At DNR, new leader tackles ‘maze’ of oil and gas development on federal land

From Soldotna to the North Slope to Anchorage, the state’s newest natural resources commissioner has spent his career weighing in on energy issues all over the state. Now, Andy Mack has been tapped by Gov. Bill Walker to help guide the state through the maze of federal regulations required to develop oil and gas resources.

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Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack at a press conference in Anchorage on June 28, 2016. (Photo by Graelyn Brashear, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack at a press conference in Anchorage on June 28, 2016. (Photo by Graelyn Brashear, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

He’s has worked as both a civil and criminal defense attorney. He was a legislative aid for a decade and, most recently, managed a private investment firm. But, he’s probably best known for his time spent working on the North Slope.

And the state’s newest DNR commissioner said that when it comes to the state’s future, people should be looking north.

“Without Arctic development the State of Alaska will probably struggle,” Mack said. “I think that we have a lot of tools that are not Arctic related, but I think that if we really want to thrive as a state, all eyes should be on the Arctic.”

But nothing in the Arctic is easy. And, the technical challenge for oil companies mirrors the tricky process of navigating tribal, state and federal land ownership.

Mack has plenty of experience wading through the complex regulatory process of opening up federal land for public and private use. He spent five years working as an adviser to the North Slope Borough during a renaissance/ in exploration and development in the Arctic Ocean.

Mack said he spent a lot of his time at the borough weighing-in on development on federal land like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf.

“I think the challenge for Alaska is how to approach areas where we historically have not had access or the access is controlled by the federal government and I think part of my experience lends itself very well to ensuring that we can generate access,” he said.

Key to that access, Mack said, is whether local communities – like Barrow- support going into areas that are managed by the federal government. He said the communities have to balance development and subsistence.

Mack’s experience gaining access to federal lands and building contacts across the state is one of the main reasons Walker hired him.

“It’s a maze that we need to get through that he has worked in his capacity as an attorney and as a consultant for a number of organizations in Alaska that have been in permitting processes with the federal government on oil and gas development and beyond,” Walker said.

Mack joined Walker’s oil and gas team at a contentious time.

The state is battling with BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil over the details of how the companies will sell natural gas from Prudhoe Bay.

When the producers declined to turn over specific marketing information, Walker refused to sign the annual development plan for the field.

It’s unclear what will come of the state threatening the companies’ leases if they refuse to give in.

But Prudhoe Bay was responsible for nearly half of the state’s oil production last year.

The decision to pursue marketing information pre-dates Mack’s time at DNR. He said he supports the process, but wasn’t ready to weigh-in on whether the state would revoke the leases at Prudhoe Bay.

“We’re in a process, so I’m not going to answer,” he said.

Mack also said he supports another of Walker’s controversial decisions. This year, Walker vetoed about $430 million in tax credit payments owed to oil companies.

Looking ahead, Mack says he’s focused on protecting the state’s interests and encouraging investment in the state’s resources at a time when budget challenges make it seem risky.

“It’s very important that as Alaskans we appreciate what the world markets think of Alaska, that we’re able to attract investment capital and that we’re able to recycle some of the money that we have available here to us in Alaska,” he said.

Mack will also be spending a lot of time working on the state’s response to the Department of the Interior’s five-year plans for offshore oil and gas leases. Right now, those plans include three potential lease sales in Alaska – two in the Arctic and one in Cook Inlet.