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Anchorage Daily News: Shell appoints two lifelong Alaskans to navigate Beaufort Sea fields

Published: February 19, 2006
Last Modified: February 19, 2006 at 02:24 AM
For oil giant Shell to reach its goal of pumping oil from Beaufort Sea fields, it'll have to deal with two behemoths: the endangered bowhead whale, which North Slope Natives hunt and fervently protect, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which regulates offshore drilling.
To help, Shell recently made a couple of key hires: a prominent Native whaling captain and the Interior Department's former point man in Alaska.
George Ahmaogak Sr., who until last fall was mayor of the Barrow-based North Slope Borough, joined Shell last month as the company's Alaska community affairs manager. He's taken part in many a hunt for the bowhead, an animal so large its tongue alone can weigh a ton.
Ahmaogak's new boss is Cam Toohey, who is Shell's Alaska government and external affairs manager. Toohey also joined Shell in January after leaving his post as Alaska special assistant to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Both men say they want to help Shell achieve its agenda in Alaska while preserving values they believe are important to North Slope whalers and other Alaskans.
“A job like this doesn't come along that often in Alaska,” Toohey said in a recent interview in Shell's office on the 13th floor of the Frontier Building in Midtown Anchorage. “Shell's returning to Alaska with some big plans. They plan to work on creating jobs and put oil in the pipeline and generate some exploration activities on the North Slope that we haven't seen for quite some time.”
Joining an industry player marks a significant departure for Ahmaogak, who as mayor spoke out against the oil and gas industry edging closer and closer to North Slope villages, disrupting subsistence hunts and threatening the bowhead whale migration. He fought the Interior Department's recent decision to expand leasing in the coastal zone north and east of Teshekpuk Lake, one of the state's largest inland water bodies and a vital haven for migratory geese.
For Toohey, this isn't the first time a job change has created controversy. Before Norton tabbed him as her special assistant in Alaska in 2001, Toohey had served for several years as executive director of Arctic Power, a nonprofit organization devoted to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
Toohey's jump from Arctic Power to Interior drew criticism from opponents of ANWR drilling, and a Washington, D.C., government watchdog group contends it's unethical for Toohey to now leave Interior to take a job with an oil company the department regulates.
“I'm not too worried about what people in the Lower 48 or Washington, D.C., think of my move in Alaska,” Toohey said. “But I do value what Alaskans think and what my neighbors think, and they're all excited for me.”
Royal Dutch Shell, based in the Netherlands, is one of the world's largest oil companies, with operations in more than 140 countries.
Shell once was a vigorous oil hunter in Alaska, drilling in such forbidding Arctic waters as the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. But the company never found the elephant oil discoveries it hoped for, and by the late 1990s it completed a slow pullout from Alaska.
Now, with oil running close to $60 a barrel, and as global titans scour the planet for new reserves, Shell has stormed back to the North, last spring bidding $44 million on acreage in the Beaufort Sea. The U.S. Minerals Management Service, an Interior Department agency, conducted the sale and regulates offshore leasing and drilling.
Shell also is pushing for offshore leasing in Bristol Bay, where drilling is now prohibited.
A Shell executive, speaking at a November industry conference in Anchorage, called the Arctic a final frontier his company couldn't ignore, its basins holding perhaps a quarter of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and gas.
Ahmaogak, 56, is a stout man with a ready laugh and a folksy charm that's instantly likable. He wears a black vest emblazoned “George N. Ahmaogak Sr., Mayor Emeritus.”
He delights in telling the story of how, after he got the Shell job, he lit out of Barrow in mid-January in his wife's Hummer H2, bouncing for 17 hours across open, roadless tundra to Deadhorse, then down the highway to Anchorage.
Mention hunting the bowhead and he spouts: “This coming spring I'm going to be beating the band — my adrenaline will be pumping and I want to get out on that ice and harpoon!”
His wife, Maggie, knows something about whaling, too. She's executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, an agency formed in 1977 to represent subsistence whaling villages before federal and international whaling managers.
As mayor, Ahmaogak said, he worked closely with oil companies on offshore projects, including BP's Northstar oil field.
He said he'll be Shell's man in the villages, explaining the company's work and seeking, for example, “conflict avoidance agreements” specifying in what seasons seismic exploration can safely occur without scaring away the bowheads with noise. If whales are disturbed and move out of their normal migration routes, it can mean longer, riskier and less productive hunts for whalers.
Ahmaogak wouldn't say how much Shell is paying him, though for weeks it was no secret in industry circles what his and Toohey's positions would pay — well into six figures, a salary not uncommon in Alaska's oil industry.
No one, said Ahmaogak, has accused him of being a turncoat for industry. He said he believes he can make a difference with Shell.
“I'm pretty positive they're gonna hear me loud and clear,” he said.
Edward Itta, himself a whaling captain and Ahmaogak's successor as North Slope mayor, said he has no worries about Ahmaogak joining an oil company. Itta held several posts during Ahmaogak's multiple terms as mayor, including public works director.
“I've known George a lot of years, and I really believe I know where his heart is,” he said.
Toohey, 42, is a lanky, lifelong Alaskan who exudes more polish than personality, especially when sat next to Ahmaogak. He studied business administration at the University of Washington, and international business in Denmark.
He said his job will involve lobbying state legislators in Juneau, plus helping Shell workers based in Texas understand Alaska — from its politics to its weather.
As soon as he became interested in the Shell job on a tip from a friend last fall, Toohey said, he informed Shayla Simmons, the Interior Department's designated ethics official.
Simmons wrote back in an e-mail: “You should not participate in any way, including phone calls or meetings on particular matters in which Shell is a party.”
Toohey said he followed that advice and now he's adhering to a yearlong “cooling-off” period before representing Shell on any business with the Interior Department, even though he believes his position and pay grade were not high enough to require him to follow that rule.
Craig Holman, of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said it's wrong for Toohey to jump from Interior to an oil company the agency regulates, even if he does abide by the cooling-off period. He said the job switch is typical of a “revolving door” of people moving into government posts and then “cashing in” on their insider knowledge by joining private industry.
Even though Toohey said he won't lobby his former employer, he's still free to help others within Shell navigate the Interior Department, Holman said.
“The only thing he can't do is pick up the telephone and call Gale Norton for one year,” he said.
Toohey said Holman's point is moot.
“I grew up at a gold mine. My convictions have been pretty consistent throughout my adult life, supporting resource development,” he said. “Believe me, I've got enough work that's unrelated to the Department of the Interior.”

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