Hollis French gets confirmed, but with drama

Photo of Hollis French
Hollis French


Former Alaska State Senator Hollis French got his payback from Gov. Bill Walker. And now he has his paycheck.

French dropped out of his 2014 race for lieutenant governor at the request of his Alaska Democratic Party leaders. He had won the primary and was prepared to run on the same ticket as Byron Mallott.

But Mallott ditched him to join Walker’s ticket and French was left standing at the altar. He withdrew and went radio-silent as he quietly burned over what he had given up. Walker owed him big time.

There were judgeships. There was the Attorney General spot. But he had too recently been a senator and would have bumped up against legal prohibitions.

Then, last summer, the governor appointed him to be one of three commissioners on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

On Tuesday, he was confirmed to that  $140,000-per-year position by the Alaska Legislature.

But as with all-things-French, his confirmation wasn’t without drama.

During his short time on the AOGCC, he went from being supported by his fellow two commissioners, to causing them to go quiet on that support.

He roamed the halls of the Capitol earlier this session, popping into offices of legislators to meet them and gain their support for his confirmation.

Early on his fellow commissioners, Cathy Foerster and Dan Seamount, gave him their full-throated support. French, they said, was totally different from how he had behaved as the argument-prone, anti-oil senator that everyone knew, when he bitterly fought to raise taxes on oil producers.

Then something happened, and no one is saying exactly what. Both Seamount and Foerster seemed to back away from their support. The whispers started in the halls of the Capitol that French had gone behind their backs to undermine them.

Then French told lawmakers he had the support of Armstrong Oil and Hilcorp Energy, but that was called into question by Sen. Anna MacKinnon during the joint confirmation hearings yesterday. Those endorsements were found to be simply polite affirmations at “meet-and-greets” she said, and in no way were formal endorsements.

It was unseemly that French had asked for the endorsement of the very companies he was already regulating. Companies put in that awkward position of “endorsing” are likely to treat nominees with kid gloves, smiles and circumspection. After all, French is the one who is regulating them.

Finally, without consulting his fellow commissioners, French approached the Department of Law to get a legal opinion about whether the Hilcorp gas leak in Cook Inlet should be something the AOGCC had jurisdiction over. After all, that was a “waste” of the resource, wasn’t it?

Not including the other commissioners very likely created an atmosphere of mistrust, and raised the question about whether French had the judgment and disposition to serve on a powerful body that oversees oil and gas drilling, development and production, reservoir depletion, and metering operations subject to the state’s regulatory powers.

Sen. Peter Micciche wondered aloud if French was struggling making an adjustment from being a debating senator to working well with others on a consensus-focused board.

“Together you decide to get a legal opinion, and the other two board members are concerned with the incident that happened and that he has worked outside that process,” Micciche said.

Sens. MacKinnon and Micciche both appeared uncomfortable having to spill the beans about what had gone down: French, MacKinnon said,  “is a noble man who is very thoughtful in his approach to all issues and who advocates his position well.”

“He should not be advocating for additional jurisdiction from his position,” she said. “He should bring a concern to the Department of Law and let the administration move forward if they believe through the legislative process that there should be additional responsibilities given to AOGCC.”

She said she had constituents who asked her to vote no, and she announced she would, indeed, be a “no” vote.

When the vote was tallied, French was confirmed 35-24 vote, with all House minority members voting against his confirmation, as well as Sens. David Wilson, Cathy Giessel, Shelley Hughes, Anna MacKinnon, Kevin Meyer, Natasha Von Imhof, and Pete Kelly voting no.

These dissenting lawmakers seem to be  concerned about AOGCC’s mission creep, especially since French will be taking over as the chair of the commission this summer.

Now, there is an added concern among insiders that French and Gov. Walker will try to bump off one of the other commissioners to replace them with a pro-gasline member who will help Gov. Walker get more traction on the AK-LNG project, which comes under the regulatory oversight of AOGCC.

The commissioners can only be removed “for cause” by the governor, but their lives can be made difficult behind the closed regulatory doors.

[Read: French to regulate oil and gas.]