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The ice ban cometh?

The ice ban cometh?

Glaciers cover about 28,000 square miles of Alaska. That's about 3 percent of the entire state. The average size of a glacier is about 28 square miles, so there are about 100,000 of them flowing from nooks and crannies in all three Alaskan time zones (there used to be four) and from the Pole to Prince William Sound.

With all this frozen abundance, you would think making a Slurpee wouldn't be much of a problem. Just take out the old pick ax, cut off a hunk or two and throw it in the blender, right?

Just try it, buster, and you're in violation of Alaska's ice harvesting regulations. That's right. Under the state's new "use a cube, go to jail" rules, you'd better have a permit for that stuff or it's hot ice.

Now, how did a free-wheeling state like Alaska, where pot for personal consumption is legal, get itself into the ridiculous position of licensing ice cubes? Well, like much of the recent history of the state, it began with the petro-wealth of Saudi Arabia.

In the mid-1970s, the combination of Middle East heat and income resulted in a strong demand for fresh water at almost any price. As a result, some enterprising soul latched onto the idea of towing an Alaskan iceberg around the Strait of Hormuz. Alaskans were decidedly cool to the idea and it evaporated in the heat of popular opposition, but the concept of Alaskan ice as a non-renewable "scarce" resource had taken told.

Actually, the idea has a lot of boosters. Environmentalists like it because they think everything is scarce, except for oil company executives who they feel could be scarcer. The legislature is in favor because anything non-renewable has a severance tax on it in Alaska. Bureaucrats love the idea. After all, someone has to issue all those permits.

It took a hefty recession and a large budget deficit to do it, but in 1988, the state issued its first ice harvesting permits on a temporary basis. The permanent program went into effect this fall.

Just for your information, if you want to tap a glacier, the first gallon will cost you fifty bucks. In fact, for that price, you can hack out up to 5,000 gallons. Fees currently run as high as $200 for those who want to start their own water districts by taking over 30,000 gallons a day.

Be advised, however, that most glaciers come in tons. (If they came in gallons they would be called streams, and would be regulated differently.) Consequently, you need to take a calculator with you to the ice field. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, the conversion factor to be used to turn tons into gallons is 264.474. That works out to about 7.6 pounds per gallon, which coincidentally is also about the weight of a gallon of water.

Aside from the income potential, another advantage of the permit program is that ice harvesters can be "tracked." We now know who they are, where to find them, and what they're up to, something you still can't do with handgun owners in Alaska.

Unfortunately, according to the DNR, the harvesting program has borne only stunted fruit to date. Currently, no more than 30 permits have been issued by the department. Worse, most of these really don't have the potential envisioned in the original Saudi iceberg deal. As best I can tell, they involve selling designer ice cubes to the Japanese, who apparently are intrigued by the snap, crackle and pop Alaskan glacier chips make when thrown into designer water.

Still, most parties are happy with the regulations. Should the military ever want to stockpile American water in the Middle East along with Bradley assault vehicles and Stinger missiles, Alaskan glaciers are a natural.

And the state is now positioned to tax a patriotically small percentage for the privilege. Ecologists can rest assured indiscriminate cube use will be held in check, and the bureaucrats can apply for 15 new positions to administer the program.

Andrew Safir is president of Recon Research Corp., a Los Angeles-based economic consulting and advisory firm with clients in Alaska.
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Title Annotation:The Economy According to Safir; ice harvesting regulations in Alaska
Author:Safir, Andrew
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:column
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:On the mend.
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