Three days after the release of his potentially damaging memo questioning the legality of the state's gas pipeline negotiations, Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin is nowhere to be found.
The commissioner is on leave, a receptionist at the Department of Natural Resources said. Department spokesman Dan Saddler said he can't contradict that, but he directed any questions about Irwin's "status" to Gov. Frank Murkowski's office.
Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg declined to answer questions about Irwin's status or whether he had taken a break from the job. Irwin's absence comes on the heels of the release of his memo written to Attorney General David Marquez.
"I don't have any comment on the status of the commissioner," Hultberg said.
Irwin last Thursday asked for the attorney general's advice on whether the state is operating outside the law as it pushes to close negotiations with three North Slope oil producers for fiscal terms to build a natural gas pipeline. Irwin says the questions have created a work environment in which some members of the state's gas line team are considering resigning.
Murkowski himself released the memo to the public on Friday. The governor takes Irwin's questions very seriously and has asked the Department of Law to respond quickly and thoroughly, Hultberg said. Any resulting legal opinion will be released to the public, she said.
Department of Law spokesman Mark Morones said he didn't know how Marquez would proceed.
Hultberg won't talk about Irwin and says the governor has no timetable to discuss Irwin's employment status. Asked if Irwin's memo would halt or delay the negotiations, Hultberg said, "This project is too important for Alaska and Alaska's future to allow any one event or person to disrupt the process."
She declined to address the individual issues Irwin raised in his memo. She said they have been discussed thoroughly among the members of the state's gas line team, with different conclusions.
Dan Dickinson, the former state tax commissioner now on the negotiating team, said the memo raised real issues but also may be the product of inside politicking over the gas line talks.
"He's identified some very real issues, but they're issues that we're aware of," Dickinson said.
Saddler said the memo was covered by attorney-client privilege and the confidentiality of the negotiations, and he declined to elaborate on the issues Irwin raises. The memo speaks for itself, he said.
In his memo, Irwin says the state's proposed contract could:
Alter the taxes of existing oil infrastructure and production;
Prevent the state from taking the producers to court or issuing administrative decisions if they breach the contract;
Put the state at risk by receiving its royalties in gas, which would not necessarily advance the project;
Ease the producers' obligation to develop Point Thomson's gas. Irwin's department has been under "substantial and continuing pressure" to endorse those terms, he writes;
Fix fiscal terms for 30 years and call for the state's financial support, which economic models show is unnecessary;
Require the Legislature to change the law under which negotiations were held to conform to the contract;
Not include evaluations of any other proposal, including competing applications from TransCanada and the Alaska Gasline Port Authority.
He also writes the negotiations being held under the Stranded Gas Act may be for gas that can't be considered stranded any more. Stranded gas is gas that is not marketed due to prevailing costs or price conditions as determined by an economic analysis by the state's revenue commissioner.
Economic models now show Point Thomson and Prudhoe Bay gas don't meet that definition, Irwin writes.