AD Main Menu

Alaska lobbying group quietly plows ahead to open ANWR

Alex DeMarban
Double rainbow near Canning River, ANWR.
Jan Reurink / flickr via wikipedia
ANWR's coastal plain.
USFWS
The Mancha Pinnacles in ANWR.
USFWS
Polar bears on Barter Island in ANWR.
Courtesy Alan & Elaine Wilson
Canning River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 1994
Jan Reurink / flickr via wikipedia
Shell and other oil companies are embarking on offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic. Meantime, the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off limits to oil drilling.
Aaron Jansen illustration
Canning River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 1994
Jan Reurink / flickr via wikipedia
Brooks Range and the coastal plain of ANWR.
USFWS
Caribou grazing along a river in ANWR.
USFWS
Caribou grazing in ANWR's 1002 area, with the Brooks Range behind.
USFWS
Fireweed in bloom in ANWR.
USFWS

Secrecy remains the watchword for the state-funded lobbying group with the thankless task of trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil drilling, despite a past effort to improve accountability and promises of openness on tax forms.

The head of Arctic Power, an organization that's unsuccessfully fought for 22 years to allow oil drilling in ANWR, believes the group must keep certain activities on the down-low in order to outmaneuver the powerful forces of conservation, the director says.

That evasiveness comes despite the fact that the group receives most of its funding from the Alaska Legislature, at least $12 million since its creation in 1992. Arctic Power is run by a board that's a "who's who" of Alaska development boosters -- along with a two-person staff with bloodlines that are deeply rooted in controversial projects in Alaska.

To be fair, opening ANWR -- the nation's largest wildlife refuge -- is no longer Arctic Power's sole mission. Projects now include promoting oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean and bringing Alaska into the club of states sharing the bounty provided from drilling in federal waters.

But the group's flagship goal remains convincing Congress and the president to allow environmentally-safe exploration drilling in ANWR's coastal plain. That disputed stretch of remote land is called the 1002 area, in reference to a section in the 1980 law that expanded the refuge and set aside the coastal area for possible oil and gas development.

Supporters of opening the refuge point out that the coastal stretch is an unremarkable slice of ANWR that's nothing like the mountainous "God's Country" dozens of miles to the south. The refuge itself spans 19.5 million acres, a South Carolina-sized wilderness that's home to a single Iñupiat Eskimo village called Kaktovik, herds of migrating caribou, and perhaps more than $1 trillion worth of crude at today's prices.

Off the table?

Many Alaskans support opening ANWR -- including Native whalers in Kaktovik -- calling it environmentally smarter than offshore drilling. But Alaskans are often unfamiliar with Arctic Power, whose work -- meeting with federal officials, creating educational materials, attending trade shows -- can go unnoticed at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In May, Arctic Power helped cheerlead for Alaska's latest scheme to permit exploratory work in the refuge. In a recent announcement hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said the state would provide $50 million to ANWR wildcatting efforts if the U.S. Interior Department supported seismic studies there for the first time in three decades. In response, Arctic Power shouted out its support on its website, ANWR.org.

Nothing will likely ever come of Parnell's offer -- something critics might call a bribe. That's because the idea of opening ANWR seems as dead as ever. Only once has Congress agreed to allow exploratory drilling in the refuge, in 1995. But President Bill Clinton killed the measure with a veto.

In the years since, the Senate has rejected most attempts to open the refuge, including last year by a vote of 41-57. President Barack Obama has also said he's strongly opposed to the idea.

The charismatic coordinator of Arctic Power's two-person office, Adrian Herrera, said he's not giving up.

"Obama has said all along he'd veto any decision to allow exploration in the 1002 area of ANWR," Herrera said. "But could you put political pressure on him to think otherwise? You could, and that's our job."

But for critics such as state Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, the hostile political climate in the nation's capitol raises questions about Arctic Power's value and whether the state should simply roll it into the governor's D.C. office.

"You can pound your chest for free or your can pound your chest for $250,000," said Gara, referring to the group's legislative appropriation for the fiscal year starting July 1.

"We should keep making the case for ANWR, but we have legislators and (officials from) our governor's office to lobby folks," Gara said. "That's a smarter way to do it because people look at lobbyists skeptically from the get-go."

Stealth mode

There's plenty to be skeptical about when it comes to Arctic Power. They’ve been blasted before as ineffective and a waste of state money, especially years ago when they were flush with cash and regularly staffing two offices, in Washington and Anchorage. 

These days, opponents are less vocal about Arctic Power's value to Alaska, perhaps because there's much less to attack. Annual legislative support that once exceeded $1 million has fallen to as low as $160,000 in recent years, said Herrera. The group has survived off donations, volunteer support, and, thanks to a gaming permit, some $40,000 in earnings from bingo and pull-tabs.

What hasn't changed is Arctic Power's reluctance to talk too much about its operation. Adrian Herrera is the son of Roger Herrera, a previous director and longtime lobbyist for Arctic Power. At times, both were on the payroll.

Adrian Herrera oversees Michael Shively, Arctic Power's only other official worker and nephew of John Shively, who is chief executive of the controversial mining partnership hoping to develop the Pebble gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay.

Reached recently in D.C., Adrian refused to provide basic information about the organization, saying Arctic Power adheres to a longstanding policy of not revealing details about how its money is spent.

"John Katz made it clear that the spending activity of Arctic Power would not be published," Herrera said, referring to the former longtime head of the governor's Washington office, which oversees Arctic Power.

The reticent approach is a necessity, Herrera said. Give away too much information, and conservation groups will spring into action to neutralize your work. They will visit lawmakers you've just visited, or they might launch counter-polling efforts to sow seeds of doubt about the refuge's oil potential, he said.

"This is an agenda that the Sierra Club with its $30 million budget tries very hard to nullify, so for you to publish details of our activities could possibly defeat the entire purpose of our organization," Herrera said.

Mum's the word

The private nonprofit casts a wide shroud of secrecy that keeps even Alaskans in the dark.

On 990 tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the group says it publicly discloses discloses "governing documents, conflict of interest policies or financial statements." All the documents are on file at the office, and the public can "walk in" and request them all.

It's not that easy. The group's Anchorage office wasn't open recently -- it's only open when Herrera or Shively are in town. So it was impossible to "walk in" from Anchorage.

The group doesn't provide financial statements, said Herrera, reached in D.C. after a call to the Anchorage office was automatically re-routed.

What about the conflict of interest policy and the governing documents?

Herrera said he couldn’t provide any of that information, at least not without approval from the full executive committee.

He didn't know when the executive committee would next meet, and wouldn't say who serves on it.

On Arctic Power's site, 43 people are listed as board members, though one died last fall: former top lobbyist and state Sen. Al Adams. Those living include former state Rep. Gail Phillips; Drue Pearce, a former lawmaker and former federal gas-pipeline coordinator; Debbie Reinwand, chief executive of marketing firm Bradley Reid and Associates; and Tom Brennan, former editor of the defunct, pro-industry Anchorage Times.

Father-son business

Adrian's father, Roger Herrera, is a former BP geologist who ran Arctic Power's Washington office as late as 2001, according to past news accounts. He also served as a lobbyist for the group for years after that.

Adrian, Roger's son, began working for Arctic Power in 2003 as an administrative assistant, Adrian said. His father remained a lobbyist there until at least 2006, according to Senate records.

Adrian said he took the helm of Arctic Power three years ago, and several years after his father left that position. He wouldn't say when his father left Arctic Power. Roger Herrera is now retired, but continues to play a nonvoting, advisory role, Adrian said.

At one point eight years ago, Roger headed an oversight committee to address criticism about the group's lack of accountability. Adrian was Arctic Power's project manager and working in Anchorage at the time, according to a newspaper story that didn't address the family relationship. Over questions about the value of staffing an Anchorage office, the executive committee cut two Anchorage employees, including Adrian, in a closed meeting. But Adrian was offered the chance to work in D.C.

Adrian Herrera refused to say what became of that effort to increase accountability. He bristled when asked about how he was hired and whether his father played a role in his employment. He was appointed by the board and got the job on his own merits, not because of his father's influence, Adrian said.

He's highly qualified, with experience working in the North Slope oil fields, he said. He holds a master's degree in logistics and a bachelor's in political science.

He also "was the last man standing," after the departure of former director Jerry Hood, who served after his father had moved on, he said.

"I take great offense, great offense at you going down this avenue," he said. "It sounds like you're doing a National Enquirer story here. It's a personal attack and it's pure dirt."

Reached by phone, Roger Herrera did not remember or did not have time to talk about his son's employment or his knowledge of Arctic Power.

"I've forgotten all that. I'm sorry, that's a long time ago. In any case, this is a very inconvenient time, so if you want to call back, fine, but not now, thank you," Roger Herrera said before hanging up on a reporter.

Favoritism an issue?

Mike Navarre, co-chair of Arctic Power and mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said nepotism had nothing to do with Herrera's appointment.

"Absolutely not," he said. "When the position came open, we wanted to find someone who was knowledgeable about the issue, and Adrian was very knowledgeable. He's done an outstanding job."

Frank Dillon, who founded Arctic Power in 1992 when he was a top official in the Alaska Trucking Association, also serves on the board in an advisory role.

Dillon said Adrian worked his way up from being an office worker. "I don't think we'll ever get someone as smart as Adrian to work for practically nothing," at least nothing compared to what most lobbyists receive, said Dillon, who is retired and living in Idaho, and attends board meetings telephonically.

Herrera wouldn't say how much he or Shively makes.

Dillon said the father-son working relationship has never resulted in anything "unseemly," and that the board keeps a close watch on all activities. He worries that Adrian will leave for better pay, becoming the third generation to be worn into the ground by a conservation lobby that at times has lied to keep ANWR closed. Among the misdeeds, Dillon said, was using promotional materials with photos taken in more scenic parts of Alaska to misrepresent the flat coastal plain where exploration would occur, he said.

"I can't believe it's not open after all these years," Dillon said. "I thought we would have either finished exploring it or be in the process of exploring it (by now)."

How to measure success?

Whether that will ever happen, and what role Arctic Power will play in that effort, remains to be seen.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Arctic Power could be more effective if the group spent more time lobbying critics in the Senate, where membership has turned over rapidly in recent years. No one from Arctic Power has registered as a lobbyist since Roger Herrera did so in 2006, according to House and Senate records.

No one is currently registered because disclosure is required only if a person spends 20 percent of their work time meeting with federal officials, Adrian Herrera said. He and Shively don't spend that much of their time lobbying federal officials, he said.

Could Arctic Power be more effective if increased lobbying efforts?

"It depends on how legislation is moving across the Hill," Herrera said. "If you don't have a tremendous amount of activity on the Hill, like in the last five years, the answer is no. If yes, you're up there a lot."

Navarre, the Arctic Power co-chair, said the group's success may be tough to measure.

"If Arctic Power hadn't been around all these years, working Congress, visiting states, promoting the issue, maybe ANWR would be locked up in wilderness right now," he said. "At least it's still available potentially."

Herrera said Arctic Power's success can also be measured by "making sure people are arguing the bill correctly in Capitol Hill, or that public comment periods are attended by people in favor of our viewpoints."

"The point is the state of Alaska is just over 60 percent federally controlled, and you have to have entities -- governmental and nongovernmental -- working these issues," Herrera said. "If you're not in the game playing, don't complain about it when you wake up the next morning with your land locked up, wondering why you weren't down here arguing."

Contact reporter Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.co