Sarah Palin e-mails shows hostility toward Big Oil as Republican governor of Alaska

June 12, 2011

Sarah Palin for the most part hews closely these days to the Republican Party’s political orthodoxy. She says she hates President Obama’s health-care legislation; favors a smaller, less-costly government; stridently opposes abortion; and believes in American exceptionalism.

But on one issue in particular — the party’s long-standing ties to large oil and gas companies that have helped underwrite its attempts to seize and hold power in Washington — the Palin that emerges from e-mails during her Alaska governorship is a definite renegade.

Scornful, dismissive, avoiding and demeaning — these were her persistent attitudes in private as well as public dealings in 2007 and 2008 with oil giants ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and BP, which produce most of Alaska’s energy and thus accounted for around four-fifths of its tax revenues.

While a book she published last year still displays her animus for “Big Oil” and proudly recounts her decision not to “pal around” with its lobbyists, these criticisms feature less frequently in her rhetoric now. And on the national political stage, she’s been supportive of the industry’s aspirations to expand deep-ocean drilling, famously telling a crowd of Florida supporters before the 2008 election, “Drill, baby, drill.”

The three oil firms and their employees directed at least $2.6 million to Republican candidates in the past two federal elections, more than three times their donations to Democrats, making them among the party’s most important benefactors. But Palin, in her e-mails as governor, consistently praised her staff — and anyone else — when they were tough on the companies.

When a group of Democratic legislators called on the companies in October 2007 to disclose their Alaska-based profits, for example, Palin wrote in an e-mail to her staff: “I know some hate to hear me say it, but . . . the dems are right on this one. And more power to ’em for asking for more info from the Big Three. Too bad the R’s couldn’t join in this request also.”

Palin’s hostility was, to some degree, smart politics in a state where the economy remained deeply scarred by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which prompted more than 31,000 residents to sue and led to a bitter fight by the company to escape liability for some punitive damages. The fight ended during her governorship when the Supreme Court cut the company’s payment by four-fifths.

Exxon Mobil’s reputation in Alaska was so bad that Marathon Oil executives told top state officials that “Exxon made them look good,” according to one of the e-mails Palin received. But Palin also personally took umbrage at the firm’s influence in the state and took relish in ordering it at one point to give up some energy leases it had not used.

She also blamed Exxon Chairman Rex W. Tillerson for orchestrating an effort to smear her efforts to rewrite a pipeline deal that would bring natural gas owned by Exxon and others to new markets.

“Do you suppose TRex put him up to this?” she asked an aide in March 2007 about a published critique of her alternative pipeline plan. “Ugh.”

Two months earlier, Palin won the cheers of her staff when she canceled a meeting with Exxon officials in the state capital, explaining to reporters that she thought it was “more fun” to spend that time reading to kindergarten students.

“What a great choice it was versus meeting with Exxon!” her top appointee at the Natural Resources Department wrote to her in one e-mail.

The oil industry’s influence in the state was at the heart of a corruption scandal involving top legislators that emerged during her governorship, an issue on which Palin was privately briefed by the FBI. But it is clear from the e-mails that Palin’s resentments, and those of her top aides, ran deep and were not opportunistic.

When aides tried in May 2007 to arrange a meeting with two of Shell Oil’s top executives, for example, Palin said “too bad we’re jumping for them instead of them coming” to the capital.

When ConocoPhillips announced in November 2007 that the state’s economic climate did not warrant new investments in one of its Alaskan refineries, Palin senior adviser Ivy Frye e-mailed her that the decision “plays into the perception that is already out there — that they try and bully the state.”

Once Palin joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as his vice presidential running mate in the 2008 election, however, Palin’s criticisms of Big Oil did not appear to have much impact on the party’s fundraising. Together, Republicans raised more than $2.4 million from oil and gas interests, nearly three times the amount given by the industry to Democrat Barack Obama, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

But Exxon Mobil employees contributed just $22,662 to the McCain-Palin team, less than half of what they gave to Obama.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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