Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has let her energy platform be dumbed down to "drill, baby, drill," but her actual record on energy is much more responsible, balanced and substantial.
In just two years as governor:
She worked with lawmakers and used her popularity to vastly increase Alaska's take-home share of its oil wealth, providing the state with billions of dollars in budget surplus with an oil tax that increased both the base rate and captured progressively more at higher oil prices.
She encouraged new investment and exploration with generous, intelligent tax credits.
She kick-started investment in a natural gas pipeline -- both through her own Alaska Gasline Inducement Act and the response by North Slope producers BP Alaska and Conoco Phillips, who pledge to spend up to $600 million on their own project.
She maintained her predecessor's hard- line stance with Exxon/Mobil over development of the Point Thomson gas reserves, ultimately deciding to take the leases back rather the trust Exxon to make good on its umpteenth promise to produce. That prompted Exxon to go to court. That also prompted Exxon to promise $1.3 billion of work on Point Thomson.
She proposed a Renewable Energy Fund that lawmakers last session approved for $250 million over five years. This is money to bankroll wind, geothermal, tidal and other forms of renewable energy.
She supported lawmakers' work on home energy conservation, including $200 million for the Weatherization Program that increased the qualifying income limits for individuals and families and $100 million for the Home Energy Rebate Program, which provides up to $10,000 per household for energy efficiency improvements.
ALLIES, GOOD TIMING HELPED
Gov. Palin can't claim sole credit for any of this. She's had the help of an able team on oil taxes and the gas pipeline. Democratic lawmakers fortified her oil tax proposal. She took advantage of what Juneau economist and writer Gregg Erickson called a striking confluence of events -- skyrocketing oil prices, Alaska's political corruption scandal, the oil industry's troubles with North Slope pipeline maintenance and Exxon's continued spill judgment appeals, and reports of declining investment in Alaska.
But Gov. Palin did parlay her unprecedented popularity and those favorable circumstances to give Alaska something closer to a state energy policy than anything the United States has by way of a national policy.
Energy is her strong suit, but not because of technical expertise. Energy is her strong suit because she set some clear goals, hired able help, had the guts to stand her ground and the flexibility to accommodate changes. Energy politics is where she's invested her energy.
ACES -- Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share -- was the top achievement of her first year in office. Smart advisers told her to drop a gross tax plan, which she backed during her campaign for its simplicity, and instead capture more revenue with the more complicated net profits tax. She listened and learned, and then had her team persuade doubtful lawmakers that this was the way to go.
In turn, she didn't blink when Democrats pushed to put ACES on steroids -- at $95 a barrel, for example, the enhanced ACES collected $2.4 billion more for the state than the 2006 plan, while Gov. Palin's proposal would have collected $650 million more.
The process was open and fair, washed away whatever corruption tainted the 2006 tax, made Alaska richer and left plenty on the table for oil companies.
As with ACES, Gov. Palin was determined to undo the work of the governor she unseated, Frank Murkowski. She refused direct negotiations with the producers and was undeterred when they declined to participate in the process required by her Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. The state received only one conforming bid, from TransCanada, to apply for the right to build a gas line. But TransCanada's bid was accepted by the governor and approved by the Legislature.
Meanwhile, BP Alaska and Conoco Phillips announced their own gas line endeavor, the Denali Project.
That's more progress toward a gas line than any of Gov. Palin's predecessors achieved.
But progress isn't a pipeline. Palin is padding her resume when she says we're "building" a pipeline. There's no pipe, no final permits, no financing, no shipping agreements. There is investment and prep work in the tens of millions, with the potential for more than $1 billion, including $500 million for TransCanada. The wisdom of Palin's strategy has yet to be proven in pipe.
ExxonMobil has delayed development of gas reserves at Point Thomson for 30 years and paid $20 million in nonperformance penalties. Exxon's latest pledge, a $1.3 billion plan to produce natural gas liquids, didn't impress Palin's natural resources commissioner Tom Irwin. He turned Exxon down and Alaska moved to take the leases back from Exxon.
Despite not having clear title to the leases, Exxon plans drilling work next season and has talked about an out-of-court settlement with the state. That would suit Palin provided Exxon proves it will finally deliver on its promises.
Gov. Palin's $1,200 boost to Alaskans' Permanent Fund dividend checks drew criticism on these pages primarily because there were better ways to invest more than $800 million to deliver long-term energy relief, and because the program gave the same help to those who needed it and those who didn't. Politically, though, it made perfect sense. Alaskans strapped by high gasoline and utility costs -- especially Alaskans living in villages off the road system -- have seen already lean budgets crushed by energy prices. And like the program or not, it was logical: Use some of Alaska's treasure from high energy prices to offset those costs for Alaskans.
Others criticized Palin for not using the rebate program as a springboard for more conservation measures, what environmentalist Kate Troll called "missing a teachable moment." Maybe so, but Palin could argue that affordable beats teachable.
Affordable describes Alaska's three-part plan for energy conservation on the home front. Unlike Dick Cheney, the man she hopes to replace, Palin never dismissed conservation as a personal virtue. She invested in it. The Home Energy Rebate, Weatherization and Second Mortgage programs offer Alaskans a choice of help to make their homes more energy efficient, and Palin backed more liberal qualifying rules and $300 million in state support. Economist Erickson questions whether such programs provide sufficient return on a statewide basis to justify the costs. That's debatable, but there's no question Alaskans can gain from the energy audits and state-paid home improvements.
Alaskans hope $250 million over five years will buy breakthroughs in tapping tidal power, wind, geothermal energy and hydro projects. Palin has seen in Alaska's oil wealth budget surplus an opportunity to lead the way in clean, alternative energy projects, to diversify Alaska energy production and to better take advantage of all of the state's natural resources and forces.
WHO'S IN CHARGE?
Perhaps Palin's greatest accomplishment in her two years as governor was neither AGIA nor ACES nor $1,200 extra for every man, woman and child. Maybe it was simply that she helped to break the dominance of the oil industry in Alaska politics. Again, she wasn't Joan of Arc here; the FBI did the heavy lifting. But her gumption in confronting both the Republican power structure and the major oil producers was in evidence before the FBI raids of 2006. Palin can take some credit for reestablishing who holds sovereign power in Alaska. Three years ago it looked like the oil industry and Veco. Not today.
Palin won't be invited to a conference of international oil consultants. She wouldn't belong there.
But her Alaska record shows she's paid attention, can see beyond drilling platforms and isn't afraid to take on the industry when the public good demands it. So far on the campaign trail she's shown gumption without vision on the subject of energy. Rather than pad her resume, she should build on it; she's got more to offer than "drill, baby, drill."