If Sarah Palin is an energy expert who can get us off foreign oil, I'm an astronaut
Gov. Sarah Palin’s claim of energy expertise – and her promise to send Alaskan natural gas through a new pipeline to heat homes in the Lower 48 – may be as dubious as her boast about foreign policy expertise based on Alaska’s proximity to Russia.
“If John McCain consults his running mate on energy issues — as he said in a recent NPR interview — Americans are in deep trouble,” an Alaskan energy official told me. The official, who requested anonymity, called Palin’s energy expertise “illusory.”
Let’s fact-check one of Palin’s key claims – that she is responsible for Alaska “building a natural gas pipeline.” As of today there is not a single inch of that pipeline. This central achievement of her 20 months as governor is more hyperbole than substance.
In 2008, under Palin’s leadership, Alaska gave $500 million to TransCanada, a Canadian corporation that builds and operates pipelines, to start the permitting process, which might lead to such a pipeline. But it will be at least seven years before a drop of concrete is poured. If it’s poured.
Although Palin asked members of her former church, the Assembly of God, to “pray for the pipeline,” it’s too soon to count those chickens.
Moreover, the Alaskan energy official told me that the $500 million may have been an unnecessary “giveaway,” since BP and Conoco-Philips recently formed a partnership to build a gas pipeline to the Lower 48, without the incentive.
Besides her role in the $500 million pipeline plan, the official said Palin’s experience with energy issues rests largely on her 11-month stint as the appointed chair of Alaska’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates oil/gas reserves and drilling.
But the official said even her brief tenure there wasn’t distinguished.
“Insiders knew she wasn’t interested in the job and she even stated publicly that her post could be cut, claiming it was more important to keep the slots for the technical experts,” he said.
As for her short time as governor (before John McCain picked her to be his running mate), her one other energy-related act was, with state Democratic legislators’ help, to raise taxes on oil and gas profits, the official said. But he added, “this says little about her grasp of global energy issues, which is zero.”
And, as for her oft-repeated claim that her work on the proposed pipeline will help the United States become energy independent, the official told me, “not likely.”
Although Alaska has massive known natural gas reserves — over 35 trillion cubic feet — the gas may never find its way to the Lower 48.
Why? The first answer lies in the pipeline route. As proposed, it would travel south from Alaska’s North Slope into Canada, where it would connect with the natural gas grid in Alberta Province — which happens to enjoy the world’s second-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia, 173 billion barrels. So far, only 2 billion have been produced.
The problem with the Alberta oil is that it is embedded in oil-sands extending over a forested area larger than Florida. While the viscous oil-sands are relatively easy to extract from the ground, they must be heated to separate the oil from the sand.
That separation process requires enormous amounts of energy. Alaska’s natural gas, via the pipeline, could fire the flame.
Eddy Isaacs, with the Alberta Energy Research Institute, said this scenario of Alaska’s natural gas helping to produce Canadian oil is “improbable,” because Canada has “enough natural gas of its own” to heat the oil-sands.
But Chris Severson-Baker, national policy director at Pembina Institute, a sustainable energy think tank headquartered in Alberta, disagrees, noting that the oil companies in Alberta now produce over one million barrels of oil a day, but plan to up the number to 3.5 millions barrels by 2011 and 5 million by 2030.
“If the consortium of oil companies that lease the oil land decides to hike production, it might well need Alaska’s gas,” Severson-Baker said.
And this brings us to the second issue – who holds the leases, both to Alaska’s natural gas land and Alberta’s oil-sands.
Exxon-Mobil, Conoco-Phillips and BP, among others, lease the Alberta land. As luck would have it, they also lease the gas land on Alaska’s North Slope. This means the same companies can pump their gas through the pipeline to Alberta and use it there to heat the oil-sands — instead of heating homes in Illinois and Indiana.
Why? Because the price of oil is much higher than the price of natural gas, producing oil with the natural gas makes sense for the corporate bottom line.
Once the consortium produces the oil, they’ll sell it to the highest bidders. Maybe in the U.S. Maybe anywhere.
Thus, while Palin’s promise of Alaska’s natural gas for the Lower 48 sounds great, profits may trump national needs.
Finally, some critics of Palin’s gas pipeline believe that, if built, it will lead to an environmental nightmare, both for Alberta and for global warming, as oil producers use the clean natural gas to produce dirty oil.
According to a 2008 Rand Corporation report, greenhouse gas emissions from producing this type of oil are 20 percent higher than for conventional oil.
Severson-Baker said the oil-sands process already has spewed toxic wastewater ponds over 130 square kilometers in Alberta — doubling in size since 2004 — while also fouling land, marshes and river basins, and ripping up forests that clean the air.
However, since Palin has said she’s not sure humans cause climate change, this probably won’t lose her any sleep.
Barbara Koeppel is a free-lance investigative reporter based in Washington DC.
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