Palin and the Environment

Plenty of record for the press to dissect; Anchorage paper shows the way

Yesterday, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert advised Democrats to “Take the High Road” with Sarah Palin and focus on “the great issues of this campaign.” It’s good advice for journalists, too.

One route to higher ground would be a deeper exploration of the Republican vice presidential nominee’s environmental record. Palin, the governor of Alaska for the last two years, who before that served for ten years as a member of city council and then mayor of her native Wasilla, has had intimate experience with a number of significant environmental issues, and therein lie some clues to her strengths and weaknesses as a public official and leader.

Energy and pollution are not only integral to Alaskan politics; they are points upon which Palin and Senator John McCain, her would-be boss, clearly disagree. As such, it is no surprise that most newspapers, in their coverage of McCain’s decision to tap Palin, have noted that she doubts that human beings are causing global warming and that she supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (McCain, on the other hand, has long supported the scientific consensus that humans’ are behind the warming and, despite his flip-flop on offshore drilling, still wants to protect the refuge.) Despite her skepticism of anthropogenic causes, however, Palin clearly believes that her state has already suffered the effects of a warmer world, but her response has leaned heavily toward adaptation over mitigation. Last September, she created a special subcabinet to address the local impacts of climate change, which this spring began rolling out a multimillion dollar effort to rescue coastal villages from erosion.

There is much more to say about Palin’s positions on these and other environmental issues, however, and so far, only a few papers have moved beyond perfunctory sentences to devote entire articles and columns to the subject.

Here’s a good place to start: McCain has touted Palin’s willingness to stand-up to the big oil companies. Indeed, Tom Kizzia of the Anchorage Daily News (more on him in a bit), had a story last week calling her the “Joan of Arc of Alaska politics,” in which he outlined how Palin has estranged herself from the local Republican Party and business elite. But she has not stood up to oil and gas companies in the way that McCain suggests, and more journalists should point that out. Her signature acts as governor include a push to raise the profits tax on oil producers and the passage of a bill that bypassed BP, Exxon Mobil, and Conoco Phillips in favor of an independent contractor to build a $40 billion pipeline that will carry gas from the North Slope to the rest of the state. Thus, in a column that basically described Palin as the last nail in McCain’s environmental coffin, the New York Times’s Tom Friedman noted that “Palin’s much ballyhooed confrontations with the oil industry have all been about who should get more of the windfall profits, not how to end our addiction.”

But there is plenty of fodder beyond energy. Not surprisingly, Grist, the online environmental magazine, which has done an excellent job cataloguing candidates’ green credentials throughout the race, has a very good breakdown of Palin’s record. It seems the only traditional news article from mainstream national media to do the same comes from Renee Schoof in McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Her story from last Friday immediately notes that Palin has “tried to persuade” McCain on drilling in ANWR.

The governor’s position echoes that of other Republicans and merits more coverage; commenting on the GOP’s decision to eliminate ANWR from its party platform, Oregon delegate Jeff Grossman told National Public Radio last week that many GOP delegates hoped McCain would “come around” in drilling in the refuge.

Schoof quickly moves beyond ANWR, however, to address three other points of Palin’s record that have not received much attention: her opposition to listing polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; her opposition to an anti-pollution measure aimed at the mining industry; and her “failing record” on wildlife.

Schoof does not go into a lot of detail about these things, which is fine given the “first-look” nature of her article, but one hopes she will soon because each deserves a deeper dive by the national media. For evidence of what such scrutiny would turn up, check out the work of the Anchorage Daily News (whom Schoof credits), where Kizzia and fellow reporter Elizabeth Bluemink, in particular, have covered Palin’s environmental governance in detail over the last two years.

Palin’s name came up occasionally during the fierce debate earlier this year over whether to list polar bears as endangered, not least when she published an op-ed in The New York Times in January expressing her adamant opposition to the idea. It came up again last week, when a group of oil companies joined her effort to sue the Department of the Interior over its decision to protect the bears. But it was the Anchorage paper that provided the most meaningful investigation of Palin’s position. In January, Kizzia broke a story that criticized both the funding and the review process for a peer-reviewed study that Palin was “touting” in order to oppose the polar bear listing. Then, in May, Kizzia uncovered e-mails showing that Alaska’s state biologists “were at odds” with Palin over her opposition to protection, despite the governor’s assertions to the contrary.

Environmentalists, of course, lambasted Palin’s position on polar bears. On the other hand, according to an article by Bluemink in the Anchorage Daily News, they praised her decision last February to return state biologists who regulate fish habitat to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In one of his “most controversial acts,” former governor Frank Murkowsi had moved them to the Department of Natural Resources.

It is all the more important for journalists to dig into Palin’s somewhat contradictory record on polar bears and fish because it is highly relevant to one of the Bush administration’s most significant “midnight regulations” on the environment. According to a draft of the planned rule change obtained by The Associated Press last week, the administration would like to reduce the independent scientific reviews mandated by the Endangered Species Act in order to “let federal agencies decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.” It is not the only midnight reg upon which Palin’s record will have bearing.

In her piece for McClatchy, Schoof also cites the governor’s declaration that she would vote against a controversial ballot measure in Alaska that is designed to prohibit metal mines from discharging harmful levels of pollution into salmon streams and drinking water. The measure was aimed at the Pebble Mine, a large copper and gold deposit in southwestern Alaska that sits near the headwaters of some of the world’s most productive Sockeye salmon streams. The measure failed last week, and according to an article in the Anchorage Daily News by Bluemink, “The proponents of Measure 4 said they believe that Gov. Sarah Palin’s recent announcement that she would vote “No” cost them many voters.” Although Palin has not said much more about the Pebble Mine, her position could have lasting relevance; in November the Bush administration will try to finalize another midnight regulation that would “enshrine the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal,” according to The New York Times, and allow mining companies to continue to dump the excess rock and soil into valleys and streams.

If polar bears and mining aren’t enough to keep reporters busy, there is another window into wildlife issues. Palin is currently embroiled in a battle over whether or not to continue the aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska, which she adamantly supports. A state ballot measure which would have banned aerial hunting failed last week. The practice is supposed to protect the local caribou and moose populations, but Palin’s position has drawn the ire of environmentalists from around the country, according the Anchorage Daily News. The debate even caught the attention of The San Francisco Chronicle because it has placed Palin in a head-to-head battle with a Bay Area Congressman, George Miller, who wants to outlaw aerial hunting. There many not be a direct corollary to any midnight regulations on this one, but it does mirror many of the arguments that played out earlier this year in the American West when gray wolves were first removed from the endangered list (and thus open to hunting) and then won back (tentatively) some protection.

Beyond environmental issues, reporters can also delve into Palin’s support for teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools, which was covered in a good piece by Kizzia during her run for governor in 2006. Then there is the matter of her opposition to stem cell research (another point on which she differs from McCain), which has been mentioned in a number of articles, but only briefly.

Palin might not have the longest political track record to scrutinize, but the environment is clearly one area in which there is plenty of room to dig. It’s time for the national media to take a cue from the Anchorage Daily News and explore the myriad ways in which Palin’s environmental record might affect all manner of federal governance, from Bush’s midnight regulations to McCain’s less conservative, but potentially mutable, positions.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.