Alaska is no high-tech haven, so it's understandable that Gov. Sarah Palin is a little-known quantity when it comes to tech policy and renewable energy.
In a surprise move Friday, presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain chose Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Palin, 44, was elected two years ago, becoming Alaska's youngest governor and its first female governor, and hasn't established a long public record. (Her government Web site was inaccessible most of Friday, presumably swamped by all the inquiring minds.)
What is clear about Palin is that like many Alaska officials, she heartily supports onshore and offshore drilling in the state, particularly for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That policy doesn't differ too much from McCain's--he reversed his position on drilling this summer, but he is still reticent about tapping into the ANWR. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama opposes drilling in the ANWR, and has instead pushed the development of renewable sources of energy. Obama has said that he could be open to investigating some areas that are currently off-limits. Palin's support of ANWR drilling isn't surprising given that the state's economy depends heavily on the oil and gas industry.
Still, she's not entirely beholden to Big Oil. A fiscal conservative, Palin voted in December to raise taxes for oil companies by $1.5 billion, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that issues a biannual state governor report card based on tax records. Cato typically excludes Alaska from its report card because the state's budget swings so widely on fluctuating oil prices based on world demand.
Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at Cato, called the governor's record on energy "uninspiring" because her tax increase didn't result in significant tax cuts elsewhere. Instead, in June, she proposed suspending fuel taxes for residents for a year, a move that would save Alaska residents an estimated $40 million.
Edwards added that despite the lack of a major software or Internet industry, Palin has not issued any tax breaks for technology companies or technology initiatives as an incentive to bring such businesses to the state (an admittedly difficult thing to do).
On the tech policy side, Palin has almost no record on issues such as Net neutrality, data privacy, and wiretapping. But there's one exception that's sure to pique the interest of privacy advocates: on May 28, Palin signed a bill that would make Alaska the ninth state to not comply with the Real ID Act, a federal law requiring national identification cards.
"It's something to reflect on as far as caring about people's privacy," said Cord Blomquist, technology policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
Mead Treadwell, a technology-focused venture capitalist and chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, a federal advisory commission to President Bush and Congress on Arctic research issues, said he met Palin when she was the mayor of Wasilla, a small town in Alaska. Treadwell said that she has long been open-minded about the need for technology to solve problems.
"We're a natural energy economy and you can't drill on- or offshore without bringing the best technology, like 3D seismic technology to find areas for drilling, directional drilling to exploit it, and satellites. She's supportive of new tech," Treadwell said.
Palin's father-in-law was at one time staff officer at the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, the state's seed capital fund for technology. According to Treadwell, she was critical of her incumbent Republican rival Frank Murkowski in 2006 when he shut the foundation down. In her inaugural address as governor, she emphasized the value of research into science and technology.
Despite Alaska's absence of a big tech industry, the state's chief industries, oil and gas, as well as some telecommunications, require cutting-edge technology. Treadwell said that in discussions with Palin about balancing development vs. the environment, she typically points to technology as a solution.
In her time as governor, he said she has created a Climate Change Sub-cabinet with two advisory groups, examining how to mitigate and adapt to climate change as well as research energy issues. That research hasn't happened yet, according to Treadwell. She's also proposed an investment fund of several hundred million dollars to finding new energy solutions that would help Alaskans' reduce their dependence on expensive oil and gas, he said.
"I haven't asked for support for the tech industry, but she has seen the writing on the wall and Alaska's need to diversify its energy supply," Treadwell said.
Other tidbits from her record:
Palin has voted to improve aviation safety with the use of technology. On April 9, Palin signed a bill for a $4.8 million loan program that helps state aircraft owners that install digital link technology known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, according to the Alaska Journal of Commerce. The technology, which is purportedly 10 times more accurate than radar, uses an ultra-high-frequency radio to send and receive information about other aircraft using the technology. It's supported by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Last year, Palin made deep cuts in Alaska's budget that affected many local projects, among them several renewable-energy initiatives. Palin's reasoning was to put a cap on cuts, but she vetoed money for a 50-megawatt Fire Island wind project, as well as funds for the Healy Clean Coal Project, a 50-megawatt new-technology coal power plant, according to the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
In the same budget, Palin upheld a $46.2 million appropriation to finish a 57-mile transmission line to bring surplus hydro power from Lake Tyee to the electricity-hungry Ketchikan, according to the paper.