Robin Brena made a fortune as an attorney fighting Alaska’s biggest oil companies. But for nearly three decades, he largely stayed away from politics, investing money in his commercial real estate business instead.
Then, in 2013, the Legislature passed an industry-supported rewrite of Alaska’s oil tax laws – with help from the votes of two senators employed by ConocoPhillips.
A year later, opponents of the measure tried to repeal the bill at the polls through a referendum, but they lost the public vote to a multi-million dollar, industry-backed campaign.
Brena, 64, supported the repeal effort and since then has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to like-minded political candidates, in hopes of getting what he describes as Alaska’s “fair share” in production taxes from the state’s largest oil-fields.
But that effort has so far failed to produce a tax overhaul, and a frustrated Brena is now chairing a citizens initiative to raise oil taxes. He’s also the effort’s top funder, contributing more than $100,000 so far.
“All you need for something bad to happen is the people that know better remain silent,” Brena said in an interview at his law office, inside a building owned by his real estate firm. “I’m an Alaskan first and foremost, and I’m going to stand up for Alaska. And I want to be sure that Alaska gets a fair deal for their oil.”
The initiative targets some of Alaska’s oldest and largest oil fields, and it would levy what Brena’s side estimates as an additional $1 billion in taxes on the state’s biggest producers: BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.
Brena has made a career of battling those same companies in court.
In some of those cases, Brena represented the public, working for Alaska municipalities that were seeking more property tax revenue from the companies, which are the primary owners of the trans-Alaska pipeline.
But in other cases, Brena’s clients were actually oil companies. Among them was Tesoro, the large, independent oil refiner that was disputing fees the pipeline owners charged to ship crude from the North Slope to the port of Valdez, 800 miles away.
Between just those two areas of work, Brena won hundreds of millions of dollars from the owner companies for his clients. And his legal victories, according to friends, were also worth millions of dollars to Brena himself.
Now, Brena is taking that money and putting it into a fight against those same oil companies — this time at the ballot box.
“I believe Alaskans don’t know all the details perhaps, because they can’t be known,” Brena said. “Because we’re treated like mushrooms – you know, we’re kept in a dark room, and we’re fed cow manure.”
Brena’s work has won him praise from his clients, but it has not endeared him to the major players in Alaska’s oil industry.
Officials and attorneys currently working with those companies did not want to speak publicly about him. But Dick Rabinow, a former president of ExxonMobil’s pipeline company, described Brena as a persistent thorn in the industry’s side.
“It was pain, to deal with him,” Rabinow, who’s retired from the pipeline company, said in a phone interview from Houston.
Rabinow didn’t work with Brena directly. But he was familiar with his work, which directly affected ExxonMobil and the other companies.
The legal fights in Alaska that Brena was involved in extended over many years and an array of cases, which Rabinow said was different from the rest of the country. Arrangements between companies and landowners in the Lower 48 were more stable, Rabinow said.
In Alaska, “you think you’ve spent a lot of time and money to work something out,” Rabinow said. “And next year and the year after and the year after, people are coming back at you. It’s very frustrating, and it costs money.”
Brena, for his part, relished the opportunity to take on the major oil companies and their teams of lawyers in court. Many of the industry attorneys he litigated against were specialists from the Lower 48, and he described his experience as like “a farm boy given the chance to compete in the NBA.”
Brena grew up in the tiny Southeast Alaska gold rush town of Skagway, where his father ran a bar called the Pack Train Inn.
His father died when Brena was 12, and Brena worked on the White Pass & Yukon Railway to support his family, he said. The railroad was one of the town’s major industries, moving ore from mines in Canada to Skagway’s port.
“I started when I was 17, in high school, working as a janitor in the roundhouse,” he said. “If there’s a job on the railroad, I’ve done it.”
After high school, many of Brena’s friends worked construction on Alaska’s oil pipeline. Brena went to college, then spent a decade accumulating graduate degrees: a master’s of business and finance, a law degree and a master’s of real estate and finance law.
Then he started work as an attorney back in Alaska, and by the mid-1980s was working on complicated oil and gas litigation.
Ultimately, Brena got involved in a series of big cases against Alaska’s major oil companies, with proceedings before the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, state courts and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
As an attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the City of Valdez, Brena argued that the value of the pipeline, for property tax purposes, was billions of dollars more than its owners asserted. In one of a set of cases, a Superior Court judge set the pipeline’s value at $10 billion, more than 10 times the $850 million that the companies had asserted. The Alaska Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
In another set of cases, working for Tesoro, Brena successfully argued that the pipeline’s owners had charged “unjust, unreasonable” rates to ship oil from the North Slope to Valdez.
“When it comes to pipeline rate cases, there’s probably not a better lawyer on the planet than Robin Brena,” said Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, a former law partner of Brena’s. “The owners of the pipeline — those companies hired the best they could find, across the country, and they brought them to Alaska to litigate against Robin Brena. And he beat them every time.”
Those cases helped Brena build his real estate company, RSD Properties. The “R” is for Robin; the “S” and “D” are for the names of his children. All three letters are bolted to his law offices, as well as the downtown Anchorage building that houses the oil tax initiative’s headquarters.
RSD owns nine office buildings in Anchorage, and it’s now developing what’s called a “co-working” business, a type of shared workspace.
Over the past decade, though, Brena has also become increasingly involved in Alaska politics.
He’s contributed roughly $500,000 to state-level candidates and causes since 2012, according to public records. He was a major financial supporter of former independent Gov. Bill Walker. And after Walker, also an attorney, was elected governor in 2014, Brena bought Walker’s law firm.
Last year, after losing his re-election bid, Walker became a partner at Brena’s firm.
Brena and his friends describe the 2013 passage of Senate Bill 21 – the last major rewrite of Alaska’s oil tax regime – as a galvanizing moment. The bill passed the Legislature with votes from Republican state Sens. Peter Micciche of Soldotna and Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, both of whom worked for ConocoPhillips. Meyer is now lieutenant governor.
Brena calls the legislation a “giveaway,” and he said he was particularly frustrated by the millions of dollars that oil companies spent fighting the repeal campaign. The state’s current oil tax structure, he argues, doesn’t bring in enough money to sustain what he calls a “modern Alaska.”
Nonetheless, Brena says he’s pro-oil and pro-development, arguing that his work for Tesoro boosted the value of Alaska’s petroleum by reducing the fees charged by the pipeline owners for the shipment of oil.
Critics argue that Brena’s campaign ignores the downsides of higher taxes. Jason Grenn, a former Anchorage independent representative, said the oil tax initiative overlooks the risk of lower oil company investment, less oil production and fewer jobs.
“It’s painting a really great picture,” Grenn said. “But in six or seven years, if we have more job loss, more property taxes gone, that will hurt worse than any gains that will be brought through.”
Brena described himself as a counterweight to those arguments, which he’s worried will otherwise go unchallenged.
He wouldn’t say exactly how much he’ll ultimately spend on the initiative, in the face of what will likely be a multi-million dollar opposition campaign from Alaska’s major oil producers. Instead, he offered a hint: “My personal commitment to Alaskans is I’m going to do everything I can to give you a choice about your own future.”