Even as Sarah Palin “keeps pushing” Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), environmentalists have formed a 527 group to fight the Alaska governor and her oil-and-gas industry allies and keep McCain from caving on the issue during his presidential campaign.
“We see that drilling has kind of gone from being a congressional issue to a presidential campaign issue,” said Emilie Surrusco, spokeswoman for the Alaska Wilderness Political Fund, a 527 political organization formed in the last month by the Alaska Wilderness League, a Washington, D.C., 501( c)3 nonprofit.
“We wanted to be able to comment on [drilling] in the context of the presidential campaign, because the main goal of both organizations is protecting Alaska’s wilderness, and a big part of that is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and also the Arctic Ocean, where there’s movement for offshore drilling.”
A great deal of that movement is coming from Palin, McCain’s vice presidential running mate, who “agrees to disagree” with the senator on ANWR drilling. She said during last week’s only vice presidential debate with Democrat Joe Biden that she will keep pushing McCain on the issue.
While ANWR didn’t come up specifically in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama continued to sound the alarm that the United States has only 3 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves but consumes 25 percent of the supply, and therefore cannot drill its way out of the current energy crisis.
Republican Sen. John McCain fired back that domestic drilling, including off-shore production, must be stepped up to “bridge the gap” until a wider range of alternative energy sources are available. Obama argued that approach doesn’t adequately address the immediate impacts burning fossil fuels has on global climate change.
Surrusco said the Alaska Wilderness Political Fund 527 group (named for the IRS tax code that covers such political advocacy organizations) was formed to refute several myths Palin has been perpetuating since getting the vice presidential candidacy nod in late August.
“ANWR, of course, is a 2,000-acre swath of land in the middle of about a 20-million-acre swath of land,” Palin said in a Sept. 11 interview on ABC. “Two-thousand acres that we’re asking the feds to unlock so that there can be exploration and development.”
“The U.S. [Geological Survey] has shown that the oil speculated to be there is actually in small pockets spread across the whole coastal plain,” Surrusco said. “In fact, 800 wells would have to be drilled to access the oil and those wells would have to be connected by a series of roads and pipelines, and then they’d have to create gravel pits and airstrips, and all kinds of infrastructure would have to be built that would be spread across the entire coastal plain.”
Surrusco also said Palin overplays Alaska’s role as a domestic energy producer, even feeding the line to McCain, who, during an MSNBC interview on Sept. 15, called Palin the “governor of a state that 20 percent of America’s energy supply comes from.” In fact, Surrusco said, that figure is closer to 3 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
During last week’s debate, Palin also touted her role in pushing for $500 million in state seed money to entice TransCanada to build a $40 billion pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope through Canada.
Palin and the state legislature also have been funding an organization called Arctic Power, a lobbying group that’s been pushing for ANWR drilling and increased production statewide since 1992 and made headlines in April for bringing in conservative radio talk show host and convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy to promote ANWR drilling.
The state in recent years has contracted various out-of-state PR and lobbying firms, as well as nonprofit oil-and-gas industry front groups such as Americans for American Energy (based in Golden, Colo.), to spread the word nationally and work on getting votes from key lawmakers in other states.
Greg Schnacke, president and CEO of Americans for American Energy, acknowledged a prior subcontract with the state and said his group is still working on the issue of ANWR drilling in a broader sense.
“From a practical standpoint the state of Alaska was the one that authorized the money and appropriated it and went out and picked their lead contractor and then that flowed from there,” Schnacke said of a 2006 deal with Pac/West Communications in Oregon. “We’ve supported a couple of pieces of legislation that were introduced in Congress this year and one of them included ANWR and we support the development of oil there.”
Surrusco said attempts on Capitol Hill to slip ANWR drilling into various pieces of legislation are never-ending: “[Republican congressman John] Shadegg [of Arizona] brought it back up as a standalone bill that would have used speculative revenues from the Arctic Refuge to fund the Wall Street bailout, or at least part of it, so they’re always looking for ways to sneak it in there.”
There is widespread support for increased oil-and-gas production among Alaska residents, polls show, but some say the national spotlight from Palin’s VP run is exposing the fallacy of the “drill, baby, drill” argument.
“Some people think she is a good pick because she’s an outsider, but most see her as unprepared and far from qualified,” David Kenney, a high school social studies teacher in Nome, said in an e-mail interview. “Increasingly, people think she’s making Alaska look bad, although her debate performance was well-received here.
“Personally, I thought she was an adept governor and would have considered voting for her in re-election. Now I think she is not only bringing down McCain’s campaign, but is possibly ruining her political future.”