Xunlight Shines on Palin

Blogs drill into governor’s speech at solar energy plant

On Wednesday, I had a column about a number of energy and environment reporters’ reflections on their beat’s novel significance during the presidential campaign. The conclusion was largely that, because of the economy, the energy story had returned to the back burner.

The same day, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave an energy speech at the plant of solar energy cell manufacturer in Ohio. Had I not filed my column early and been flying at 35,000 feet between San Francisco and New York, I might have noted this. But the coverage of Palin’s talk reaffirmed my point about a relatively diminished role for the energy beat. The event drew a fair amount of coverage, actually, but the stories appeared mostly on news outlets’ blogs rather than in their print editions.

On the other hand, that might not signify much in the world of modern journalism, where editors and readers are, thankfully, coming to see less of a distinction between the two media. To be sure, most of the blog posts on Palin’s energy speech are article-length and some are very detailed. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, for example, as a great, 1,100-word post on The Trail blog. She leads with Palin’s central message that “lower oil prices shouldn’t curb America’s drive to drill domestically,” and draws on some long quotes from the speech before rounding off with some excellent detail on the Alaska governor’s visit to Xunlight Corp.’s solar plant.

As I noted on Wednesday, Eilperin is likely the only energy and environment beat reporter assigned to travel fulltime with the candidates. In an interview she told me that she appreciates The Trail blog because it allows her to write more about the campaign, though the ratio of energy to general coverage remains about the same. And Palin’s visit to Xunlight is exactly the kind of story that many would never see without the benefit of blogs. And after the relatively stoic beginning to Eilperin’s post, it’s not hard to pick up on some mild exasperation with the governor’s attempt to claim the mantle of energy guru. “Yeah! Good!” Eilperin records the governor saying upon being shown some lightweight solar panel, noting that Palin “stroked the panel in question.” On a more serious note, Eilperin writes:

“God has so richly blessed our land with the supplies we need,” [Palin] said, despite the fact that the U.S. lacks enough domestic oil and gas reserves to meet its current energy demand.

In pointing out the tragic irony (or contradiction, if you prefer) in much of Palin’s speech the press achieved its most insightful coverage. And again, we have blogs to thank for permitting that critical tone. The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital took the prize for pithiest lede: “Sarah Palin went to a solar plant in Ohio to talk about oil today.”

Indeed, in one the few mentions in print, The New York Times slammed Palin in an editorial today, rebutting her assertion that she and McCain were making a “clean break” from the Bush administration. “Ms. Palin mentioned greenhouse gas emissions exactly once,” the board wrote, arguing that her speech amounted to the “same old” fossil fuel oriented approach that has abetted the current energy crisis. A Wednesday post on the Times’s Caucus blog had a different tone, however, leading with the observation that Palin had “abandoned the usual flash her campaign rallies … No blaring country songs. No pink handmade signs. No rousing chants of ‘Drill, baby, drill.’”

The Associated Press seems to have goofed up on that slightly, reporting that Palin “repeated her signature anthem, ‘drill, baby, drill.’” The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder posted her full remarks on his blog and it appears she didn’t actually use those words. Still, many commentators felt the mantra’s underlying presence strongly enough. The Boston Globe, which seems cobbled a staff report with the help of the AP wire, wrote that, “Despite Palin’s attempt to distance McCain’s energy policies from those of the Bush administration, their priorities are largely similar, especially more [oil and gas] domestic production.” The paper also noted (wisely) that, “While she promoted her advocacy of a $40 billion natural gas pipeline designed to link Alaska to the lower 48 states, questions have been raised recently about whether the bidding process was flawed and whether the pipeline will be finished.”

At Grist, the online environment magazine, Kate Sheppard pointed out that, “Despite delivering the speech from the doorstep of a solar start-up, she didn’t talk much about what she’d do for solar, wind, or any other renewable energies.” Both the pro-environment blog Earth2Tech as well as The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s student paper, ran Palin’s speech through a “word cloud” generator (an increasingly popular, though admittedly limited, technique among some media pundits) and found that ‘oil’ and ‘coal’ did receive the lion’s share of attention.

At the Climate Progress blog, Joe Romm, who served as an assistant secretary for renewable in the Clinton-era Department of Energy, argues that Palin’s “prepared text alone leaves no room for doubt. A McCain-Palin administration will not be issuing new orders that businesses must follow to control greenhouse gas emissions. It will use a voluntary or incentive-based approach, one that has never worked in any country to restrain emissions growth.”

Many posts about Palin’s speech have been wise to note the next president’s position on legislation (a Congressionally approved cap-and-trade scheme) versus regulation (the EPA capping carbon via the Clean Air Act) is one of the most important questions out there. But Romm’s analysis is stretching it. That McCain would completely abandon cap-and-trade (for which he’s been a pioneer) is as uncertain as the idea that Obama would immediately opt for regulation. The latter rumor began to circulate two weeks ago after a Bloomberg news article quoted Obama aide Jason Grumet saying that the senator might follow that route.

All the campaign reporters I’ve talked to say that it’s been difficult to pin down the exact details of some Obama’s and McCain’s policies. They both support “clean energy” and addressing “global warming” (though the media has been careful to point out McCain has retreated form this in favor of more fossil fuels production). It’s the how that still vexes reporters and the public alike.

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