Gov. Frank Murkowski's pick to head the department that regulates resource development is being praised by the industry and panned by environmentalists.
Tom Irwin, a former executive with Fairbanks Gold Mining Inc., was named Natural Resources Department commissioner Friday. In that position, he will oversee development and regulation of Alaska's oil, gas, mining and timber resources.
Judy Brady, executive director for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said Irwin is well suited to "untangle" what she characterized as lengthy permitting requirements in Alaska.
"This is a person who has a very fine reputation as a developer, well within the environmental standards in this state," Brady said.
Environmentalists who have clashed with Irwin over his past mining operations fear they will have a more difficult time fighting bad projects.
"In our worst moments we felt the Department of Natural Resources was in bed with the mining industry," said Mara Bacsujlaky of the Alaska Environmental Center. "And now Tom Irwin sort of legitimizes that."
Bacsujlaky was part of a group that fought Fairbanks Gold Mining and the state over right-of-way permits at the True North Mine, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks.
"He did not deal up front with the people and the public process was not well served with him," she said. "It's a bit of a disappointment."
But Bill Jeffress, manager of environmental services at Fairbanks Gold, praised Irwin's role in dealing with regulators.
"Tom was really patient," Jeffress told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "He took a lot of time explaining how we remove gold from the ore. He's a great communicator."
In making the appointment, Murkowski said the Fairbanks mining executive has a reputation for getting projects moving. The governor said Irwin and his agency will play a key role in balancing the state budget by helping generate new revenues through resource development, a major part of Murkowski's campaign platform.
Irwin said he looks forward to the job.
"We are going to work on generating more new wells," Irwin said. "I take this job very readily."
Irwin, 56, was also president of the Alaska Council of Producers and served along with other industry executives on a panel that examined the inner workings of the agency for Murkowski following his election.
The panel issued a report to the governor that made several recommendations aimed at aiding the state's resource extraction efforts. Among them, the panel asked for a repeal of the state's Coastal Management Program and limits to public interest litigation laws that aid environmental and citizen's groups opposed to some resource development projects.
Murkowski gave little indication about what recommendations he would advance before the Legislature during a press conference in Fairbanks on Friday.
Irwin has served as vice president of operations and of business development for Fairbanks Gold. He was operations manager and general manager for Fort Knox and True North mines from 1996-2001. Irwin came to Alaska in 1992 after serving as general manager of an Amax Gold Inc., mine in Nevada.
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