Legislators plan to meet the day after Thanksgiving for a final update from the Parnell administration on the proposed natural gas pipeline. But they won't be allowed to attend unless they sign a secrecy pledge.
While some lawmakers will decline to take the pledge, the Legislature arrived at this point because of a 69-page Parnell administration bill it approved overwhelmingly last spring that stresses secrecy on key details about the proposed Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas project. The title of the bill alone runs to 480 words.
The Alaska Legislature's internal rules prohibit the exclusion of any legislator from an executive session, but the new law amounts to a decision by lawmakers to put a new restriction on themselves, Doug Gardner, the director of legal services for the Alaska Legislature, wrote Tuesday to Sen. Anna Fairclough, chairwoman of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee.
In an email to all legislators Tuesday, Fairclough said lawmakers "and staff will have to sign the agreement in order to sit in and participate in the meeting" Friday in Anchorage. She asked that lawmakers respond by next Monday with any concerns.
"I believe it is important to hear an update from the outgoing administration on the work they have accomplished to date, as well as understand the groundwork that has been done for future development of the project," she wrote.
What is unclear is how the disclosure rules might change after Bill Walker takes over as governor in two weeks. During the campaign, he criticized the Parnell administration for keeping too much information confidential. He said it was "untenable" for legislators to have to sign a secrecy pledge.
"This means public representatives will not be able to share information with their constituents and must hold policy discussions behind closed doors," Walker wrote in October. "My solution is to mandate public disclosure, except when a company can make a showing under legal guidelines as to why very specific information should be kept confidential. Transparency should be the rule, not the exception. There is ample precedent for this approach under Alaska law."
That would require a revision of the "Alaska LNG Project Confidentiality Agreement," which took effect May 9, outlining how information shared with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Revenue could be provided to lawmakers, but withheld from the public.
The Parnell administration, legislative leaders and the oil companies signed off on a three-page non-disclosure statement, the final text of which went to the full Legislature on Tuesday.
"Provided no confidential information is disclosed, shared, published or otherwise disseminated, I may express general thoughts, opinions or factual conclusions as I otherwise would in the ordinary course of my legislative work," the pledge says.
Under the Parnell plan, final contracts needing legislative approval would become public documents, which the governor has cited as proof that the process is the "most transparent gas line" project ever in Alaska. But the "discussions, documents, data, software, analyses, work product, notes and information that contains or is based on the confidential portions of any contract to be negotiated" would not be released to the public.
The agreement says it expires in early 2017, but the restrictions on lawmakers would remain in effect after that because "confidential information covered by this agreement remains confidential as provided by the terms of this agreement," the pledge says.
The document says that the secrecy is needed because public disclosure "could negatively impact the ability of the state to maximize the value of the state's natural gas resources to benefit all Alaskans, including securing optimal sales prices for the state's share of liquefied natural gas from the project and securing natural gas for distribution in-state to Alaskans."
The oil companies, meanwhile, believe that public disclosure would harm their efforts to maximize the value of their resources or get optimal sales prices for gas that they own. Such disclosure would also benefit their competitors, they contend.
The agreement calls upon those who sign it to "make a good faith effort to return or destroy any or all confidential information." If lawmakers choose to destroy the information, they promise to notify the DNR commissioner in writing.
If a lawmaker is required by law, a court order or a regulatory authority to disclose secret information, the lawmaker must notify the DNR commissioner first, "so that an appropriate order or waiver of compliance with the terms of this agreement may be sought."