Lawmakers promise tough review process for pipeline contract

Legislators: Hearings will be more stringent following governor's firing of critic Irwin

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Former Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin is likely to be called to testify before the Legislature next year in what lawmakers vow will be a rigorous review of the natural gas pipeline contract being pursued by the governor.

The review process for the $20 billion natural gas pipeline will include testimony from independent experts on the state's financial outlook, according to both Republicans and Democrats.

They said the review will be more stringent following Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski's public removal of Irwin after he wrote a memo criticizing the governor for giving up too much in a draft gas line contract with oil producers.

Six of Irwin's deputies resigned in protest. They were all closely involved in the gas line negotiations.

"The scrutiny of anything that comes from the administration now is upped because of the issues that have been raised," said Valdez Republican Rep. John Harris, speaker of the House of Representatives.

The issues Irwin raised in the internal e-mail to state Attorney General David Marquez have become a red flag to legislators.

"I think hearing from Irwin and the others is important," Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg said. "Whether the administration wants it or not, the public is going to demand it."

Irwin's memo provides a road map to the most challenging parts of the negotiations.

"Every legislator is going to want to ask them how they came to this agreement," Harris said. "And if they can't explain, it's going to be hard for them to get the votes they need to approve the contract."

The state has been negotiating for two years with a trio of oil companies - ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and BP - on royalties, taxes and other terms of a project to bring natural gas from the North Slope to market in the Lower 48. Details of those negotiations have been kept secret under the Alaska Stranded Gas Act.

In addition to Irwin, legislators are likely to call on former state Oil and Gas Director Mark Myers to answer questions about why oil taxes are included in negotiations for a gas line.

Legislators will also want to know how the contract compares with earlier offers the administration made to the producers and why the governor has not moved on competing plans from the Alaska Gasline Port Authority and TransCanada.

"All options need to be on the table and the Legislature needs to look at them all for the benefit of Alaskans," Harris said. "That includes competing proposals from the Alaska Gasline Port Authority and TransCanada."

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