This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
Gov. Frank Murkowski, in a session with the Daily News-Miner editorial board Friday, was asked whether he would do anything different if he had the opportunity to redo events of the last week regarding debate within his administration about the proposed natural gas pipeline.
That's too bad, because Alaska is worse off due to those events. A devoted commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources was dismissed for holding strongly to his view that the governor is taking Alaska on the wrong course in the negotiations with the three oil companies who hold the North Slope gas leases. Six others in the department then chose to resign rather than work in this administration.
The governor downplayed the loss of these central figures, people who have gained intimate knowledge of the negotiations during their time on the governor's gas team and who had earned the respect of legislators working on the gas line issue for the House and Senate. The governor called the departures of Commissioner Tom Irwin, who has bipartisan support in the Legislature and who is viewed by outsiders as a decent and loyal Cabinet member, and several others a "bump in the road."
Reaction from legislators in the governor's own party on Friday suggest this is no bump. Instead, the governor has created a sinkhole out of which public acceptance and legislative approval of a gas line agreement with the oil companies might not emerge.
The governor has outright mishandled the public side of what is a deep divide within his administration.
It is certainly appropriate for a manager - or a governor - to tell subordinates that enough is enough, to tell them that their opposition to an idea has been noted but that it is time to get on board so the team can move ahead. But there is a way to go about it that does not undermine public confidence in the very project that the team is trying to advance - in this case the natural gas pipeline that Alaska wants and the nation needs.
In replacing Mr. Irwin with Mike Menge, an energy adviser whose association with Gov. Murkowski goes back to the governor's time as a U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the governor has installed what some describe as a "yes" man. That may or may not be fair, but the perception is that the new commissioner and the people he chooses to replace those who resigned will not challenge the governor and thereby threaten his consuming drive for a gas line agreement.
The departure of two deputy commissioners; the director of the Division of Oil and Gas; the director of the Division of Mining, Land and Water; the director of project management and permitting, and a project assistant has left the Department of Natural Resources, in words echoed by more than one legislator, with zero credibility on issues relating to the gas pipeline.
That's much more than the governor's "bump in the road." And he needs to recognize that.
Alaska must have people in the top positions at the Department of Natural Resources, the department that deals with the oil industry more than any other state department, who will continue to raise questions. Their challenge, however, is to do so in a manner that keeps them in those positions. The governor, for his part, must ensure an environment exists in which the public understands that dissenting views are encouraged.
At this moment and with what is known so far, however, Alaskans would be correct to have much less confidence in the ability of the Murkowski administration to act in the state's best interest in negotiating a pipeline agreement with ConocoPhillips, BP and Exxon Mobil.