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Alaska official quiet after warning about pipeline
Anchorage Daily News


October 26, 2005

JUNEAU, Alaska - Gov. Frank Murkowski's office refused to say Monday whether Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin still has a job after his publicized warning that the state is giving up too much in the governor's gas line negotiations.

Meanwhile, several legislators from both parties said Monday that Irwin raised good questions about the gas pipeline talks. The lawmakers also said they were shocked that Murkowski had made Irwin's concerns public.

The governor at a Friday press conference released the memo Irwin wrote to the state attorney general. Irwin's memo questioned the legality of the negotiations between the governor's office and oil companies over a proposed natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48.

Legislators on Monday reported that rumors Irwin had been placed on administrative leave as punishment. Department of Natural Resources staff members said Irwin was not in the office and routed calls to special assistant Dan Saddler. He said he couldn't answer whether his boss was in trouble.

"You'll have to ask his supervisor, the governor, about that," Saddler said.

The governor's office wouldn't say whether Irwin has been fired.

"I just don't have any comment today on Commissioner Irwin's status," Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg repeated whenever asked questions about Irwin.

Irwin did not return multiple phone messages Monday. He has not spoken publicly about the memo since the governor released it Friday.

Murkowski appointed the sometimes gruff, no-nonsense Irwin as Natural Resources commissioner in 2003. Irwin was an executive with Fairbanks Gold Mining Inc. and had been operations manager and general manager of the Fort Knox and True North mines.

Irwin and members of his department are big players on the state's gas line negotiating team. He said in his memo the concerns he was expressing were so great they could result in resignations from the team. Anchorage Republican state Rep. Mike Hawker said over the weekend that the governor should accept any such resignations, including from Irwin himself.

Hawker said Monday that, in any organization, a chief executive must have the support of his subordinates.

Other legislators, though, said Irwin did the right thing.

"For me, after reading the memo, every question was a legitimate question," said North Pole Republican Rep. John Coghill, the majority leader of the state House.

Irwin raised eight legal questions. It challenged the basis for the negotiations, which are being done under the Stranded Gas Act. Irwin said that, since the data shows it is economical to build the roughly $20 billion pipeline, the gas isn't stranded and there's no need for the state to offer concessions to get the project built.

The memo said the Department of Natural Resources is "concerned that no modeling can show the need for the proposed fiscal support" the state is offering the companies. The memo didn't specifically discuss what the state is offering.

It did say the state was considering making the level of state oil tax part of the gas pipeline deal with the companies, BP, Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips.

The attorney general's office said it planned to respond this week to Irwin's legal questions.


Anchorage Daily News reporter Sean Cockerham can be reached at
Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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