Commentary: Where Palin stands on environmental issues

September 22, 2008 

The following was published Sunday as an editorial in the Anchorage Daily News

Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president, is a staunch believer in Alaska resource development -- and generally skeptical of measures that she thinks could slow or block development.

Here's where she stands on key environmental issues:

POLAR BEARS

Gov. Palin sued to overturn the Department of Interior's decision to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. She argued that Interior's decision was based on inconclusive science and that state biologists didn't agree with their federal colleagues.

Later, e-mails obtained -- despite Palin's initial resistance -- through Freedom of Information Act requests showed that three state biologists, including the top marine mammal scientist, agreed with federal conclusions.

This called into question the governor's reliance on science. Does she go only with the science she likes, in the manner of President Bush, or is she willing to face the results of a rigorous approach, even if those results create policy problems for her?

In addition, she worried that a threatened listing for the bears could curtail any development that increased greenhouse gas emissions. That's a possibility that both environmentalists and development advocates agree on, but it's not clear how the courts would rule and how much latitude federal or state governments would have in balancing economic against environmental interests.

PEBBLE MINE

Gov. Palin was a prominent foe of Ballot Measure 4 during the primary election in August. Proponents argued that the measure would sharply curtail mining waste discharges into Alaska waters to protect both people and salmon. The measure didn't mention Pebble Mine by name, but was aimed at stopping the proposed giant copper and gold mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska's largest salmon fishery.

Critics of the measure said its poor drafting cast the future of current mines in doubt. Campaign ads quoted the governor as saying Alaska already has sufficiently stringent regulations in place to protect Alaska's waters. Yet, after the vote, Teck-Cominco, owner the of the Red Dog zinc mine, tentatively settled a lawsuit by agreeing to build a 55-mile pipeline to route wastewater away from the Wulik River to the Chukchi Sea -- and to install filtration systems in every home in the village of Kivalina, which draws its drinking water from the Wulik.

The governor hasn't come out for or against Pebble, though most of the region's fishermen oppose it. Her opposition to Measure 4 riled Pebble foes, who argue that the longer Pebble stays in play, the greater the momentum to develop the mine. Voters agreed with the governor and Measure 4 was soundly defeated.

GLOBAL WARMING

Gov. Palin acknowledges the reality of global warming.

"There is little doubt that the world's climate is warming," she wrote in a commentary for the Daily News earlier this year.

She is not, however, convinced that human activity is a major contributing cause.

"I'm not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity," she said last December.

Yet in her interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, she challenged him to show her where she had ever absolutely ruled out human activity in global warming.

Early in her administration, she appointed a commission to study ways Alaska can adapt to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No major state initiatives have yet resulted, apart from an inventory of government emissions sources.

Gov. Palin seems out of sync with McCain here; the presidential candidate believes greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to global warming and wants to reduce them.

ANWR

Open it, says the governor. That's hardly a surprise in Alaska, where no politician runs for statewide office in opposition to oil exploration and development on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Again, she'll have to reconcile her view with that of presidential candidate John McCain, whose will to drill reaches offshore but not yet as far as ANWR.

PREDATOR CONTROL

Gov. Palin grants that predator control is controversial -- especially shooting wolves from the air. But her administration has supported the predator control program she inherited from Gov. Frank Murkowski -- one of few Murkowski initiatives she hasn't overturned. That program permits private pilots and gunners to shoot wolves from the air and keep the pelts for their trouble. Voters turned down an August initiative to curtail the program.

HABITAT PROTECTION

The governor's restoration of the state Division of Habitat to the Department of Fish and Game from the Department of Natural Resources was a popular move with habitat biologists, lawmakers and environmentalists. She reversed a Murkowski administration change designed to give habitat protection less weight in resource development decisions.

ENERGY

"Drill, baby, drill" is not a coherent energy policy, even for those who favor increased U.S. oil and gas production. Vice presidential candidate Palin has played up the drill bit. Gov. Palin took a more balanced approach. Early on, she proposed a $200 million renewable energy fund to jump-start projects that might tap Alaska's alternative energy promise -- wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal. In 2008 the Legislature approved a five-year, $250 million renewable energy fund for the same purpose.

So where does Sarah Palin stand on environmental issues?

Environmental groups have found much to criticize, little to like. But a more fundamental criticism is this -- we don't know exactly what Sarah Palin's environmental philosophy is. Former Gov. Jay Hammond made his clear: When in doubt, err on the side of conservation. So, for that matter, did Gov. Frank Murkowski: full speed ahead with resource development.

But Sarah Palin seems to be undecided about Pebble and about global warming. She's taken a firm stand on the polar bear decision -- but with a shaky attitude about both science and her pledge of transparency in government. She's proven she's got the gumption to stand up to powerful interests, so presumably would do so if she held an environmental principle was at stake. But what are those environmental principles?

Her environmental thinking -- beyond the Alaska platitude of "responsible development" -- is a mystery.

BOTTOM LINE: Sarah Palin is somewhere between resource raider and greenie backpacker -- but where, exactly, and why, it's hard to tell.

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