Sarah Palin, Energy Expert

Out of Oil

Is anyone else tired of the meme that Sarah Palin is an expert in energy matters? John McCain goes so far as to say, “She knows more about energy than probably anyone in the United States of America.” This is more than simply an absurdity; it is a dangerous idea.

Let’s leave completely aside the question of whether Governor Palin’s intellect is of a nature that she could be legitimately considered an expert in anything remotely esoteric or complicated. As governor of Alaska, she has undoubtedly managed teams of experts who oversee production agreements with the major oil companies, and has familiarity with the the land-use and budgetary issues implicated by oil drilling concessions and petro-revenue. But this hardly seems to have given her a larger perspective on oil production. At a town hall rally yesterday, she incorrectly told the audience that national legislation placed strict quotas on the amount of Alaska crude that could be exported beyond the United States. While that was true between 1973 and 1976, during the Arab oil embargo, it has not been true since Ms. Palin was 12 years old.

In fact, the Alaska governor doesn’t seem to have a clue about the role her state plays in meeting America’s energy needs. During her astonishingly inept interview on ABC News, she told Charles Gibson that her state produced “nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy.” In her stump speeches, she claimed that Alaska generated “nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of oil and gas.” Both claims are preposterous. According to the Energy Information Administration, Alaska produces approximately 13 percent of American domestic crude oil (behind both Texas and Louisiana), less than 7.5 percent of oil and gas production combined, and a modest 3.5 percent of America’s total energy production.

There is every indication that Governor Palin’s grasp of oil production is as parochial and tenuous as the rest of her perspective on issues of national and global significance.

But there is a bigger issue: what does it say about the McCain campaign that they would equate familiarity with Alaska oil drilling to a expertise in the field of “energy”?

What does Governor Palin know about the downstream aspects of petroleum production and distribution? Or nuclear power? Or alternative technologies? Or the national electrical grid? Or the challenges to national energy policy from international competition? Or the role energy plays in the larger national and international economy?

It is tempting to believe that Senator McCain and Governor Palin secretly take a broader view of things. The narrowness of their vision, however, was on full display at the Republican National Convention, where Governor Palin read these lines scripted for her by the McCain speechwriters: “Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of the world’s energy supplies.” Huh? Perhaps by husbanding its own production and cloistering supplies from neighboring nations by militarily sealing off the Persian Gulf from oil tankers, Iran could “control” as much as twenty percent of the world’s crude oil. But the world’s “energy”? What about nuclear, hydro-electric, natural gas, coal, biomass, wind, and solar? Oil presently represents less than half of all human energy usage.

The constricted McCain – Palin view, in which energy equals oil, represents a dangerous myopia at precisely the time when America needs to be thinking expansively and creatively about energy policy.

Energy policy is at the intersection of nearly every major aspect of America’s twenty-first century challenges. It is implicated in economic growth, foreign policy, infrastructure renewal, urban and regional planning, and a wide variety of more subtle questions like the allocation of resources within household budgets and the revitalization of science and technology education.

Since the Department of Energy was created by President Carter in 1977, we have had military people, corporate executives, finance experts, politicians, lawyers, and even a dentist in the post of Secretary of Energy; but we have never had a technologist as Energy Czar. Now-more-than-ever, we need to be looking forward. Twentieth Century competitiveness meant garnering a sufficient share of the world’s oil supply – whether by supplanting the democratic Mohammed Mossadegh with the fascist Shah of Iran, getting chummy with the Wahabist regime of the House of Saud, or by less offensive diplomatic means. Twenty-first century competitiveness demands sustainable, clean, efficient technologies for energy production, distribution, and utilization. The winners will be those countries able to do the most with the least. And companies who are able to sell their technologies abroad will become the new Microsofts, and the countries who foster them the new pertro-states.

America needs an energy technologist like Amory Lovins as Secretary of Energy – someone who understands that oil is in its endgame. This is an idea that has not yet rumbled across the McCain – Palin telegraph.

Amory Lovins
Amory Lovins

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7 Responses to “Sarah Palin, Energy Expert”


  1. 1 afrankangle 10 October 2008 at 5:40 am

    Governor Palin knows so much about energy that Senator McCain decided not to use her expertise in the campaign about the subject. Hmmmm …..

  2. 2 merge divide 10 October 2008 at 6:07 am

    Sarah Palin isn’t an expert in anything (other than dodging questions during events with a formal debate format).

  3. 3 Amit 10 October 2008 at 7:29 am

    BTW, have you read Amory Lovins’ excellent analysis dismantling the hype about nuclear energy? (It should be available on RMI website.) Since Obama is in full favor of nuclear energy (darn those “campaign contributions”), why do you think he’ll pick Amory Lovins as his Secretary of Energy? :)

  4. 4 Guri 10 October 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Great article! Happy to see you writing on these kinds of topics again.

    Hope all is well in India.

    Hugs,
    Guri

  5. 5 mbjesq 11 October 2008 at 1:25 am

    Amit:

    Nuclear energy has, in our desperation to create alternatives to oil and coal, somehow become non-scary despite the spent-fuel being every bit as problematic today as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when we seemed to have a collective understanding of the relative risks and rewards. Senator Obama is simply wrong on that; but this may well be a function of his understanding that politics is the art of the possible. The thing that will slow nuclear expansion is cost. For once, the market really will do the right thing.

    I don’t recall saying that Mr. Obama would select Amory Lovins as Secretary of Energy — and you certainly can’t find this prediction in my essay. I simply say that he should select him, or someone like him. So I’ll ignore your question.

    Grrrr:

    Thanks. I’m glad someone likes this stuff. My friend Manoj says that when I write about politics, he never reads past the first line. I have been lazy about posting on election-related issues. Also, I don’t like to repeat ideas about which others are posting. So unless I think I have a relatively unique take on something, I won’t post — even if I feel passionate about an issue.

    And finally, this just in for Smita, who was to shy to post it herself.

    Cheers,

    MBJ

  6. 6 Amit 11 October 2008 at 11:26 am

    Ah, I forgot that you’re a lawyer and I did make some assumptions (reasonable, IMO) when posting that question. :D


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