Agreement to not sign gas deal on hold

Negotiations falter after governor's insistence it not be a court order

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski has made a tentative agreement not to sign a natural gas pipeline contract before Nov. 14, but the deal has been put on hold.

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The agreement was the result of negotiations between Bill Large, an attorney working for the Legislature, and the attorney general's office.

But at a hearing Thursday in Fairbanks, both sides said the agreement faltered over Murkowski's insistence that it not be turned into a court order.

The two sides will prepare briefs, and a new hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 9.

"We were willing to stipulate that the governor would not sign any gas pipeline contract until the 14th, they wanted it to say the court ordered him not to say that," said Murkowski spokesman John Manly. "When you get into that, the court is inserting itself into a political process it doesn't need to be in."

This week, eight state lawmakers acting on behalf of the Legislature for a temporary restraining order barring Murkowski from signing his fiscal contract with three oil companies.

Lawmakers have refused to authorize the contract with BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips that would set fiscal terms for the $25 billion North Slope pipeline. Most legislators believe the contract gives away too much to the oil companies.

The governor has refused to say that he won't sign it without legislative approval, which prompted the lawsuit.

A draft of the agreement was released to The Associated Press before the hearing. Murkowski, who is on a trade mission to Asia until Nov. 12, agreed not to sign the contract before Nov. 14. The two sides plan to ask that the hearing on the injunction be pushed back until Nov. 13.

If the court decides to schedule a hearing after Nov. 13, Murkowski will give lawmakers at least 48 hours notice before signing the contract, according to the draft.

"It is, in effect, the same thing we are seeking under the temporary restraining order," Large told the Legislative Council Thursday.

Murkowski leaves office Dec. 4, which would leave him about three weeks to decide whether to sign the contract.

The Legislative Council on Thursday approved joining the lawsuit, even though the Legislature was already named as a plaintiff without a vote of the council.

Seven of the lawmakers named as plaintiffs are on the council, and agreed earlier this week to name the Legislature as a plaintiff.

Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, said it was an "embarrassment" for the Legislature to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which he called an attempt to grab headlines.

He and Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, were the only two of the 14 council members to vote against joining the lawsuit.

Midway through Thursday's meeting, legislators read a news release from Murkowski in which the governor says he respects the Legislature's authority, but the contract needs to be ratified as soon as possible. The statement did not say whether the governor intends to sign the contract himself.

"If I had any qualms about moving forward on this front before, I don't now," said Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, after reading Murkowski's statement.

Large said the lawsuit was prompted by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, based on conversations Seekins had with Murkowski recently in which the governor would not unequivocally say that he would not sign the contract.

Seekins faces a competitive race to keep his seat in Tuesday's election against Democrat Joe Thomas.

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