Andy Mack, Alaska’s new natural resources commissioner, has Alaska roots that go pretty deep.
“I grew up on a homestead in Soldotna. The Kenai River was my front yard,” Mack said in an interview.
Mack’s parents, John and Carol Mack, moved to Soldotna after a year and a half as Jesuit volunteers at the Copper Valley School in Copper Center in the late 1950s. The homestead belonged to Frank and Marge Mullen, Mack’s uncle and aunt.
Mullen, the uncle, served as a bomber pilot in World War II and took advantage of special homestead rights for veterans after the war. He picked out the land, at the confluence of Soldotna Creek and the Kenai River, in 1946 after flying over it.
There was no road to the area so a year later, in 1947, Mullen walked to the new homestead at Soldotna from Cooper Landing, then the end of the road. It was a simpler era, and people did those things. Marge Mullen is 96 now and still lives in Soldotna.
Mack was born in Soldotna in 1964. Family life was typical, classic Alaska for the 1960s.
Carol Mack taught school and John Mack, a heavy equipment operator, worked construction. Young Andy worked in commercial fishing while in high school and college.
“When I was growing up I really wanted to be a commercial fisherman, but some really bad years convinced me that might not be a good idea,” he said.
Assistant in state LegislatureWhat changed his career goal was when then-state Rep. Mike Navarre (now mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough) hired Mack to work as an assistant in the state Legislature. Mack worked for Navarre in Juneau through four legislative sessions which included a stint as Sergeant of Arms in the state House, where he managed support staff for the House and the day-to-day functioning of the body.
Mack went on to college after getting his diploma at Soldotna High School in 1982 and graduated from Concordia College in Minnesota 1986 with a degree in political science. Meanwhile, Mack had met his future wife, Roxanne Rohweder, while in high school (she attended school in Homer) but it was in the mid-1990s when the two connected again in Anchorage and, in another career move, decided to go to law school together, at Loyola in Los Angeles. They were married in 1998.
Mack clerked for Alaska Superior Court Judge Larry Card after graduating from Loyola in 2001 and later joined the Anchorage law firm of Atkinson, Conway and Gagnon.
BarrowSoon another critical career decision loomed. “My wife and I both wanted to spend some time in a rural community. But my idea of rural was Kodiak. Hers was Barrow,” he said.
Barrow won out. Moving to the farthest-north Alaska community, with its Inupiat population, was a life-changing decision for both. Roxanne wound up working as a staff attorney for the North Slope Borough, the regional municipality, and Mack became a public defender, his first experience working in criminal law.
It was an exciting time in Barrow. The Inupiat people of the North Slope were establishing a relationship with the oil and gas industry, and the industry itself expanding its onshore development and taking a renewed interest in offshore exploration, an initiative led by Shell.
In 2006 Mayor Edward Itta hired Mack to be the borough’s director of government affairs, a position that placed him front and center in the borough’s relationship with the industry.
It was a role in which Mack was to play a part - a small part, he says (the real decisions being made by Itta) - in one of the most important developments in Alaska’s resource development history.
Understanding benefits, risksThis was the decision by the mayor and other Inupiat leaders to no longer file lawsuits and oppose offshore oil and gas development, but to instead work to understand its benefits as well as risks and to develop relationships with industry.
The decision by Itta and other leaders in 2009 was a crucial turning point in relations between coastal communities and the oil and gas industry.
Here is how it happened:
For many years there had been no significant industry offshore exploration. Shell and several other companies drilled unsuccessful test wells in the Chukchi Sea in the early 1990s and companies, including Shell, had drilled many wells in the Beaufort Sea through the 1970s and 1980s without making major discoveries except in near-shore areas, where what is now the Northstar and Liberty fields were found.
After a long hiatus Shell returned in the federal 2005 OCS lease sales and picked up many leases in the Beaufort Sea. The company organized a drilling program for 2007 with a small fleet of drillship and support vessels.
Itta was disturbed, as Mack tells it, that the U.S. Minerals Management Service had balked at doing a formal Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for Shell’s offshore program, opting instead for a more streamlined Environmental Assessment, or EA.
“He (the mayor) didn’t like this because an EA has no process for community consultation or public hearings. There is no way for local people to be involved in the federal agency’s decisions,” Mack said.
So the borough sued the government and won. The 9th District U.S. Court of Appeals stopped the MMS action and instructed the agency to do an EIS. Shell’s drilling was halted, too. Meanwhile, environmental groups jumped into the fray.
Information and coordinationWhat happened next is important.
The MMS did an EIS, following the court’s instruction. Shell, with the borough’s involvement, worked out procedures to inform and coordinate offshore work with coastal communities, particularly Inupiat whalers.
When the federal courts again reviewed the EIS and Shell’s drilling plans, which included the local consultation, Itta took the borough out of the lawsuit. The 9th Circuit approved the revised plan by MMS and Shell unanimously.
“The decision not to re-engage the lawsuit was a major decision. The mayor said it was time to move forward with an industry that is important to our economic future,” Mack said.
Environmental groups continued their suits but many believe that the borough’s decision not to continue the lawsuit, and to instead work with industry, was an important factor in the court’s final approval. It was a big loss for the environmental groups.
There was bad luck for Shell, however, with the 2010 blowout and big spill at BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to years of federal regulatory delays, costly new requirements and finally an unsuccessful well.
Support for responsible offshore drilling continues in the North Slope communities and borough despite Shell’s setback, however, and Mack, as a key advisor to Mayor Itta, is proud to have played a part in that.
PT CapitalMack left the borough in 2012 and worked with two North Slope village corporations to facilitate oil and gas contracting opportunities, and then joined PT Capital, an Alaska-based private equity firm, in 2013 as managing partner.
PT Capital was formed to bring investment capital to strategic projects in the Arctic, and Mack’s work there was a learning experience. “It gave me a view into the business community, particularly in a time of downturn. We could see in companies’ balance sheets what is now happening in the broader economy,” he said.
“Having that financial background was very helpful in preparing for my new role,” at the Department of Natural Resources.
Strong team at DNRIn the short time he has been at DNR Mack said he is impressed with the technical knowledge and skill of people there.
“We have an incredibly strong team here, with an ability to innovate and meet obligations in times of tight budgets,” he said.
Mack now heads an agency responsible for 100 million acres of state lands, promoting oil, gas, minerals, forestry (including forest protection and firefighting) and agriculture on state lands, along with management of the largest state park system in the country in terms of acres.
The agency has a year-around average of about 800 full-time employees and 217 additional part-time or seasonal employees.
With his background in law, municipal affairs and now private finance, Mack is interested in DNR’s role at the nexus of economic development and responsible regulation. The agency has a dual role as a promoter but also the protector of state lands through DNR’s regulatory responsibilities.
One concern, in this context, is seeing that DNR’s Office of Project Management and Permitting, a small unit in DNR that helps developers of major projects navigate the regulatory and permitting maze, is adequately staffed, Mack said.
DNR’s role in oil and gas will always be a central concern given the importance of the industry, and Mack is mindful of his role as commissioner in regulatory decisions, such as in judging appeals.
This somewhat limits his ability to speak freely on policy issues. Walker recently appointed a special oil and gas advisor, John Hendrix, a veteran industry manager, who will have more flexibility in giving the governor advice, Mack said.
“I can offer advice and will consult with the governor but I do have to protect the regulatory process,” Mack said. “John doesn’t have regulatory obligations.”