ANCHORAGE — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin acknowledged Tuesday that global warming was harming her state but said stepped-up natural-gas production could mitigate its effects.
Speaking at a hearing before Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- the third of several he is holding across the country to consider renewed oil and gas leasing on the outer continental shelf -- Palin said that relatively clean-burning natural gas could supplant dirtier fuels and slow the discharge of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
"We Alaskans are living with the changes that you are observing in Washington," she said. "The dramatic decreases in the extent of summer sea ice, increased coastal erosion, melting of permafrost, decrease in alpine glaciers and overall ecosystem changes are very real to us."
In the past, Palin has questioned the science behind predictions of sea ice loss. Her administration sued the federal government to block endangered species protections for polar bears, whose habitat is melting. When she was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, partisan crowds cheered her on by chanting, "Drill, baby, drill."
But at Tuesday's hearing, she made it clear that she recognizes the problem of global warming, and she cast energy development as part of the answer. "Stopping domestic energy production of preferred fuels does not solve the issues associated with global warming and threatened or endangered species, but it can make them worse," she said.
Palin acknowledged that "many believe" a global effort to reduce greenhouse gases is needed.
"Simply waiting for low-carbon-emitting renewable capacity to be large enough will mean that it will be too late to meet the mitigation goals for reducing [carbon dioxide] that will be required under most credible climate-change models," she warned.
"Meeting these goals will require a dramatic increase . . . to preferred available fuels, including natural gas, that have a very low carbon footprint . . . ," she said. "These available fuels are required to supply the nation's energy needs during the transition to green energy alternatives."
The Interior Department will be looking with interest at new alternative energy prospects across the U.S., Salazar told the more than 1,000 Alaskans at the hearing, but traditional oil and gas will remain part of the energy program.
"I understand the passion I feel in this room today," he said. "I understand the point of view of people who have subsisted in the fishing industry from time immemorial, and the importance of wanting to maintain that way of life. I understand the sense I hear also from many of the people here that we need to have economic development, we need to have jobs, and oil and gas can be part of that job development."
Alaskan officials say that opening offshore waters to petroleum production would create 35,000 jobs with a payroll of $72 billion over the next 50 years. Hundreds of oil industry workers marched in hard hats outside the hearing with signs urging the government: "Drill Here, Drill Now."
But conservationists warn that plunging drilling pads into the frozen Beaufort and Chukchi seas and in Bristol Bay could open the door to a catastrophic oil spill in one of the most fragile environments on Earth.
In addition, they voiced skepticism about Palin's assertion that boosting natural gas production would make more time to transition to wind and other forms of alternative energy.
"You need to drill in order not to drill: That's what she said," said Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage environmental attorney who has represented conservation groups and Alaska Native tribes on Arctic oil and gas issues.
Salazar's next hearing is set for Thursday in San Francisco.