More legislators press AG on Cook Inlet gas, a $750,000 settlement and an Aleutian murder mystery

By Nathaniel Herz, Northern Journal - November 14, 2023
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A Hilcorp drilling rig sits at a pad last summer on the shore of Cook Inlet outside of Anchorage, where the region gets the natural gas it uses for heating and electricity. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz)
A Hilcorp drilling rig sits at a pad last summer on the shore of Cook Inlet outside of Anchorage, where the region gets the natural gas it uses for heating and electricity. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz)

More lawmakers ask Dunleavy administration to press Hilcorp on gas production

More state legislators are asking GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to press urban Alaska’s largest natural gas producer, Hilcorp, to extract more of the fossil fuel from its leases in Cook Inlet.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields led a group of 14 mostly Democratic representatives and three senators in drafting a letter and sending it to Attorney General Treg Taylor.

They allege that Hilcorp has a “monopoly position” in Cook Inlet and is using it to “artificially restrict the supply and drive up prices.”

The legislators said that’s in violation of Hilcorp’s oil and gas lease terms and a decade-old antitrust agreement with regulators that dates back to Hilcorp’s purchase of assets in Cook Inlet.

“Failure to enforce the law will likely lead to a doubling of per-unit gas prices, which will be devastating for Alaskans, businesses, and our state’s long-term prospects for economic growth,” the letter said. “We urge you to use the full power of existing statutes to compel production of gas from Cook Inlet.”

The letter echoes one sent in June by Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, to which Taylor and Natural Resources Commissioner John Boyle responded with their own letter recently.

In the letter to Wielechowski, they said Hilcorp is “pursuing substantial efforts to advance development in the Inlet.”

If, at any time, the state has reason to believe that Hilcorp is not making “commercially reasonable efforts to increase the production and development of natural gas from its Cook Inlet properties” or has otherwise violated the decade-old agreement with regulators, state lawyers “will take appropriate action,” Taylor and Boyle wrote.

Ex-head of Alaska’s human rights commission could get $750,000 settlement

Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is proposing a $750,000 settlement with Marilyn Stewart, a Black woman who sued the state for discrimination after being fired by the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights in 2019.

State attorneys filed a notice of the settlement Wednesday in federal court. The commission also published a statement saying that as part of the settlement, it recognizes Stewart’s public service, wishes her well in future endeavors and acknowledges findings by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that there was reasonable cause to believe the state commission fired Stewart because of her race and sex.

Stewart will not be paid unless the Alaska Legislature agrees to include the settlement in the budget.

Her complaint centered on allegations that she was paid at a lower rate than her predecessor, a white woman, and how Stewart’s efforts to remedy the pay disparity  led to conflicts with the agency’s politically appointed commissioners. The commissioner’s chair at the time, who was Alaska Native, said at a meeting that a Native person would have been more qualified and that Stewart was “incompetent,” according to the complaint.

The commission, in its statement, said the commissioners who voted to fire Stewart are no longer in those positions, and that its current leadership “is fully committed to its mission.”

Commissioner wanted to block Anchorage electric rate hike advocacy by clean energy group, Alaska Native leader

A state utility regulator said Wednesday that a prominent renewable energy advocacy group and an Alaska Native business leader should have been barred from participating in his agency’s review of a proposed electricity price hike.

Robert Doyle, appointed to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska last year by GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said that the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, and Ethan Schutt “have stated purposes that will broaden the issues and delay the proceedings.”

REAP officials have criticized elements of Chugach’s proposed rate design, saying it would accelerate consumption of natural gas — the fuel used to generate the majority of the utility’s power — when gas producers have warned of an impending shortage.

Schutt is the chair of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s board of trustees and an attorney with experience in natural resource development. In his request to participate, he criticized Chugach’s continued spending on a decades-old power plant that he describes as obsolete, along with the cooperative’s decisions and accounting related to a utility-owned natural gas field.

REAP and Schutt were among 12 parties that asked for permission to participate in the commission’s consideration of Chugach’s proposal, which would raise rates by some 6% across some 90,000 members.

Chugach itself said it does not oppose any of the parties’ participation. But the commission still took nearly six weeks to issue its decision allowing all of them to intervene — a delay that a spokesman, Steven Jones, explained by citing the “unusually high number” of requests to intervene. That, Jones wrote in an email, “makes the process longer than usual, as each petition is being reviewed for its individual merits.”

Doyle was overruled by the commission’s four other members, who approved all 12 requests in a 17-page order.

Doyle is a former chief administrator of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District; he also spent more than a decade on the board of the area’s regional electric cooperative, Matanuska Electric Association.

Doyle’s opposition came in a one-paragraph dissent. In addition to singling out REAP and Schutt for their “stated purposes,” he also wrote that the “magnitude” of “the parties” involved in Chugach’s proposal will “delay the proceedings, be detrimental to the record, and tax regulatory resources.” He did not specify which parties he was referring to, however.

An Aleutian fish mystery

I almost never respond to press releases, but how could I resist the announcement of a new Alaska mystery novel: “Death in Dutch Harbor.”

Author D. MacNeill Parker “paints a rugged world made ruthless at sea by Mother Nature and injects it with two murders that strain the local police force, causing the chief to tap veterinarian Maureen McMurtry for forensic assistance,” her press release said.

“The doctor’s got a past she’d rather not discuss, a gun in her closet and a retired police dog that hasn’t lost her chops. All come in handy as she deciphers the cause and time of death of a body washed ashore with dead sea lions, and another found in a crab pot hauled from the sea in the net of a fishing vessel,” said Parker’s press release.

The announcement also includes blurbs from a “National Fisherman magazine Highliner of the Year,” a skipper who stars in the Deadliest Catch reality show and former Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty.

Death in Dutch Harbor is available from online booksellers, and Parker is signing copies at the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle this week.

Global green fuel company hires veteran lobbyist

A global clean fuel company has hired veteran Alaska-based lobbyist Ashley Reed, in a sign of its possible interest in expanding into the state.

The U.S. subsidiary of HIF Global — the acronym stands for “Highly Innovative Fuels” — hired Reed last month at a rate of $2,000 a month. Reed will lobby on “all issues related to renewable industries,” he said in a registration filing with state regulators.

HIF says it produces “carbon-neutral fuels” with clean hydrogen and recycled carbon dioxide. Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has made the development of in-state renewable energy sources, along with continued oil and gas production, a focus of his second term in office.