TIME White House

Obama Moves to Protect 12 Million Acres of Alaskan Wildlife

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Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Getty Images

It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years

The Obama Administration will ask Congress to protect millions of acres of land in Alaska from a range of human activity including drilling and road construction, officials said Sunday.

If approved by Congress, the move would designate more than 12 million acres as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection, and protect native wildlife including caribou, polar bears and wolves. It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The proposal will undoubtedly meet opposition in Congress. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski condemned the move immediately as an act of federal overreach.

“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” she said in a statement. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them.”

MONEY Health Care

The Most and Least Expensive Places in the U.S. for Health Insurance

South Franklin Street with Mount Roberts tram car passing overhead in Downtown Juneau, Alaska.
Buy your own health insurance? You're paying top dollar if you live in Alaska. Alamy

A survey of health insurance premiums on the exchanges finds that costs tend to be the highest in rural areas with less competition.

In health insurance prices, as in the weather, Alaska and the Sun Belt are extremes. This year Alaska is the most expensive health insurance market for people who do not get coverage through their employers, while Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz., are among the very cheapest.

In this second year of the insurance marketplaces created by the federal health law, the most expensive premiums are in rural spots around the nation: Wyoming, rural Nevada, patches of inland California and the southernmost county in Mississippi, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has compiled premium prices from around the country. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The most and least expensive regions are determined by the monthly premium for the least expensive “silver” level plan, which is the type most consumers buy and covers on average 70% of medical expenses. Premiums in the priciest areas are triple those in the least expensive areas.

Along with the three southwestern cities, the places with the lowest premiums include Louisville, Ky., Pittsburgh, and western Pennsylvania, Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., and Minneapolis-St. Paul and many of its suburbs, the analysis found.

Starting this month, the cheapest silver plan for a 40-year-old in Alaska costs $488 a month. (Not everyone will have to pay that much because the health law subsidizes premiums for low-and moderate-income people.) A 40-year-old Phoenix resident could pay as little as $166 for the same level plan.

That three-fold spread is similar to the gap between last year’s most expensive area — in the Colorado mountain resort region, where 40-year-olds paid $483—and the least expensive, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where they paid $154.

Minneapolis remained one of the cheapest areas in the region, although the lowest silver premium rose to $181 after the insurer that offered the cheapest plan last year pulled out of the market. Premiums in four Colorado counties around Aspen and Vail plummeted this year after state insurance regulators lumped them in with other counties in order to bring rates down.

Cynthia Cox, a researcher at the Kaiser foundation, said the number of insurers in a region was a notable similarity among both the most and least expensive areas. “In the most expensive areas only one or two are participating,” she said. “In the least expensive areas there tends to be five or more insurers competing.” She said that other factors, such as whether insurers need state approval for their premiums and the underlying health of the population, may play a role as well in premiums.

The national median premium for a 40-year-old is $269, according to the foundation’s analysis.

Alaska’s lowest silver premium rose 28% from last year, ratcheting it up from 10th place last year to the nation’s highest. Only two insurers are offering plans in the state, the same number as last year, but the limited competition is just one reason Alaska’s prices are so high, researchers said. The state has a very high cost of living, which drives up rents and salaries of medical professionals, and insurers said patients racked up high costs last year.

Ceci Connolly, director of PwC’s Health Research Institute, noted that the long distances between providers and patients also added to the costs. Restraining costs in rural areas, she said, “continues to be a challenge” around the country. One reason is that there tend to be fewer doctors and hospitals, so those that are there have more power to dictate higher prices, since insurers have nowhere else to turn.

By contrast, in Maricopa County, Phoenix’s home, the lowest silver premium price dropped 15% from last year, when Phoenix did not rank among the lowest areas. A dozen insurers are offering silver plans. “Phoenix, during the boom, attracted a lot of providers so it’s a very robust, competitive market,” said Allen Gjersvig, an executive at the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, which is helping people enroll in the marketplaces.

The cheapest silver plan in Phoenix comes from Meritus, a nonprofit insurance cooperative. The plan is an HMO that provides care through Maricopa Integrated Health System, a safety net system that is experienced in managing care for Medicaid patients. Meritus’ chief executive, Tom Zumtobel, said they brought that plan’s premium down from 2014. The insurer and the health system meet regularly to figure out how to treat complicated cases in the most efficient manner. “We’re working together to get the best outcome,” Zumtobel said.

Katherine Hempstead, who oversees the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s research on health insurance prices, found no significant differences in the designs of the plans that would explain their premiums. “In most of the plans – cheap or expensive – there seemed to be a high deductible and fairly similar cost-sharing,” she said.

Highest and Lowest Premiums

Here are the 10 most and least expensive regions in the country–with the counties listed in parenthesis–based on premium prices for the lowest-cost silver plan. Regions are counties that share the same price for the same lowest-cost-plan and are either geographically contiguous or are part of the same rating area created by the state.

Premiums are listed for 40-year-olds; and for most states the difference in prices stays the same for people of any age. Vermont and two upstate New York area—Ithaca and Plattsburgh—also are among the 10 most expensive places, although those states do not let insurers adjust premiums based on the consumer’s age, making comparisons inexact. Older residents in those states will end up getting better deals than in most places, while younger ones tend to pay more.

10 Highest Premiums
Region Monthly premium
Alaska (entire state) $488
Ithaca, NY (Tompkins) $459
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi (Hancock) $456
Plattsburgh, NY (Clinton) $446
Rural Wyoming (Albany, Big Horn, Campbell, Carbon, Converse, Crook, Fremont, Goshen, Hot Springs, Johnson, Lincoln, Niobrara, Park, Platte, Sheridan, Sublette, Sweetwater, Teton, Uinta, Washakie, and Weston) $440
Vermont (entire state) $428
Rural Nevada (Churchill, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Mineral, Pershing, and White Pine) $418
Casper, Wyoming (Natrona) $412
Inland California (Imperial, Inyo, and Mono) $410
Cheyenne, Wyoming (Laramie) $401
10 Lowest Premiums
Region Monthly premium
Phoenix, Ariz. (Maricopa) $166
Albuquerque, N.M. (Bernalillo, Sandoval, Torrance, and Valencia) $167
Louisville, Ky. (Bullitt, Jefferson, Oldham, and Shelby) $167
Tucson, Ariz. (Pima and Santa Cruz) $170
Pittsburgh, Pa. (Allegheny and Erie) $170
Western Pennsylvania (Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland, Armstrong, Crawford, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, and Warren) $179
Knoxville and Eastern Tennessee (Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Monroe, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier, and Union) $181
Minneapolis-St. Paul (Anoka, Benton, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington, and Wright) $181
Memphis and suburbs (Fayette, Haywood, Lauderdale, Shelby, and Tipton) $184
North of Minneapolis (Chisago and Isanti) $189

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit national health policy news service.

TIME Travel

These Are the Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska Sherman Hogue/Explore Fairbanks

Find out where to witness the aurora borealis, with reindeer sleigh rides, ice hotels, and hot springs included

At Finland’s Kakslauttanen Resort, you don’t even need to get out of bed to catch the northern lights. Gaze up through your glass-domed igloo, and you’ll drift off to sleep as emerald green, fuchsia, and indigo streaks light up the night sky.

North of the Arctic Circle in the vast Finnish Lapland, surrounded by towering pines, it’s a surreally beautiful place to experience the aurora borealis, which has been confounding and delighting observers for centuries. Towns across Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada market the lights as the main attraction, offering experiences for adventurers and luxury travelers alike. It’s so ingrained in Norwegian culture that the government recently opted to add the neon lights to its passports by way of a black light feature.

There’s never been a better time to set out to view the spectacle. Not only are we in the midst of a solar maximum (when aurora activity is at its peak), but the United Nations also named 2015 the International Year of Light, making dark sky preservation and global awareness of light pollution priorities.

Before the scientific cause of the lights—charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere—was understood, local legends provided all sorts of creative explanations. The Inuit people of Greenland, for one, believed the lights came from spirits of ancestors playing soccer with the skull of a walrus. These days, you can rough it like a musher in Greenland, staying in hunting cabins and tending to the dogs, all while hunting the aurora on World of Greenland’s three-day dogsled expedition in Kangerlussuaq.

In Churchill, Canada, you can watch the lights dance over a family of polar bears from the comfort of your mobile sleeper car. There’s even a chance to see the northern lights in the continental U.S.: Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park reported four sightings in 2014 and holds the highest designation given to a dark sky site, from the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning that light pollution in the area is minimal and the full array of sky phenomena (the aurora, faint meteors, zodiacal light) can be seen clearly from the park.

If 2015 is the year you vow to see nature’s light show for yourself, set your sights on these destinations.

Sweden

Every year, about 100 artisans meticulously create the Icehotel structure anew, using ice harvested from the Torne River here in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle. Guests choose from a simple snow or ice room, a suite with intricate carvings, or the Northern Lights suite, complete with a light installation mimicking the natural wonder. When you’re ready for the real thing, set out on the hotel’s northern lights horseback tour or plan an excursion to the nearby Aurora Sky Station in Abisko(open November 30 through March 30). Located 900 meters above sea level, the station experiences little light or noise pollution—optimal conditions for viewing the northern lights. Ascend via chairlift, and indulge in a four-course meal before a guided tour and an evening of sky-watching.

Fairbanks, AK

The bitter cold that often comes with witnessing the northern lights can be a real deterrent. Enter Chena Hot Springs Resort, with its warm, mineral-rich healing waters. The resort’s adults-only Rock Lake offers the opportunity to enjoy a light show along with a soak. Fairbanks lies directly beneath a band of aurora activity, meaning from August to May, the town regularly experiences a celestial display of green, yellow, and purple. The phenomenon is most frequently seen between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., but the early-to-bed crowd need not worry. Guests staying in Moose Lodge rooms can request to receive a phone call when the aurora is spotted in the sky.

Tromsø, Norway

Prefer your light show with a soundtrack? Turn up in Tromsø for the annual Northern Lights festival (in 2015, January 24–February 1). The nine-day celebration features more than 40 jazz, classical, dance, and electronic performances, with some events taking place outside, potentially under the aurora borealis. Stop in Emma’s Restaurant to refuel on fresh fish and local delicacies like reindeer meat, then make your way to the planetarium for some perspective on the science behind the lights. Tromsø is just north of the Arctic Circle, near the magnetic north pole, so it sees the lights regularly between October and mid-March.

Finland

The northern lights make an appearance over Finland about 200 nights per year. Doze off watching the dancing display from within a glass igloo at romantic Kakslauttanen Resort, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And the next night, hunt for the aurora on a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride through the surrounding wilderness. In addition to two- and four-person igloos, accommodations also include a nearly century-old traditional log house with its own sauna. Hotel Iso-Syöte, on Finland’s southernmost mountain, is slightly more accessible and offers a similar glass-roofed experience in the Eagle’s View suite, along with snowshoeing, ice fishing, and overnight stays in traditional snow igloos, outfitted with reindeer pelts and specially designed sleeping bags.

Greenland

With minimal light pollution and near-perfect visibility in some places, Greenland provides exceptional odds for viewing milky-green lights. A three- or four-night stay during the aurora season (September to the beginning of April) practically guarantees a sighting. Settle into the Hotel Arctic’s igloos on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord; double rooms are outfitted with electric heating, TVs, and a small bathroom, with skylights and expansive front windows so that you can soak up the night sky from your bed. If roughing it is more your style, plan a trip to Kangerlussuaq. This former U.S. military base near the airport counts northern lights sightings 300 nights per year, and serves as one end of the popular three-day World of Greenland dogsled expedition. Participants sleep in hunting cabins, take care of the dogs, and experience the wilderness firsthand.

Read the full list HERE.

More from Travel + Leisure:

TIME People

A Man Survived 3 Days in Alaskan Wilderness Stalked by Wolverine

He could hear the helicopters of the search team fly past him

A man in Alaska survived three days lost in the wilderness in subzero temperatures after his snow mobile fell through the ice.

Craig Johnson was on his way to visit his family when his snow mobile started to sink, ABC reports.

As Johnson endured a 30-mile trek in search of help, a wolverine started to stalk him.

“You could hear it on the ice, just playing with me, toying with me,” he told ABC.

The 38-year-old faced a grueling three nights in the remote wilderness, sheltering in a wooden box he found on the ice, as search helicopters flew past him.

“That third night when they passed right be me — not even 200, 300 yards — that’s when I lost hope,” he said.

Read more at ABC.

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%

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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: Watch a Cow Mascot Treat a Supermarket Like Its Own Personal Club

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