JUNEAU — A former Anchorage state senator who cleared the way for Gov. Bill Walker's election in 2014 is now reportedly hoping for an appointment to the same job that propelled former Gov. Sarah Palin to prominence.
Democrat Hollis French set aside his campaign for lieutenant governor to allow Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, to form a "unity ticket" with Byron Mallott, then the Democratic candidate for governor and who's now Walker's lieutenant governor.
French's friends say he's interested in a longstanding vacancy on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, an arcane but important agency that acts as steward and environmental watchdog for some of the state's most valuable natural resources.
Three of French's allies have recommended him to the governor for the appointment. One is Malcolm Roberts, a Walker booster and former aide to the late Gov. Wally Hickel; the two others are Vic Fischer, a delegate to Alaska's constitutional convention, and Fischer's wife, Jane Angvik.
"He talked to me and said he was interested in it, and I volunteered to write a letter on his behalf," Roberts said in a phone interview this week. "I think he would do a darn good job."
French didn't respond to requests for comment about the vacancy on the commission. Earlier in the week, he declined to comment on an unrelated story about the Legislature, citing the potential for lawmakers to vote on his confirmation to a position he wouldn't specify.
AOGCC commissioners are subject to legislative confirmation, as are the department heads for state agencies. Walker's natural resources department is currently without a permanent commissioner.
A spokeswoman for Walker, Grace Jang, declined to comment about whether French was under consideration for the AOGCC vacancy — or about the prospects of another potential candidate, former Regulatory Commission of Alaska chairman T.W. Patch.
Patch was suggested for the job by former Lt. Gov. Stephen McAlpine, from Walker's hometown of Valdez, whom Walker appointed to the RCA in 2015, according to the governor's public correspondence file.
AOGCC commissioners are paid $140,000 a year, according to budget documents. The commission, a regulatory board, has three primary purposes: maximizing recovery of oil and gas from existing fields, protecting groundwater from oil and gas wells and making sure wells are safe.
It has a key role in the development of the proposed $55 billion natural gas pipeline project the state hopes to build with three oil company partners, with authority over requests to ship gas from the North Slope, where it is now used to maintain pressures in oil-bearing formations.
If the gas is piped away from the Slope too early, it could hinder efforts to extract oil, which is more valuable. The commission ruled in October that Prudhoe Bay's gas reserves can be sold and shipped beginning in 2025.
AOGCC's budget covers about about 30 staffers and three commissioners — a petroleum engineer, a geologist and a nonindustry member representing the public — who are appointed by the governor.
Palin served as the public member and chairwoman in 2003 and 2004, when she found Randy Ruedrich, the former chief of the Alaska Republican Party, doing party business in his state job as the petroleum engineer on the commission.
Ruedrich later settled state ethics charges by admitting wrongdoing and paying a fine of $12,000. The controversy burnished Palin's image as a reformer and party outsider and boosted her successful gubernatorial bid in 2006.
Two commission seats are now held by industry veterans — geologist Daniel Seamount Jr., who's served since 2000, and petroleum engineer Cathy Foerster, who's held her job since 2005.
The seat for the public member, however, is vacant.
After Walker was elected in late 2014, he appointed Mike Gallagher, a former Laborers' union official. But lawmakers rejected Gallagher in their annual confirmation session last spring, and the seat has remained empty since then, to the chagrin of the oil industry and its supporters in the Legislature.
"We need a functioning AOGCC," Kara Moriarty, the president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said in an interview. "It's an important commission for us."
In February, Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and an employee of oil company ConocoPhillips, wrote Walker to say he was "a little intrigued" the open seat remained unfilled. Walker responded his search had been hampered by "severely plummeting oil prices" and "ongoing developments" with the proposed natural gas pipeline project.
He told The Associated Press last month that he'd hoped his former natural resources commissioner, Mark Myers, would take the job. But Myers said no.
Jang, Walker's spokesperson, wrote in an email the governor intends to fill the AOGCC vacancy before lawmakers hold their confirmation hearing in mid-April.
French, who served in the Senate for 11 years, had to sit through a one-year waiting period before he could take a position in the Walker administration, which made him ineligible until a few months ago.
French has largely stayed out of public view since the 2014 election, though he did publicly float the idea of a candidacy for Anchorage mayor. He also applied to be an Anchorage Superior Court judge and was ruled ineligible by the Alaska Judicial Council, which said French's service in the Senate didn't count as being in the "active practice of law."
Roberts, who recommended French for the AOGCC job, said he was an "ideal candidate," citing French's "integrity" and his experience in the oil and gas industry. (French worked on an oil rig in Cook Inlet when he arrived in Alaska, as well as on the North Slope.)
In the Senate, however, French was known as an industry skeptic who, in one memorable episode, asked for oil industry officials to be sworn in before testifying before a committee — a move that led to French's microphone being cut off by the committee chair.
While his confirmation could pose a challenge with Republicans controlling the House and Senate, French is respected by members of both parties.
"I'd always give Hollis the benefit of the doubt," said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. "I think the world of Hollis."
One of French's closest allies in the Senate, Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski, said a confirmation fight would likely come down to the oil industry's position on French's appointment.
"He had really good relationships," said Wielechowski, who still serves in the Senate. "If he gets shut down, I don't think it would be on partisan differences."
He added: "I hope there's a place for him."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing