Kimberley A. Strassel: How Palin Beat Alaska's Establishment





... it came as no surprise in 2004 when former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski made clear he'd be working exclusively with three North Slope producers—ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and BP—to build a $25 billion pipeline to move natural gas to the lower 48. The trio had informed their political vassals that they alone would build this project (they weren't selling their gas to outsiders) and that they expected the state to reward them. Mr. Murkowski disappeared into smoky backrooms to work out the details. He refused to release information on the negotiations. When Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin suggested terms of the contract were illegal, he was fired.

What Mr. Murkowski did do publicly was instruct his statehouse to change the oil and gas tax structure (taxes being a primary way Alaskans realize their oil revenue). Later, citizens would discover this was groundwork for Mr. Murkowski's pipeline contract—which would lock in that oil-requested tax package for up to 40 years, provide a $4 billion state investment, and relinquish most oversight.

Enter Mrs. Palin. The former mayor of Wasilla had been appointed by Mr. Murkowski in 2003 to the state oil and gas regulatory agency. She'd had the temerity to blow the whistle on fellow GOP Commissioner Randy Ruedrich for refusing to disclose energy dealings. Mr. Murkowski and GOP Attorney General Gregg Renkes closed ranks around Mr. Ruedrich—who also chaired the state GOP. Mrs. Palin resigned. Having thus offended the entire old boy network, she challenged the governor for his seat.

Mrs. Palin ran against the secret deal, and vowed to put the pipeline back out for competitive, transparent, bidding. She railed against cozy politics. Mr. Murkowski ran on his unpopular pipeline deal. The oil industry warned the state would never get its project without his leadership. Mrs. Palin walloped him in the primary and won office in late 2006. Around this time, news broke of a federal probe that would show oil executives had bribed lawmakers to support the Murkowski tax changes.

Among Mrs. Palin's first acts was to reinstate Mr. Irwin. By February 2007 she'd released her requirements for pipeline bidding. They were stricter, and included only a $500 million state incentive. By May a cowed state house—reeling from scandal—passed her legislation.

The producers warned they would not bid, nor would anyone else. Five groups submitted proposals. A few months before the legislature awarded its license to TransCanada this July, Conoco and BP suddenly announced they'd be building their own pipeline with no state inducements whatsoever. They'd suddenly found the money....


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