FAIRBANKS - The new director of the Department of Natural Resources says his focus is on getting the best gas line deal possible for Alaskans, and he isn't worried about any perception that he's a "yes" man for the Murkowski administration.
"I don't take it seriously because I'm very secure with what I know and my job," Mike Menge, 58, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "As time goes on, people will look at my actions and judge for themselves."
Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski promoted Menge to the job Oct. 27 after publically removing Tom Irwin from the post after Irwin wrote a memo criticizing the governor for giving up too much in a draft gas line contract with oil producers. Six of Irwin's top deputies resigned in protest over his removal.
Menge assumes responsibility for overseeing negotiations for the natural gas pipeline contract with BP and Exxon Mobil (ConocoPhillips has agreed to base contract terms) and the rewriting of oil taxes on the North Slope, projects worth billions of dollars to the state treasury.
"It was bad timing, bad politics and a bad decision to let Commissioner Irwin go," said Speaker of the House John Harris, R-Valdez.
Harris and other lawmakers said the dismissal of Irwin will draw greater scrutiny to decisions made by Menge and his department, and could make it more difficult for the governor to get a gas line contract through the Legislature.
"The administration has their work cut out for them," he said.
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras said some will wonder if Menge will side with the governor.
"He's going to have a difficult time because of the manner in which he came to the job," said Ramas, who as co-chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources would sit on the review panel for Menge's confirmation hearings.
Menge has had a long association with Murkowski, serving seven years on the U.S. Senate Energy Committee, which Murkowski chaired when he was in the Senate. He helped draft federal legislation to provide incentives and loan guarantees to build a gas pipeline.
Menge joined Murkowski's administration as energy adviser in August 2003, quickly becoming a member of the governor's gas line negotiating team.
"He's a bright individual who has worked hard on the governor's vision of what the gas line should be," said Anchorage Democrat and gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ethan Berkowitz. "But there's definitely going to be a heightened level of scrutiny on him now."
Menge said he has "a pretty good understanding of what it's going to take" to get a pipeline built. "I'm extremely comfortable with the position the governor has taken and I look forward to defending it when it's finally released."