of-the-above” policy of increased domestic energy production. Over the past eight years, the group’s membership has grown to about 240 corporate entities, including groups from “energy consuming” industries like transportation and construction, as well as energy companies. CEA also claims to have some 400,000 individual members who have signed petitions or taken other actions that are described on its website. (In October, however, Wisconsin regulators rejected a petition CEA had filed in an electricity rate case there after an investigation by the Madison Capital Times revealed that some of the 2,500 people whose names had been used were unaware they appeared on the petition, and actually opposed CEA’s stance. CEA said it stood by the 2,500 signatures, but had actually requested that the petition be withdrawn before it was rejected.)

In 2011, the year the governors coalition was formed, CEA’s annual revenue ballooned to $3.8 million from just $737,000 the previous year, and it’s remained above $3 million since then. Holt says the majority of CEA’s members are from “consuming” sectors and that its funding comes from all members. He wouldn’t say who pays what, however, and tax records show that in 2011 and 2012, the most recent years available, at least 30 percent of the money came from just three entities: the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and America’s Natural Gas Alliance, each a prominent oil and gas industry group.

More than $1 million of that revenue goes as a management fee to HBW Resources, an energy-focused lobbying and consulting firm that Holt formed in 2008 along with Michael Whatley — a former chief of staff for Sen. Elizabeth Dole — and Andrew Browning, who had worked as a lobbyist and in the Department of Energy. With the exception of a few regional directors, CEA’s staff is comprised of HBW staff, and to the layman, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

HBW’s Washington, D.C., office sits in a giant truncated pyramid of a building, with sloped outer walls, that overlooks Farragut Square on the city’s lobbyist-dense K Street. The firm has offices in five other cities in the U.S. and Canada and has its fingers in many pies. Its 18 employees manage not only CEA, but also the Energy Producing States Coalition, a group of state lawmakers that work on energy policy, and the National Ocean Policy Coalition, a collection of energy companies, commercial fishing organizations and other business interests that opposes the Obama administration’s oceans policy. Whatley is also the vice president of Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, ostensibly a group of Nebraskans who support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The firm lobbies on behalf of just a handful of clients, including Noble Energy and The Babcock and Wilcox Company, which makes nuclear reactors and other industrial power equipment.

HBW employees have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to dozens of political campaigns. Notably, they gave $1,600 to Democrat Terry McAuliffe — who, following his election as governor of Virginia last year, joined the governors coalition after Whatley and Joubert made a direct appeal to one of his senior advisers during a December meeting. They also gave more than $8,300 to Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina within a day of a coalition meeting that Haley attended, in Houston in 2013.

One of the firm’s first major campaigns began in late 2009, when Whatley worked with a Canadian diplomat to help block state and federal attempts in the U.S. to pass low-carbon fuel standards, which could have threatened imports from Canada’s tar sands oil deposits.

The effort previewed what would become a recurring strategy for Whatley and his colleagues: pairing a public advocacy campaign with direct, behind-the-scenes appeals to elected officials, urging them to make similar public comments in their own voices. More recently, CEA has worked through the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative state legislators group, to oppose a new federal rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Holt says his organization supports all forms of energy production and is directed by its board, which no longer includes energy companies. “We are a consumer controlled and a consumer funded and a consumer dominated organization,” he said.

Most of its campaigns and communications focus on oil and gas, however. That, coupled with what’s known about its funding, has led some advocacy groups to view CEA as a front group for energy companies, an entity created to give the appearance of an independent and broad-based voice. To these advocacy groups, the governors coalition is just another player in the larger game. “This is a purposed campaign to mislead the public,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director for climate and energy at Oceana, an environmental group that opposes offshore drilling. “The politicians are now doing industry business, not being public servants.”

Gaining speed

The governors coalition’s work inched forward through much of its first year-and-a-half, at least in part because there wasn’t that much it could do. The Interior Department had excluded new areas from the current drilling plan, covering 2012-2017, and it hadn’t yet begun substantive work on the next one. The coalition wrote letters to Congress and the Obama administration (two of which appear to have been edited by Shell and Exxon Mobil), urging open dialogue and pressing on other issues, such as revenue sharing. It held periodic meetings. On December 7, 2012, three Alaska officials — Kip Knudson and Nathan Butzlaff, who led Parnell’s work on the coalition, and state Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell — attended CEA’s holiday party at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, according to emails.

In 2013, the newly-elected McCrory, formerly a Duke Energy executive, joined the coalition, adding an important player in the group’s push for drilling off the South Atlantic coast. The group had a new chairman in Parnell, who before entering office had been ConocoPhillips’ chief lobbyist in Alaska and had worked on energy for Patton Boggs, a D.C. lobbying firm that represented Exxon Mobil.

As part of the coalition’s effort to establish itself, the governors and CEA formalized their relationship with a memorandum of understanding designating CEA as volunteer staffwith specific duties to manage the organization. It held a “strategy session” with the American Petroleum Institute.

In October, the coalition convened at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, alongside the annual gathering of the Southern States Energy Board for what would be a formative meeting. The following year would present the first opportunity for the group to weigh in on the next five-year drilling plan, and the governors and CEA wanted to make sure they were prepared to make their case.

Govs. Parnell, McCrory and Bryant, along with staff of the other governors, met for more than an hour in one of the resort’s ballrooms with executives from Exxon Mobil, Shell, Spectrum Geo — a seismic testing company — and other energy groups, including the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition, to hear their concerns, according to a meeting agenda.

Briefing documents prepared by CEA include talking points on the economic benefits of drilling, saying, “the key is to echo these messages to Congress and the Obama Administration, encouraging them to pursue a sensible path that allows for Atlantic leasing.” The document adds that “coastal governors, legislators, and other stakeholders should play a lead role in delivering the messages below to the Administration and to Congress.”

According to notes from the meeting prepared by CEA’s Joubert, Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore industry group, advised the governors that they could suggest to the Interior Department which areas should be leased, and he “urged the governors to keep their areas of potential interest as broad as possible.” He also warned of “increasing activism by NGOs against seismic activity and cautioned the governors about some of these groups’ false rhetoric.”

The day after the meeting, Tony Almeida, a senior adviser to McCrory, sent an email to Holt saying the governor had agreed to serve as vice-chairman of the coalition. “Great news, Tony!” Holt replied, adding, “Great work yesterday. Pat was outstanding! Lots of key action items. We can’t thank you enough for all your support and leadership on OCSGC. 2014 is going to be… interesting. :)”

An “interesting” year

This year, the debate over drilling in the Atlantic picked up significantly just as the coalition finally gained the sort of direct access to the Obama administration it had been seeking. And, the emails show, CEA played a critical role in helping the governors respond.

Two weeks before the governors’ meeting with Jewell that cold February morning in Washington, officials from Alaska and North Carolina had a series of email exchanges and phone calls with CEA’s Joubert to prepare for the meeting. Joubert advised Donald van der Vaart — North Carolina’s deputy environment secretary, who had been tasked with preparing McCrory — on specific policies, such as what to request regarding seismic testing. Van der Vaart asked Joubert to send talking points, noting that a previous briefing book she had sent was “an amazing resource.”

In that meeting at the Willard, Jewell reportedly told the governors that her job isn’t “to get in the way of development,” but rather “to make sure it’s done right.” She and her staff also noted that environmental organizations had increased scrutiny of seismic testing, so her department would make sure appropriate mitigation measures were in place to protect marine animals.

Just days after the meeting, the Interior Department released a long-awaited environmental assessment that would allow seismic testing, and the governors coalition decided to defer to industry for their response. “Natalie — Would you be able to check with NOIA and/or API to see where they are on their respective reviews/analyses?” wrote Butzlaff, the Parnell staffer, in March, referring to the National Ocean Industries Association and the American Petroleum Institute, and calling Joubert by her first name. Joubert responded that the industry hadn’t yet reached consensus, but that it “has concerns more broadly that setting a precedent for stringent mitigation measures in the Atlantic could affect future measures in the Gulf and the Arctic.”

This past summer, the Interior Department said it would begin reviewing applications for that testing, with those more stringent measures in place. At the same time, it began accepting comments from industry, advocacy groups and other stakeholders on which areas it should open to drilling beginning in 2017.

Representatives of the governors coalition have maintained that it is an open and transparent group that strives to include different viewpoints. But the Center was only able to learn the details of the organization by submitting records requests — which North Carolina still has not provided — and there’s no evidence that opponents of drilling have been invited to any meetings.

Indeed, critics point to that North Carolina meeting earlier this month as the perfect illustration of what’s wrong with the way the governors coalition operates. On Nov. 6, North Carolina hosted a meeting on the five-year planning process that focused on the Atlantic. Officials from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told journalists and environmental groups that the event was invitation only and that “neither special interest groups nor industry representatives” would be present.

That was true in regard to environmental groups — but apparently not for others. During the event, reporters waited in the halls of Raleigh’s Nature Research Center as state and federal officials listened to panel discussions that featured, among others, a CEA staffer and someone from the Center for Offshore Safety, an industry group.

McCrory did allow reporters in, but not until after the meeting was finished, and industry groups had given their presentations. McCrory’s position hasn’t wavered, and he made that clear, telling reporters that “North Carolina ought to participate in our country’s energy independence.”

TIME 2014 Election

Sarah Palin Plays Surprise Role in Already Surprising Governor’s Race

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) walks onstage to speak at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington on Sept. 26, 2014.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) walks onstage to speak at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington on Sept. 26, 2014. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

She backed an independent candidate over her own former running mate

Kansas and South Dakota aren’t the only states with late breaking October surprises involving surging Independent candidates. In Alaska, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell is fending off a challenge from Independent Bill Walker, who this week got the surprise endorsement of Sarah Palin.

Parnell used to be Palin’s lieutenant governor and her endorsement of an Independent, who is running with a Democrat as his lieutenant governor on a “unity ticket,” completes the political break up between the erstwhile running mates.

Palin’s backing comes after Parnell undid her signature legislative achievement, a hike in oil and gas taxes. Palin and other supporters of the measure tried to reinstate the taxes in a ballot initiative, but that failed after a close vote in the primaries. Parnell campaigned against it.

Parnell has come under fire for the resulting budget shortfalls without the taxes. He’s also been criticized for his handling of accusations of sexual assault and misconduct in the Alaska National Guard. In a debate last week, Walker said Parnell “acted immediately” when oil companies complained of being taxed too much, but that it took four years after chaplains raised concerns about misconduct for him to fire the head of the state’s National Guard.

“The bottom line is, I acted immediately, and I want you to quit saying that I didn’t,” Parnell replied.

“Governor, you must understand, you’re not the victim here,” Walker quipped.

Walker, 63, is a former mayor of Valdez and until the primary he was a registered Republican. Byron Mallot, who won the Democratic primary, agreed to drop out and run as Walker’s lieutenant governor if Walker agreed to abandon his party label. Both sides recognized that in a three-way race, Parnell would win. But Mallot and Democrats were so committed to defeating Parnell, they made the deal with Walker.

Palin’s endorsement came as a surprise. “There have been lots of surprises in this whole process,” Walker told The Independent. “But that was a good surprise.”

Still, it might not help that much. “Palin endorsing Walker might not be the worst thing for Parnell,” says Jennifer Duffy, who follows gubernatorial races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. A recent Public Policy Poll found that more than half of Alaskans have an unfavorable view of Palin and some 30% blamed the former governor for allegedly starting a brawl at a birthday party in Anchorage in September.

That said, the one place Palin does still hold sway is with the hard right voters—essentially Parnell’s base.

Walker leads Parnell by 1.8 percentage points, according to an average of Alaska polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. But Alaska is notoriously difficult to poll and the Senate slug out between Democratic incumbent Mark Begich and former Alaska attorney general under Palin, Dan Sullivan, has sucked all the oxygen out of the gubernatorial race. “It’s been a hard race to follow,” Duffy says. “The Senate race ate up nearly all the TV time so I don’t know how much of the candidates’ message is getting out.”

National Democrats have largely stayed out of the race, but they have been delighted to see it drawing away national money. In the final weeks of the campaign, the Republican Governor’s Association has put $1.3 million into a new independent expenditure group formed to support Parnell.

MONEY 529 plans

Why the Best College Savings Plans Are Getting Better

stack of money under 5-2-9 number blocks
Jan Cobb Photography Ltd—Getty Images

Low-cost 529 college savings plans continue to rise to the top in Morningstar's latest ratings.

Competition is creating ever-better investment options for parents who want to save for their kids’ college costs through tax-preferred 529 college savings plans, according to Morningstar’s annual ratings of the 64 largest college savings plans.

In a report released today, the firm gave gold stars to 529 plans featuring funds managed by T. Rowe Price and Vanguard. The Nevada 529 plan, for example, which offers Vanguard’s low-cost index funds, has long been one of Morningstar’s top-rated college savings options. The plan became even more attractive this year when it cut the fees it charges investors from 0.21% of assets to 0.19%, says Morningstar senior analyst Kathryn Spica.

“In general, the industry is improving” its offerings to investors, Spica adds.

You can invest in any state’s 529. In many states, however, you qualify for special tax breaks by investing in your home-state 529 plan. If you don’t, you should shop nationally, paying attention to fees and investment choices.

Morningstar raised Virginia’s inVEST plan, which offers investment options from Vanguard, American Funds and Aberdeen, from bronze to silver ratings, in part because Virginia cut its fees from 0.20% to 0.15% early this year.

Virginia’s CollegeAmerica plan continued as Morningstar’s top-rated option for those who pay a commission to buy a 529 plan through an adviser. American Funds, which manages the plan, announced in June it would waive some fees, such as set-up charges.

But there are exceptions. Morningstar downgraded two plans—South Dakota’s CollegeAccess 529 and Arizona’s Ivy Funds InvestEd 529 Plan—to “negative” because of South Dakota’s high fees and problems with Arizona’s fund managers.

Rhode Island’s two college savings plans moved off the negative list this year after the state started offering a new investment option based on Morningstar’s recommended portfolio of low-cost index funds. Given the potential conflict of interest, Morningstar did not rate the plans in 2014.

Joseph Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, which also rates 529 plans, says he hasn’t analyzed the Morningstar-modeled funds because they are new and don’t have enough of a track record. But, he adds, the Rhode Island direct-sold 529 plan offers several low-cost index fund options.

Here are Morningstar’s top-rated 529 plans for 2014:

State Fund company Investment method Expenses (% of assets) for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12) Five-year annualized return for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12)
Alaska T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.25%
Maryland T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.42%
Nevada Vanguard Passive 0.19% 8.65%
Utah Vanguard Passive 0.22% 8.01%

Related:

 

 

 

TIME viral

This Is the Awesome Sound You’ll Hear When You Skip Stones on a Frozen Lake

It's probably not what you'd expect

Cory Williams, who runs a YouTube channel all about life in Alaska, made a very interesting discovery lately: skipping rocks on a mostly frozen lake leads to a surprisingly cool sonic experience (skip to 3:45 in the video to hear). Williams was totally not expecting the sound, which is kind of like a laser or some kind of chirping bird. Watch as he gets really, really excited about this revelation and then searches for more stones so he can hear the sound again.

Though this experience was new to Williams, several other people have tried it and had similar results:

Read next: This Woman Can Sing Two Notes at Once and It’s Eerily Beautiful

TIME Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin’s Family Won’t Face Charges Over Party Brawl

Willow Palin told police that people were shouting "f--k the Palins" when the fight broke out

Police in Alaska said Thursday that no charges would be filed against members of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s family over a fight that broke out at a party that they were attending.

A police report released Thursday also shed new light on the brawl, which occurred at the home of Korey Klingenmeyer, where Palin’s husband Todd and children Willow, Track and Bristol had gone to a party Sept. 6.

Bristol Palin told police that Klingenmeyer had shoved her to the ground and insulted her, prompting the fight. Klingenmeyer and several others say that he let Bristol punch him several times before he pushed her back.

The report, which includes multiple statements comprising at times conflicting accounts, indicates that Sarah Palin, the former Vice Presidential candidate, was in the area in the wake of the altercation but does not suggest she was involved.

One officer says in the report that when he arrived on the scene, Palin’s son Track appeared “heavily intoxicated,” had blood around his mouth and was not wearing a shirt. Both parents, Sarah and Todd, were with him, and Sarah encouraged him to speak with the officer.

Willow told a police officer that people were shouting “F–k the Palins” during the altercation.

See the full report here.

TIME Economy

Why Everyone Who Lives in Alaska Is Getting $1,884 Today

North slope oil rush Alaska
The North slope oil rush in Alaska, circa 1969 Ralph Crane&—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

That's enough to buy a trip to somewhere warmer

If polar bears and Snow Dogs weren’t enough to make you want to move to Alaska, consider this: You can get paid thousands of dollars a year just for living there.

Today, Oct. 2, almost every permanent resident of Alaska — even babies — will get paid $1,884 as a dividend from the state’s Alaska Permanent Fund, a government fund that invests proceeds generated from the state’s oil reserves to ensure future wealth for the state.

When the first dividend checks were issued to residents in 1980, TIME predicted that the windfall would be long-lasting:

Nor is there any end in sight to the flow of dividends from the oil fund, which by the end of this year is expected to total more than $1 billion. Oil price increases could also continue to swell the fund. While most Americans complain bitterly every time OPEC members raise prices, Alaskans have reason to applaud. With the price of domestic oil now decontrolled, Alaskan crude can rise to the world level; thus the state’s royalties will grow with each foreign price hike.

Today the Alaska Permanent Fund is valued above $50 billion, and the dividend paid to residents this week will total $1.1 billion.

And for the individual who’s squirreled away his dividend payment each year since the program launched in 1980? He’s made a cool $37,000 just for being loyal to the state.

Read more about the origins of the Alaska Permanent Fund in TIME’s archives: Alaska Bonanza

TIME animals

Here’s Why Thousands of Walruses Are Gathering on Alaska’s Shore

Approximately 1500 walrus gather on the northwest coast of Alaska on Sept. 23, 2014
Approximately 1500 walrus gather on the northwest coast of Alaska on Sept. 23, 2014 Corey Accardo—NOAA/AP

The time has come, the walruses said, to gather on land since we can't find any ice around

Nearly 35,000 walruses were discovered this month on a northwest Alaskan shore as result of being unable to find sea ice to rest upon, a problem aggravated by climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

The unusually massive walrus gatherings were first spotted on Sept. 13 when NOAA conducted its annual arctic marine mammal aerial survey, a spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

The marine mammals use sea ice as diving platforms to hunt for food in shallow areas, or as resting points to avoid long, exhausting swims. While it is normal for sea ice to recede into deeper parts of the Arctic Ocean as temperatures warm in the summer, in recent years the ice has moved even further.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the accelerated loss of sea ice is associated with climate change, in which open water absorbs more heat and speeds up the melting process. WWF estimated that Arctic ice loss was 3.5 to 4.1% each decade between 1979 and 2012.

The habitat destruction has contributed to large groups of walruses arriving on shore. Walrus gatherings were first spotted near Alaskan shores in 2007, and they returned in 2009 and 2011, experts at the NOAA said.

“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic,” Margaret Williams, managing director at the WWF, told AP. “And that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change.”

 

TIME viral

Reporter Quits On Live TV After Revealing That She Owns a Marijuana Club

The announcement left her fellow anchors dazed and confused

A local news segment went up in smoke when a reporter quit her job on air after making a rather surprising announcement Sunday night. Charlo Greene, a reporter for KTVA-TV in Anchorage, Alaska, revealed that she’s the owner of the Alaska Cannabis Club, a business that connects medical marijuana cardholders in need of ganj with medical marijuana cardholders in possession of ganj.

In the above clip (which contains a bit of NSFW language) Greene says she will be dedicating all her energy toward “fighting for freedom and fairness, which begins with legalizing marijuana here in Alaska.” Then she adds, “And as for this job, well, not that I have a choice, but f–k it. I quit.”

The station soon apologized on Facebook:

Dear Viewers,

We sincerely apologize for the inappropriate language used by a KTVA reporter during her live presentation on the air tonight. The employee has been terminated.

Bert Rudman

News Director – KTVA 11 News

Now we’re left with just one question: can someone really be “terminated” after saying “F–k it, I quit?”

Greene herself also took to social media on Monday to explain herself. She shared the following video on the Alaska Cannabis Club’s YouTube page to offer more insight into her decision to quit, to debunk myths about marijuana legalization and to share her passion for the cause:

Greene also created an IndieGogo page to raise money for marijuana reform and advocacy. She’s already raised around $1,500 toward her total goal of $5,000.

Updated at 12:05 p.m. to include Greene’s response.

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