Irwin returns to finish job

Natural resources commissioner looks to play key role in gas line development

Posted: Monday, April 16, 2007

FAIRBANKS - It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Gov. Sarah Palin's gas pipeline bill - a plan she believes will one day help feed the nation's domestic natural gas supply - is about to get its first public debate.

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The hearing room on the fifth floor in Juneau's Capitol is packed with close to 40 people, standing room only with others peering through the open door, but there is a conspicuous absence: The Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin.

"I kept my promise to my family," Irwin said when he returned the next week. "I took them on a vacation."

No one publicly questioned his absence nor his commitment to a multibillion dollar project so big that North Slope oil and natural gas producers call it unprecedented in size and scope for its prospects of shipping 4.5 billion cubic feet of gas more than 3,000 miles daily.

Irwin could easily have stayed home in Fairbanks, enjoying the predictable structure of a corporate job that would get him home in time to play video games with his teenage grandson or street hockey with his granddaughters.

Instead, he returned to a job from which he was fired 18 months ago by former Gov. Frank Murkowski after writing a memo that questioned a gas line plan that administration was seeking to adopt.

In coming back, he exchanged a private life for a high profile position that will hold him, among a group of others on Palin's gas line team, accountable for a development deemed critical to the state's long-term economic future.

"I don't see it as taking a chance," Irwin said. "The job is only half done, so this is simply unfinished business. That's all."

He's a gregarious and devoutly religious man whose comfort in a public setting is seen when he discusses Palin's Alaska Gasline Inducement Act.

Palin's bill, known by the acronym AGIA, is designed to stimulate competition for the right to build a pipeline that could deliver North Slope natural gas to Alaska and Lower 48 consumers.

When it comes to talking about himself, Irwin deftly deflects the discussion to others he deems more topical, be it colleagues or his family.

And he refuses to criticize or second-guess the man who fired him, preferring to remain grateful for the initial appointment to oversee the state's resource development.

But it was Irwin's Oct. 20, 2005, challenge to Murkowski's negotiations with North Slope producers that cost him his job.

Irwin sent a confidential memo to former Attorney General David W. Marquez, asking whether the state was conducting negotiations outside the law and to the long-term detriment of the state.

He highlighted concerns about favorable tax treatment for North Slope producers BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips. Murkowski released the letter publicly and ultimately fired Irwin.

What ensued next, however, still leaves Irwin stunned. Seven days after he wrote the memo, six members of his staff walked, resigning in support of Irwin's position. One of those was Marty K. Rutherford, a single mom ready to buy a new home, whom Irwin implored to stay with the department.

Rutherford, playfully, but emphatically, reminded Irwin that having been fired he wasn't her boss anymore, so he couldn't tell her what to do. Her decision, as well as those from the other five deputy commissioners, was final.

The departures produced protests outside the governor's Anchorage office from citizens, some of whom identified the group as the "Magnificent Seven."

The mass resignation letters also put Irwin in stronger standing, said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

"It lent credibility that he wasn't just a rogue commissioner," Therriault said. "It was critical in getting the public's focus on what was happening.

Meanwhile, Palin had already announced her intent to run for governor and identified Irwin as a potential asset not only to her campaign but perhaps to her cabinet.

The two remained in touch regularly over the next year.

Palin's campaign moved toward a victory last November; Irwin accepted a job with Golden Valley Electric Association as its vice president for government and public affairs.

Palin made it clear during her campaign and after being sworn in that she wanted Irwin to return and finish the job.

But Irwin wasn't ready, at least not yet. His wife Sharon had taken a fall, breaking her arm and shoulder, though she is completely recovered.

Nearly two months after Palin was sworn in, Irwin announced his intent to return on Feb. 2. His wife, Sharon Irwin, said it was time for her husband to finish what he started.

"What he's doing is important," she said. "I think he's a very gifted person in getting people to work together. That's a real plus for what he is trying to accomplish."

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