Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin is out of a job and six of his top staffers are resigning following an e-mail Irwin sent to the attorney general last week criticizing a future gas pipeline contract.
Gov. Frank Murkowski made the announcement in Anchorage on Thursday. Asked whether he fired Irwin, Murkowski answered indirectly.
"We mutually agreed that it is in the interest of the Department of Natural Resources that I seek a replacement to lead the department at this time," he said.
The word "dismissal" was used in the letters of resignation sent by the department's outgoing staff.
Irwin is leaving because he didn't see eye-to-eye on the goal of getting a contract from the producers, Murkowski said.
"I expect every member of my cabinet to confer with me on major policy issues as they arise," he said.
An appropriate time to question the contract would be after it is signed and open for public comments and debate in the Alaska Legislature, the governor said.
Attempts to reach Irwin for comment were unsuccessful.
"It's a sad day for Alaska when someone loses his job for asking good questions and for standing up for the best interests of Alaska," the Alaska House and Senate Democrats said in a written statement.
Also leaving the department are deputy commissioners Marty Rutherford and Richard LeFebvre; Mark Myers, state geologist and director of the Division of Oil and Gas; William Jeffress, director of the Office of Project Management Permits; Robert Loeffler, director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water; and Nancy Welch, department project assistant.
"For them to sacrifice their careers tells me it's an issue of grave concern," said Lori Backes, executive director of the All Alaska Alliance, a group that supports a rival proposal to build a trans-Alaska pipeline to Valdez.
The state is negotiating with three oil producers - BP, Conoco Phillips and Exxon Mobil - to develop and transport natural gas from the North Slope to markets in the Midwest via a $20 billion pipeline through Canada.
Conoco Phillips signed a contract last week but the other two have yet to agree.
The governor said he doesn't expect the departures to throw off the negotiations.
While there were questions on Irwin's whereabouts this week, the governor said that after he received the e-mail Irwin was placed on administrative leave until he could meet with him personally in response to the e-mail.
The e-mail sent to the attorney general contained an inside look at negotiations that are still not open to the public. In the letter, Irwin asked if an agreement would require new legislation to get to the gas.
Also in the e-mail, he stated that a contract wherein producers and the state own a part of the pipeline would alter taxes on existing oil infrastructure, prevent the state from taking producers to court if there is a breach of contract, and put the state at financial risk by awarding royalties in gas rather than cash.
Murkowski distributed the e-mail to the media after an Oct. 21 press conference. He and Marquez said it was not marked confidential and distributing it did not breach confidentiality agreements with the producer.
Irwin said earlier he believed the memo was confidential.
Mike Menge, the governor's adviser on oil and gas, will replace Irwin.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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