Fearing bulldozer attack in Anchorage, state official moved oil secrets in late-night clandestine operation

Partisan politics led to the firing of former Democratic Sen. Hollis French from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

One of the charges against him was not so much political as laughable, however.

French’s two opponents on the commission dreamed up a grab bag of arguments to get rid of him—absenteeism, rudeness, and overzealous questioning of his fellow commissioners. They would have placed French on double secret probation if they could have.

Topping off their claims was the sensational charge that French had revealed a priceless state secret, perhaps the ultimate state secret, through a breach of security. The governor agreed, at first.

“You have breached critical AOGCC security protocols,” Dunleavy lectured French in his dismissal letter Jan. 17.

Because of French, confidential data from the only oil well ever drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could have fallen into the wrong hands, according to fellow commissioners Cathy Foerster and Dan Seamount.

“It is arguably the most valuable well information in the world,” Seamount testified at French’s hearing. “There are a lot of people that would love to get their hands on the information. Very few people have looked at it.”

Seamount, who has served on the commission for 19 years, said he is in charge of keeping the ANWR results secret.

“My policy is to tell no one where the data reside, not even what country it resides in,” he said.

I’m surprised his policy allows him to tell people on what planet the data reside.

French not only revealed what country the data reside in, he revealed that the Holy Grail of the North Slope resides in a secure room in a nondescript state office on West Seventh Avenue in Anchorage.

Knowing this, someone could attack the AOGCC office and try to steal the secret data, Seamount testified.

He went on to describe a job for which Tom Cruise could assemble the “Mission Impossible” team. “I’m sure a lot of people want to get a hold of it and all it would take would be a bulldozer and 15 minutes to get to where it is,” he said.

Or someone who read the ADN story might track down the people with the codes “and they could go getting at the people with the codes and then they’re into the box.”

A week after the story appeared, Seamount said, he and Foerster moved the vault to an undisclosed location without telling French, the chairman of the commission.

“In the dead of night we moved it to somewhere more secure,” he said of the undercover operation, stopping himself after saying they had moved a box. “We moved the data, I’m not saying it’s in a box.”

The so-called security breach took place in July 2017 when reporter Alex DeMarban of the Anchorage Daily News wrote a story on the so-called KIC-1 well drilled in 1985-86.

While working on that story, French told DeMarban that the secret well data was kept in a locked box in a safe in a secure room at the AOGCC. “Different people know codes for the different locks, so no one can get to the data alone,” DeMarban wrote.

French never revealed any secret well data. He revealed that the secrets are in a secure room with other confidential data of great value.

This disclosure is as shocking as the revelation that gold is stored at Fort Knox, that the Vatican Secret Archives are in the Vatican or that pro wrestling is fixed.

Confidential data is more likely to be kept in the AOGCC secure confidential room than other secure locations, such as the trunk of a ‘95 Oldsmobile up on blocks in Wasilla.

In the early 1990s the state allowed Chevron and its partners to keep whatever they had learned from he well private. With drilling banned in the refuge, until the 2017 federal tax bill cleared the way for lease sales, whatever information was found in that three-mile-hole nearly 35 years ago remains a mystery,

The 1992 secrecy agreement required that no more than two senior state geoscientists have knowledge of the well results at any one time, though the commissioner of natural resources and the oil and gas division director could be brought into the circle of power at the discretion of the commissioner. State officials agreed to never take notes about the well data and to allow the oil companies to express an opinion on designated successors with data privileges.

As the protector of oil and gas information, both public and private, the conservation commission guards the KIC well information the way a poker player guards a hole card. The well data is valuable because of what it reveals about the geology of the coastal plain and companies that want to bid on leases will be willing to pay for that information.

In 1991, a Chevron geologist said that fewer than 10 people knew what was found at the bottom of the 15,200-foot hole drilled on a lease from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

One of the problems with the spilled secret claims is that DeMarban wrote that French was not the only one who revealed the secret to him in 2017.

DeMarban wrote that Foerster “also shared the data’s location and details about the security measures surrounding it.”

"All our confidential information is secure, but this is the most secured bit of our confidential information," Foerster, a longtime AOGCC member told DeMarban in 2017. He asked her if a photo of the safe could be taken: "Not only no, but hell no," she said.

Foerster told DeMarban that she had never looked inside the safe.

When DeMarban interviewed her as part of his reporting on French’s dismissal, she denied that she had told him about the locked safe in 2017. DeMarban repeated to her that she had told him about the safe and she replied, “I’m not under investigation.”

Seamount said Foerster had told him that French talked to the reporter first, who then went to Foerster, who told him “hell no.”

The hearing officer said that Seamount and Foerster did not confront French about his comments to the newspaper, but decided to move the KIC-1 well data to a secret location without telling French. He learned of the move about a year-and-a-half later after giving a tour to a law student.

Seamount said the location of the well data was on a “need-to-know basis” and French did not need to know.

On Feb. 26, Dunleavy followed through on the firing, but did not include the alleged security breach as a reason, realizing that French had not put the well data at risk, despite the bulldozer scenario and the prospect of a caper to steal the codes.

The governor listed “chronic absenteeism” and a failure to complete routine work as reasons for the firing, charges that French denied.

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