October 6, 2008

October 6, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Bringing Alaskan Energy To The White House Race

It's understandable that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin emphasized energy issues during the vice-presidential debate. Her state is sitting on a lot of it -- potentially 30 billion barrels.

That's how much oil a recent U.S. Geological Survey report estimates is in Alaska, both onshore and offshore. And that is new oil, above and beyond deposits already proven to exist and those in production. The report concedes that such preliminary estimates can be off the mark, but if past experience is any guide, the actual amounts could well exceed America's total proven oil reserves of 20 billion barrels.

However, environmental restrictions place much of this additional energy out of reach. For example, America's most promising single source of oil is the estimated 10 billion barrels beneath a few thousand acres at the edge of Alaska's 19.6 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). But the federal government has long placed ANWR off limits. Even more oil is likely to exist beneath the waters north and west of the state. Though not explicitly restricted like ANWR, this offshore region is subject to spools of environmental red tape that effectively make it so.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have expressed reluctance to revisit the impediments to Alaska drilling, even in light of high gas prices in 2008 (although McCain has endorsed increased offshore drilling in the lower 48).

Enter the Republican vice-presidential nominee and governor of the state with all this oil. Like 70 percent of Alaskans, Gov. Palin wants to make more of it available. And although a relative newcomer to the political scene, she does have experience on energy. She served as chair of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2003-2004, and during her tenure as governor has handled several oil and natural gas-related issues.

Cynics may attribute her support for increased Alaskan energy production to the revenues it brings to the state and its citizens, as well as the jobs it provides to thousands of Alaskans. But Palin also recognizes the nationwide benefits of a more plentiful and reliable domestic oil supply, especially at a time when so much oil comes from hostile regimes, noting that "we either better be making decisions to allow this American supply of energy to be tapped or we're going to become more and more beholden to these foreign regimes."

She also has first-hand knowledge to dispel the myths that anti-drilling activists and politicians repeatedly use. And there is plenty to dispel, especially the assertion that Alaskans support in-state oil production because they are don't care enough about the damage it does to their state's environment.

Alaskans do care about their environment, perhaps even more than those who don't live there. But they have seen with their own eyes that the required safeguards have adequately minimized the risks of energy production. Palin often notes that caribou, polar bears and other supposedly at-risk species have actually increased in numbers since drilling began in the 1970s.

Future production would be even safer, given the improvements in drilling technology that greatly reduce the above-ground footprint and risk of spills. Indeed, ANWR drilling would affect an airport-sized area, while the Maine-sized remainder of the refuge would stay off limits.

As far as ANWR is concerned, she said that "no one but Alaskans will care more about preserving that pristine environment," but adds that the residents of her state support drilling there because they "believe it can be done safely, prudently, and it had better be done ethically."

Still, Palin has her work cut out for her, among both Democrats and Republicans. In addition to both presidential candidates, several members of Congress have supported measures that would either leave in place or actually tighten the restrictions on Alaskan drilling. Whether she can sell anyone in Washington on Alaska's tremendous energy potential remains to be seen. But she has a strong case.

Ben Lieberman is Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Ben Lieberman Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

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