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Energy

Ousted Alaska official sues his former agency, arguing it should have cracked down on Hilcorp’s Cook Inlet gas leak

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: February 18
  • Published February 18

Former state Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016. He was fired from the commission by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2019. (Richard Mauer / ADN archive)

A former Alaska oil and gas regulator fired by the governor last year is suing the state agency where he once served as a commissioner.

Hollis French argued in court Tuesday that the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission should have asserted jurisdiction over Hilcorp Alaska’s monthslong natural gas leak in Cook Inlet in 2017.

In oral arguments in Anchorage Superior Court, French said the agency should have exercised enforcement authority over the 2017 leak, based on language in state law that prohibits the waste of oil and gas in Alaska.

The leak “may as well have happened in Canada” because the “so-called” conservation commission determined that it did not have authority over the leaking gas, French told Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth.

Tab Ballantine, a state attorney representing the agency, told the judge that the agency properly determined that its responsibility over waste ended when the gas moved from the landowner and into Hilcorp’s hands.

Because Hilcorp owned the gas that was leaking, it wasn’t waste, he argued.

It’s the same approach taken by every other oil and gas conservation commission in the U.S., he argued.

French, a former state senator, was the public member of the three-member commission until Gov. Mike Dunleavy removed him last year, citing chronic absenteeism and neglect of duty.

French disputed the governor’s accusations. He maintained that he had crossed ways with his fellow commissioners, current commissioner Dan Seamount and former commissioner Cathy Foerster, as he fought for the public interest.

Hilcorp Platform A on Sunday, April 2, 2017. A pipeline that delivers natural gas used as fuel for this platform and three others leaked for several months in early 2017. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

One of French’s biggest conflicts with Seamount and Foerster was about the agency’s jurisdiction over Hilcorp’s leaking subsea line, which distributed gas to power offshore production platforms.

The leak lasted about three months, at first emitting enough gas to fuel about 400 homes daily in Alaska in winter, according to news accounts at the time. Hilcorp later took steps to reduce the flow of leaking gas by more than half, before it repaired the pipe.

Hilcorp is currently working toward closing a $5.6 billion deal to buy BP Alaska’s oilfield assets in the state, including BP’s share of Prudhoe Bay and the trans-Alaska pipeline.

French, representing himself, argued Tuesday that the Cook Inlet leak was bad for the environment, a waste of a valuable resource and a potential explosion hazard.

Shortly after his removal from the commission last year, French, as a private citizen, petitioned the commission for a hearing on the question of its jurisdiction over the gas leak.

The commission rejected the request, saying it had an obligation to prevent waste to “maximize" the recovery of the state’s resources. It said it did not have “waste jurisdiction” in this case, because the gas had already been produced.

French appealed the decision to the state courts.

Ballantine, the state’s attorney, said Tuesday that the gas that leaked belonged to Hilcorp, falling outside the commission’s responsibility.

Ballantine said that under French’s view, the commission should have enforcement authority even when Judge Aarseth wastes propane while fumbling with his backyard grill.

The judge said he’d weigh the arguments, but offered no timeline for a decision.

Ultimately in 2017, the state Department of Environmental Conservation said it had jurisdiction over the hazardous, leaking gas.

A federal agency, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said it had jurisdiction over the pipe and its operation. It reached an agreement with Hilcorp to improve pipeline inspections that the federal agency had said weren’t adequate to detect damage.

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