McCain v. Palin on Energy Policy

David B. Sandalow
David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
David B. Sandalow Former Brookings Expert, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy - School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

August 31, 2008

Fox commentator Bill Kristol and others have been touting Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s energy policy expertise, arguing it could help a McCain-Palin ticket. Interestingly, Governor Palin takes different positions than Senator McCain on three of the leading energy issues of our time.

These differences aren’t easily categorized. When it comes to energy policy, neither Sen. McCain nor Gov. Palin leans consistently to the “right” or “left” of the other. What’s most striking is simply that the presumptive presidential and vice presidential nominees—according to public records—are so sharply at odds on issues of such importance to the American people.

The most striking difference is on a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Sen. McCain opposes such a tax, calling it one of the “failed policies of the 1970s.” Gov. Palin, in contrast, proposed such a tax in Alaska, eventually signing it into law. (The Palin tax has several components, including an increase in base taxes on oil companies and extra charges as oil prices climb.) Gov. Palin also signed legislation providing $1,200 payments for each Alaskan to help pay for higher energy costs. Her approach is strikingly similar to that of Sen. Barack Obama, who calls for energy rebates of $500-$1,000 for American families funded with a five-year tax on oil company windfall profits.

A second difference is on global warming. Sen. McCain sponsored federal legislation to control emissions of heat-trapping gases, declaring “unequivocally” that he believes global warming is real. Gov. Palin—stepping well outside the established scientific consensus—said in response to a recent question on global warming “I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.”

A third difference is on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. McCain opposes drilling in the Arctic Refuge, explaining earlier this year that “I don’t want to drill in the Grand Canyon. I don’t want to drill in the Everglades. This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world.” Gov. Palin strongly endorses drilling in the Arctic Refuge, saying publicly in the weeks before her selection that she hoped to change Sen. McCain’s mind on this issue.

Policy differences between a presidential nominee and his vice presidential pick are not unprecedented. (Vice President Cheney has stated, or at least hinted, that he has different views on some gay rights issues than President Bush.) Traditionally, the vice presidential nominee defers to the presidential nominee, adopting the latter’s view on all issues.

Whether that will happen here is unknown. Sen. McCain recently changed his position on offshore drilling, suggesting at least a possibility that he might do so on other energy issues. With energy policy of greater concern to many Americans today than at any time since the 1970s, many voters will be watching with great interest to see how Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin reconcile their different views.