ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Is Sarah Palin a friend or foe of big oil?
As governor of Alaska, she raised taxes on oil companies and clashed with them over a planned pipeline through her state.
But on the fundamental issues of drilling for oil and the environment, her positions look very much like those of the man she seeks to replace: Vice President Dick Cheney.
Palin, a 44-year-old mother of five whose nomination has ignited John McCain’s campaign for the presidency, is a vocal supporter of drilling for oil in a part of northwestern Alaska inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Her position strikes a chord at a time when high gasoline prices are hurting the U.S. economy. Republicans broke into chants of “Drill, baby, drill” at their national convention.
And she seems to go further than McCain, who has said he does not support drilling in the wildlife refuge “at this time.” His energy details have been sparse so far, and analysts are waiting to see what effect Palin will have on his policy.
McCain rival Barack Obama, like most Democrats, opposes drilling in the refuge and supports energy conservation and alternative energy.
“The similarities between Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney on energy and the environment are very clear,” said University of Alaska professor and conservation specialist Rick Steiner.
“They want to produce more hydro carbons rather than transition to a sustainable energy economy,” he told Reuters.
Before becoming vice president, Cheney ran oilfield services company Halliburton Co, and under President George W. Bush has been a strong voice for more oil exploration as a way to reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Like Cheney, Palin is on record as being skeptical that burning fossil fuels, which produces carbon dioxide, is the reason that temperatures on Earth are rising, a position that puts them both at odds with most scientists in the field.
Palin’s backing for drilling in the Alaska refuge has many supporters in her home state, where oilfields are a source of jobs in a sparsely populated and inhospitable environment.
“We have so many more natural resources that we can’t get into, such as ANWR. It would be more money for Alaska and more jobs for Alaskans and get us away from foreign oil,” said 31-year-old Anchorage resident Kindra Bookout.
Palin’s populism leads to an area where her energy position differs from that of Cheney, who has pursued policies that have benefited big oil companies.
Last month, Gov. Palin signed a bill giving Alaska authority to award TransCanada Corp a license to build a long-delayed gas pipeline from the state’s North Slope, bypassing Exxon Mobil Corp, ConocoPhillips and BP Plc.
Since her election as governor in 2006, she has also pushed through a tax increase on oil and gas producers, doubling Alaska’s energy revenues to more than $10 billion. BP and ConocoPhillips blasted the tax hike, citing it as a reason they postponed new projects.
“Palin has raised the taxes on the oil industry and constructed an anti-monopoly plan for the construction of a gas pipeline. These are clear differences with Cheney,” said Jerry McBeath, professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“Cheney blurs the distinction when it comes to the public and private sectors when it comes to oil,” he said.
Palin’s populist approach has been forged by Alaska’s unique circumstances and its dependence on oil.
About 85 percent of state revenue is from oil, the kind of narrow extractive resource base found in African oil producers such as Angola.
“Alaska really is a petro-state,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Texas — long linked to oil in the public mind — gets just 2.5 percent of state tax revenue from oil, Jillson said.
And many Alaskans credit Palin with helping to distribute the state’s oil wealth more equitably to its people.
“I feel that Alaskans are tired of getting the shaft from oil companies. We love big oil but it’s our resource and we need to be compensated for our resources,” said Bonnie Wells, 44, selling T-shirts at an open air market in Anchorage with pro-Palin slogans like “Our mama beats your Obama.”
If Palin steps into Cheney’s shoes in January, she may have to temper her populist approach. The oil companies, no doubt, are keen to find out how much.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard and Yereth Rosen; Editing by Eddie Evans