Interesting stuff: Dunleavy’s investment whisperer, a North Slope worker death and an Ambler road critic joins the project's sponsor

This week, we show how Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy's administration has turned to investor Ellie Rubenstein for advice, and pry loose some details about the death of an employee of a Hilcorp contractor.

Interesting stuff: Dunleavy’s investment whisperer, a North Slope worker death and an Ambler road critic joins the project's sponsor

Apologies, but this feature is going back to its original title, “Interesting stuff.”

“News donuts” had a nice ring to it and the potential for a great logo, and I really do love donuts, but it felt a little frivolous for what’s ultimately a serious-minded project.

That said, here’s a digest with items on the death of a North Slope oil industry engineer who was working for a Hilcorp contractor, an investor who’s been quietly acting as a volunteer advisor to Alaska’s governor, and a high-profile Ambler road opponent who’s now joined forces with the road’s promoter. Plus a few other things.

One more thing: This work costs money. Just one example: To get the records that formed the basis for the item about the governor’s volunteer advisor, I had to pay $70 to the Department of Revenue — which only released the documents after 3.5 months of innumerable badgering phone calls from me.

The only payment I receive for Northern Journal is when readers, like you, buy a voluntary membership. If you can afford $100 a year or $10 a month, please give it consideration. Thanks for reading. And, if you’ve got story tips or suggestions, you can send ‘em to me by replying to this email.

Former top Ambler road critic gets contract from the project’s promotor

Interior Alaska tribal leader P.J. Simon was once the poster child for the fight against the Ambler Road — a 225-mile project, supporting a major proposed copper mine in the Kobuk River watershed, that would stretch deep into Northwest Alaska and across a national park.

As chairman of the anti-road Tanana Chiefs Conference, Simon was featured In a 2021 Politico story as one the road’s most vocal critics, telling reporter Adam Federman that the project threatened essential fish harvests in a region where residents face exorbitant prices for groceries.

In April, Simon signed a contract capped at $50,000 with the state agency pushing the Ambler project, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, to work as a "community liaison and workforce development support consultant."

The contract was signed a day after Simon was featured in a photo with Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and the chief executive of the company pushing the mine, Ambler Metals, in Washington, D.C., along with other road boosters.

Simon, who was recalled as TCC’s board chairman in late 2021 amid criticism of his management and personnel decisions, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the contract.

In his two-page proposal to the state for the work, which came in response to a February informal request for proposals from AIDEA, he said he would charge $125 an hour to consult about how to engage key stakeholders and groups in his home Koyukuk River region, support AIDEA's workforce development initiatives and help with project communication and community events.

A worker death on Alaska’s North Slope

State workplace safety officials say they’re investigating the circumstances of a 23-year-old mechanical engineer who was working for a Hilcorp contractor when he died on the job on Alaska’s North Slope in April.

Colby Lord, a 2018 graduate of Palmer’s Colony High School, died April 15 at a construction shop at Prudhoe Bay. Adam Weinert, a special assistant to Labor Commissioner Cathy Muñoz, told me in an email earlier this month that at the time, Lord was employed by engineering company Worley but “embedded” with Hilcorp, meaning Hilcorp gave him his “day-to-day direction,” Weinert said.

Weinert would not provide any details about how Lord died, citing an open investigation. But he said three investigators from Alaska Occupational Safety and Health, the labor department’s workplace safety arm, are involved in the response.

Hilcorp is a privately owned company that greatly expanded its presence in Alaska by buying BP’s assets in the state — including its 26% stake in the massive Prudhoe Bay field — in 2020. Both before and after that deal, Hilcorp has drawn intense scrutiny from advocates and state regulators who have criticized its environmental compliance and safety record, and questioned the company’s low-cost business model.

Earlier this month, Alaska oil and gas regulators fined the company $267,500 over its drilling practices, saying Hilcorp's record of "regulatory noncompliance" was one of the reasons for the six-figure penalty.

Without more details from the labor department — which took weeks of back-and-forth to provide me with basic information about the incident — it’s impossible to know what led to Lord’s death.

A Hilcorp spokesman declined to comment. Worley’s Alaska office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Lord’s father declined to comment.

North Slope Borough Police Department Chief Jeff Brown referred a request for information about Lord’s death to his agency’s records clerk, who said a report on the incident has not yet been finished.

I’ll continue to follow this investigation. Contact me if you want to share any information about what happened.

Dunleavy administration turns to a Rubenstein to bring new money to Alaska

Ellie Rubenstein, left, moderates at panel at Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s energy conference in Anchorage last month. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

On the final day of Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s energy conference last month, five finance professionals stepped onstage for a panel discussion about venture capital. Moderating the group was an investor with an unremarkable background for the industry — undergraduate degree from Harvard University, founder of a Vail-based private equity firm.

But that background is rare enough in Alaska, where Ellie Rubenstein lives, that her unique set of skills, experiences and connections have made her a close confidante of Dunleavy and members of his staff — even if that role has not been publicly clear until now.

Rubenstein, who Dunleavy also appointed last year to the board of the Alaska Permanent Fund, meets with the governor regularly, has hosted him twice at forums in Colorado and also has exchanged dozens of emails in the past few months with the new state revenue commissioner, Adam Crum, along with other members of Dunleavy’s administration.

That’s according to results from a recent Northern Journal public records request, which showed how Rubenstein has been promoting Dunleavy’s policies to, and pitching potential investment opportunities with, her many contacts in the finance world.

Dunleavy and his aides “speak policy, budgets,” Rubenstein told me Tuesday by phone from Europe, where she recently appeared at the same investment conference in Germany as the governor.

“I speak investor language,” Rubenstein added. “So, that’s usually what I’m doing — explaining the process.”

Rubenstein, 35, is a registered Republican with two prominent parents: Her father is billionaire private equity investor David Rubenstein, co-chairman of the Carlyle Group, and her mother is Alice Rogoff, the former owner of the Anchorage Daily News.

Ellie Rubenstein recently helped raise more than $600 million to launch her food-focused investment firm, Manna Tree Partners, whose companies include Good Culture — known for its lactose-free cottage cheese and sour cream — and Health-Ade Kombucha.

Rubenstein told me she’s been assisting the administration over the past year, as Dunleavy has placed a growing emphasis on establishing public-private investment partnerships like the Alaska LNG export project.

Emails released by Crum’s department show Rubenstein aiding the Dunleavy administration on an array of subjects.

She helped recruit participants in, and sponsors for, last month’s energy conference. She helped set up a meeting between the governor’s office and an infrastructure investor on what she said was an interest of Dunleavy’s: construction of a new fertilizer plant on the North Slope. And she connected Crum with an environmental commodities trader to talk about California carbon markets as Dunleavy was pushing his own carbon credits proposal through the Legislature.

“She just loves Alaska, wants to see it grow,” Crum told me in a brief call last week. “And she knows this world.”

Rubenstein said she has no personal financial stake in her work with the state.

“The reason I keep doing it is the people and the team around the governor,” she said. “I feel like I can give back, with the skills of private equity.”

Dunleavy moves energy advisor to regulatory commission; new wind project in the works outside Fairbanks?

John Espindola, Dunleavy’s body man-turned-energy advisor, has been appointed by the governor to the state commission that regulates utilities.

Espindola was appointed to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska last week, according to a database of members on the governor's website. He replaces former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan in a position that pays some $125,000 a year.

The commission oversees Alaska’s regulated electrical utilities and the state’s major gas utility, Enstar, among others.

Espindola had been heading Dunleavy’s “Office of Energy Innovation” and was a key state government contact for industry representatives. Andrew Jensen, another advisor in Dunleavy’s office, is taking over Espindola’s responsibilities for now.

One other piece of energy news: An Alaska renewables startup is proposing a new wind farm to be located along the Chatanika River outside Fairbanks.

A subsidiary of Alaska Renewables, run by energy entrepreneur Matt Perkins and University of Alaska oceanographer Andrew McDonnell, is proposing to lease 450 acres of state land for a project that would supply power to Fairbanks’ utility, Golden Valley Electric Association.

Alaska Renewables is also exploring a wind project near Mt. Susitna outside Anchorage. It’s planning to ramp up community outreach for its Chatanika project, which is in the area of the popular Circle-Fairbanks historic trail.

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