Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may have swept into office as an independent thinker willing to challenge the establishment, but she has fallen in line with other Alaska politicians when it comes to environmental policies, according to interviews and a review of her record.
Palin, who was chosen Friday as presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain's running mate, favored increased oil and gas drilling in sensitive lands and waterways, opposed federal action to list the polar bear as a species threatened with extinction and supports a controversial program to allow aerial shooting of wolves and bears as a means of predator control.
Alaskan natural resources have long served as a larder for the Lower 48. The state's vast gold deposits sparked a 19th century rush akin to California's, and when the trans-Alaska pipeline was completed in 1977 it supplied 20% of the country's oil. Alaskan waters today support a powerhouse fishing industry.
In her two years in office, Palin has given every indication that she intends to continue stocking the larder. She favors the construction of one of the world's largest mining complexes at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. Palin opposes greater protections for beluga whales found in the Cook Inlet, where oil and gas drilling and other development is proposed. And unlike her running mate, Palin favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a recurring issue of debate during the Bush administration.
"She's continued the extractive political ideology that has defined Alaska for decades," said Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine biologist.
Palin also has provided glimpses of an independent streak. Last year she tinkered with the state Petroleum Profits Tax, an oil tax structure that Palin said contained loopholes that allowed oil and gas companies to avoid paying a fair share to the state. The Alaska Oil and Gas Assn. criticized the plan, which it says equates to a $700-million tax hike on the oil industry.
Palin eventually said no to the infamous "bridge to nowhere," the $398-million Gravina Island Bridge project that was highlighted as quintessential pork-barrel spending of federal tax money. She also jump-started a natural gas pipeline project that many of her predecessors had failed to get off the ground. The pipeline would deliver "stranded gas" that is a byproduct of crude oil pumping on Alaska's North Slope to Alberta, Canada. To get the deal done, Palin put up $500 million in state money to help a company, TransCanada, research the potential for the 1,700-mile pipeline, which could cost as much as $30 billion.
Described as the holy grail of Alaskan politics, the pipeline was a political coup for Palin.
She has stood up to the federal government, a politically popular posture in Alaska. In May, the state gave notice that it would sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent the inclusion of the polar bear on the endangered species list as "threatened" as a consequence of shrinking Arctic ice caused by global warming.
Such a listing could be used to block drilling in the Arctic, which Palin supports.
Palin told federal officials that the state did a "comprehensive review" of the science and found no reason to support a listing. But an internal e-mail message from the head of the state Department of Fish and Game's marine mammals program and two other staff biologists agreed with the Department of Interior's conclusions that the science justified the listing. Palin did not publicly release the state's report.
"The governor's decision was clearly based on politics, not on science, and was primarily designed to protect the oil and gas industry stampede into the Arctic Ocean," said Steiner, the University of Alaska marine biologist.