John McCain’s surprise pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate has a lot of environmentalists in the state worried about the influence she might have on the presidential candidate’s environmental policy. McCain has worked hard to portray himself as a green Republican, but Palin has developed an anti-environmental reputation during her 20 months as governor, according to many in the state.
Her office in downtown Anchorage sits beside the ConocoPhillips building. “When I look every day, the big oil company’s building is right out there next to me, and it’s quite a reminder that we should have mutually beneficial relationships with the oil industry,” she said recently. Most people in the Alaskan environmental community see her as an ally of Big Oil, willing to set aside both science and the public good to benefit the industry.
“I think it’s a really extreme choice from a conservation perspective,” says Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage-based environmental lawyer who has advocated for the state’s native and conservation groups on environmental concerns for the past 15 years. “Picking Palin moves [McCain] even farther to right.”
Like Van Tuyn, many enviros in the state express concern about her push to open up more areas to oil and gas drilling, her stances against protecting endangered species, and her past denials of anthropogenic climate change.
But even environmentalists praise her for taking on political corruption related to the oil and gas industry. And other observers note that Palin has gone to battle against Big Oil on a number of issues, most notably pushing through a big tax increase on oil companies last year. “She’s viewed … as almost anti-oil” in her home state, Alaskan GOP pollster Mark Hellenthal told the Associated Press. “She’s probably pro-oil from a national perspective, but she’s not in the pocket of Big Oil. She’s fought them at every step.”
An inhospitable climate
Palin’s beliefs on global warming contrast sharply with those of McCain, who has long warned about the dangers of human-caused climate change and who in 2003 cosponsored the first major bill in the Senate to address the problem. McCain consistently talks up his climate change plan on the campaign trail and in his TV ads.
Palin’s got a different take. “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location,” Palin told Newsmax in an interview published on Friday. But, she added, “I’m not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made.”
In 2006, while running for governor, Palin said of climate change, “I will not pretend to have all the answers,” and cautioned against “overreaction” on the issue. A Palin spokesperson in 2006 said, “She’s not totally convinced one way or the other. Science will tell us … She thinks the jury’s still out.”
After Palin joined McCain’s ticket, her spokesperson said, “Gov. Palin not only stands with John McCain in his belief that global warming is a critical issue that must be addressed, but she has been a leader in addressing climate change.” Note that the statement dodges the issue of whether humans are responsible for global warming.
“I wouldn’t call her a climate change denier, but she is extremely close to that position,” John Toppenberg, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, told Grist. “She seems to be failing to acknowledge virtually all credible science.”
Still, Palin has taken some small steps on climate change, creating a committee to develop Alaska’s climate-change strategy and making Alaska an observer, though not a member, of the Western Climate Initiative.
Drill here, drill now
Palin has a complicated relationship with the oil industry. Last year, she pushed through new oil taxes in Alaska, arguing that the tax plan proposed by the previous governor, Frank Murkowski, was too favorable to the industry. The new tax brought in about $6 billion during the last fiscal year, contributing to an expected budget surplus of as much as $9 billion. Palin used some of that excess to give each Alaskan $1,200 to help them deal with rising energy costs.
Palin says that she, like McCain, opposes the idea of a “windfall profits” tax on oil companies. And yet her strategy in Alaska looks an awful lot like Barack Obama’s plan to impose a windfall-profits tax and use the money to give each American $1,000 to help offset pain at the pump. Palin even praised some aspects of Obama’s energy plan earlier this month.
With billions from the new oil tax pouring in to Alaska’s treasury, it’s no wonder that Palin wants to give the oil industry more opportunities to drill — and more opportunities to be taxed. She has been an avid supporter of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, as well as offshore areas, and has even chastised the Bush administration for not pushing hard enough to allow more drilling in her state.
“We have so much potential from tapping our resources here in Alaska. And we can do this with minimum environmental impact,” she said in her recent Newsmax interview. “We have a very pro-development president in President Bush, and yet he failed to push for opening up parts of Alaska to drilling through Congress — and a Republican-controlled Congress, I might add.”
In the past, Palin has been critical of McCain’s stance on drilling in the refuge. “Sen. McCain is wrong” on the issue of oil drilling, she said during a June 25 appearance on CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company.” “I think he’s going to evolve into eventually supporting ANWR opening … I’d like the opportunity to change his mind about ANWR,” she added.
While McCain previously opposed offshore drilling, this summer he changed his position; he now calls for the moratorium on offshore drilling to be lifted. He has long been a staunch opponent of drilling in the Arctic Refuge, but he’s been sounding a little less staunch lately. In June, he indicated at a campaign event in Missouri that he’d be “happy to examine it again.”
“ANWR is something that so far Sen. McCain has stood strong on,” said Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Cindy Shogan. “We’re very concerned. Gov. Palin is a typical Alaska Republican. She wants to drill everywhere regardless of the impacts on the environment and the people.”
On Friday, McCain spokesperson Michael Goldfarb said, “Though Sen. McCain opposes drilling in ANWR, he continues to examine the issue in light of America’s energy needs.”
“I have really appreciated John McCain’s hard work on the Arctic Refuge in the past,” said Van Tuyn, who has previously worked with McCain on the issue. “It’s just been great. But I have seen the man change before my eyes on so many issues — even offshore drilling — and he’s said recently he’d reconsider the Arctic Refuge.” Van Tuyn said that Palin’s selection makes him worry that McCain could shift on this issue as well.
Frank Maisano, who represents the energy industry with the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said Palin will lend some first-hand knowledge of the oil industry to the Republican ticket.
“Anybody who has any understanding of the oil industry and what it takes to get a barrel of oil out of the ground and to a consumer eventually, and the hard work and complexity that goes into that, is going to be a value,” said Maisano. “Anybody that has to deal with these industries on a regular basis like the governor of Alaska has to is going to have a much deeper understanding of the complexity and the difficulty of doing the work.”
Despite her pro-drilling stance, Palin has expressed reservations about drills moving into Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which Bush opened to drilling last year. Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon population and other big salmon runs. Said Palin, “the fear would be that our very rich fish resources would be put in jeopardy.” Her family owns a commercial fishing business. At the same time, Palin’s husband is an oil production operator for BP on Alaska’s North Slope.
Palin made a name for herself in Alaska a few years ago by fighting corruption as chair of the Alaska Gas and Oil Conservation Commission from 2003 to 2004. She ended up resigning from the post to protest the “lack of ethics” demonstrated by fellow Alaskan Republican leaders. Her campaign for governor in 2006 was based largely on promoting transparency in government; she pitted herself against the party establishment to defeat incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski in the primary.
She has also gone head-to-head with Big Oil over construction plans for a trans-Alaska natural-gas pipeline. She wants one big enough that smaller companies can use it as well as the oil giants, and she didn’t like the terms the big companies had been negotiating with the Murkowski administration, which she said would have locked in pipeline-transit rates for decades and given the companies “a sweet deal.” ExxonMobil, ConocoPhilips, and BP have fought her pipeline plan, but she’s pushing ahead with it.
As for other forms of energy, there is some question as to where Palin stands. McCain has talked up renewables during his campaign, but Palin has been less bullish about their possibilities. “Alternative-energy solutions are far from imminent and would require more than 10 years to develop,” she said earlier this month.
Still, some environmental leaders in the state say she has voiced support for wind, hydro, and geothermal power, making her seem more open to renewables than her predecessors in the statehouse. Kate Troll, executive director of Alaska Conservation Voters, said Palin met with her group and seemed enthusiastic about the potential for renewables. But so far there’s been little more than verbal support for alternative energy sources.
“She presents a mixed bag of results. She’s a real strong supporter of drilling offshore and in the Arctic Refuge, and very strong on oil and gas issues, but at the same time she’s very strong on renewable energy,” said Troll. “How it all fits together, we don’t know, because she’s never really articulated her energy policy.” Troll says Palin pledged in June to outline a comprehensive energy plan and appointed an energy czar.
Clear and present endangerment
Another major concern for enviros is Palin’s stance on endangered species in the state. After the Bush administration’s Department of Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species in May, the governor sued the department. “We believe that the … decision to list the polar bear was not based on the best scientific and commercial data available,” said Palin, who also penned an op-ed in The New York Times on the subject.
Palin and other state officials expressed concern that listing polar bears as threatened would impair oil and gas development in the state. Palin argued that the listing decision was based on “the unproven long-term impact of any future climate change on the species” and that a “comprehensive review” of the federal science by state wildlife officials found no reason to support listing the bears as endangered.
But emails released via a public-records request later showed that Alaskan state scientists agreed with federal researchers that polar bears are threatened by shrinking ice. “Overall, we believe that the methods and analytical approaches used to examine the currently available information supports the primary conclusions and inferences stated” in federal reports, wrote Robert Small, head of the marine mammals program for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“This was the Bush administration Fish and Wildlife [Service]. It’s not like these people are bear-huggers,” said Van Tuyn. “State scientists looked at it and said that’s the best science, and Palin said, ‘Keep your mouths shut,’ and she turned around to the public and said, ‘I do not support listing the polar bear, the science doesn’t support it.'”
Palin has also opposed efforts to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales, a genetically distinct population of whales located only in this Alaskan inlet. Scientists estimate that they numbered 1,300 in the ’80s; now they’re down to just 375. Environmental groups have been pressing for a listing to protect the whales, but Palin has urged the federal government not to list, again citing threats to the oil and gas industry. “I am especially concerned that an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area,” said Palin in a statement last year.
Many in the state say she’s demonstrated again and again a willingness to protect business interests over environmental concerns. “There isn’t a threatened or endangered species that she likes in this state,” said Van Tuyn.
Palin has also drawn heat from conservationists for pushing to let citizens shoot wolves from the air, and for supporting looser bear-hunting rules aimed at reducing bear populations in order to inflate numbers of moose and caribou, which draw big-game hunters to the state. She opposed a ballot initiative to change the law so that only Department of Fish and Game personnel could shoot wolves or bears from the air. She drew even more criticism for using $400,000 of taxpayer money to “educate Alaskans” about “predator control.” The ballot initiative was voted down last week.
“Decimating them with ongoing perpetual programs is in no way in line with environmentally responsible predator management,” said Toppenberg of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. “The ecosystems up here are intact, but they certainly won’t be if we decimate the population in order to artificially inflate the population of moose and caribou.”
Mining vs. salmon
Palin has come into criticism recently for using her post as governor to influence a ballot initiative on clean water, which voters also rejected last week. “Proposition 4″ would have prohibited or restricted new mining operations that could affect salmon in the state’s streams and rivers, and was crafted in order to prevent the development of the Pebble Mine, which if approved would be the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America. Toxic runoff from the mine would threaten the Bristol Bay ecosystem, and put drinking water at risk. It is widely opposed by commercial fishers, native populations, and environmentalists in the state. While state regulatory agencies will get the final say on granting permits for the mine, the initiative would have made it considerably harder to move forward.
Just days before the vote on the ballot initiative, Palin stated publicly that she opposed it. “Let me take my governor’s hat off just for a minute here and tell you, personally, Prop. 4, I vote no on that,” she said. Groups that supported the measure argued that Palin’s comments were highly unethical. They also filed a legal complaint against the state government for improperly weighing in against Prop. 4 on the state’s website.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission ordered the state to take down the questionable web content, but said Palin’s public statement was permissible because she made it clear it was her personal opinion. Polls before her statement showed voters strongly in favor of the measure, but in the end nearly 60 percent of the public voted against it.
“Conventional wisdom around here is that [her statement] changed the tide on the proposition, from narrowly passing to being defeated,” said Van Tuyn.
Richard Jameson of the Renewable Resources Coalition, a nonprofit group that represents sportsmen, commercial fishermen, and native subsistence users and that cosponsored Prop. 4, said it’s been hard to get Palin to listen to their concerns about potential damage to fisheries. “We really haven’t had a good dialogue with her on the Pebble Mine or Prop. 4,” he said. “On the bigger issue, Pebble Mine, frankly we don’t know how she stands.”
On the ticket
David Jenkins, government affairs director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which endorsed McCain last October, on Friday said he believes Palin “will defer to the top of the ticket” on issues like the Arctic Refuge and climate policy. He also said he thinks she will be an overall benefit to the ticket.
“[McCain's] campaign has shown no sign of wavering on the refuge, so I don’t think there’s any reason to wring our hands over the pick of someone from Alaska,” said Jenkins. “I think it’s sort of a wait-and-see situation. She’s a good choice from the standpoint of what they need to do in this election.”
But other national environmental groups see her selection as a sign that McCain is moving to the right on energy and environmental issues.
“Gov. Palin will simply continue the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney administration and their Big Oil friends — policies that could make us even more dependent on foreign oil,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski. “Gov. Palin characterizes McCain’s flip-flop on drilling offshore as a positive step in his transformation from maverick to Big Oil’s best friend.”
Of course, it’s too early to know what sort of influence Palin will have on McCain as a candidate, much less what influence should would have if the two are elected this November. But her record in Alaska does raise questions about the McCain campaign’s commitment to environmental protection and climate action.