Alaska gas line corporation hires contractors with D.C. connections

JUNEAU — The state agency leading Alaska's gas line megaproject has brought on a pair of well-connected consultants to pitch its message to policymakers in Washington, D.C., and to the Alaska public.

The Alaska Gasline Development Corp., a public entity whose board is chosen by the governor, has hired the Virginia-based firm of Mike Dubke. He worked for three months last year as communications director for President Donald Trump and has also worked as a campaign strategist for both of Alaska's U.S. senators.

The gas line corporation has also hired Kevin Sweeney, who recently left his job as a top aide to one of those senators, Lisa Murkowski. Sweeney, formerly Murkowski's state director, is now working as a subcontractor for Dubke's communications firm, Black Rock Group.

While both Sweeney and Dubke have close ties to Alaska's congressional delegation, neither is formally lobbying on AGDC's behalf, Dubke said in a phone interview last week. Instead, they're effectively advising AGDC on its own lobbying — on how best to communicate with Congress, the White House, federal regulators, Alaska policymakers and the public.

"There's a big difference between helping them craft their message in a way that Washington would understand — which is what I do — and what a lobbyist would do, which is setting up meetings and pressing for certain pieces of legislation," Dubke said. "I'm just helping them frame their arguments in a way that people will understand."

Part of Dubke's job, he added, is monitoring to make sure that Trump's administration and Congress don't adopt policies that could inadvertently damage the project, known as Alaska LNG.

Trump this month ordered steep new taxes on steel and aluminum imports, which Murkowski said could add as much as $500 million to the project's cost. And Trump's tough stance against Chinese imports has prompted fears that he could start a trade war — just months after China's state-owned enterprises announced they'd partnered with Alaska on the pipeline project.


AGDC's $15,000-a-month contract with Black Rock Group was signed in November and runs through June.

Sweeney's company, Six-7 Strategies, was hired last month as a subcontractor to Black Rock Group at the same monthly rate, also through June. Sweeney's wife, Tara Sweeney, has been tapped by Trump for a top job at the U.S. Department of the Interior, though her appointment has been held up by questions about her ownership of shares in an Alaska Native corporation.

An AGDC spokeswoman, Rosetta Alcantra, provided copies of the contracts in response to a records request from ADN. Asked to discuss them, she provided a prepared statement.

"The Alaska LNG project is on an aggressive timeline and we need contractors who are familiar with Alaska, the White House and the Trump administration to assist us in building the project awareness in Washington, D.C.," she said.

[Alaska gas line agency gets big-time help soliciting investors]

The gas pipeline has been a dream of Alaska politicians for decades — including Gov. Bill Walker. Even under the state's current, ambitious schedule, the first LNG exports wouldn't start until 2024.

Dubke and Sweeney were hired amid major developments for the liquefied natural gas megaproject, which is forecast to cost $43 billion. Plans call for an 800-mile pipeline to ship gas off the North Slope oil fields, as well as construction of a liquefaction plant on the Kenai Peninsula.

In November — the same month Dubke's firm was hired — Walker, in Beijing, announced a nonbinding agreement to advance the LNG project between the state and three Chinese entities: Bank of China, oil and gas company Sinopec and China Investment Corp., a state-owned investment fund similar to Alaska's Permanent Fund.

The Chinese companies could ultimately invest in the project and buy its gas, but they haven't committed to doing so yet.

[Related: Alaska gas line agency reaches deal with Chinese oil company, financial institutions]

Meanwhile, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is also in the middle of reviewing AGDC's application to build the project, which was submitted last year.

Black Rock Group's initial contract calls for the firm to give AGDC advice "on how to effectively communicate the benefits associated with the Alaska LNG project to Trump administration officials, Capitol Hill, federal regulators and policymakers."

Dubke said Black Rock Group coordinated a briefing by AGDC's chief executive, Keith Meyer, last week for U.S. House and Senate staffers in Washington, D.C.; Dubke's company also set up interviews with reporters.

Sweeney is based in Anchorage, Dubke said, and his work will be focused in Alaska — like helping draft an informational insert that's expected to run in newspapers next week. Sweeney's contract calls for him to help AGDC develop a "communications plan that effectively reaches state and local policymakers, stakeholder groups and the general public."

Before hiring Dubke and Sweeney, AGDC had a registered lobbyist working on its behalf in Washington: Jack Ferguson, who once worked as an aide to Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young and the late Sen. Ted Stevens. Ferguson was paid $40,000 between July and October to represent AGDC before Congress and the Trump administration, according to a copy of his agreement.

State legislators, who oversee AGDC's budget, said they weren't aware of the contracts with Ferguson or Black Rock Group.

But Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson, who chairs the House Resources Committee, said it makes sense to have "boots on the ground" in the nation's capital. There's a concern, Josephson said, that while the LNG project needs cooperation from Trump's administration, the president's tough rhetoric "could interfere with the objectives."


One pipeline expert, Larry Persily, said he thinks the hirings will likely have little bearing on AGDC's ultimate success or failure. That will depend instead on how cheaply the project can sell gas and on how much customers are willing to pay for it, according to Persily, a former federal pipeline coordinator who now works as an aide in the Alaska Legislature.

"The project is going to rise or fall on the economics or the market — not on how much Alaskans love it or how much Congress is told to love it," he said.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com