Joe McGinniss’s cover story in Conde Nast’s Portfolio on Gov. Sarah Palin is almost too well-researched to be dismissed as a hit piece. Over six pages, McGinniss, who covered Alaska’s oil boom in 1975, takes us deep into the world of the state’s oil-and-gas industry, the challenging terrain, the murky politics, and the Byzantine relationship between politics and big business. A reader who comes to the topic with no familiarity with the issue comes away more knowledgeable, and for that McGinniss deserves credit.
But the article’s argument doesn’t always mesh with the details. To many readers of Conde Nast’s other publications — The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ — the Republican star Palin is, ipso facto, a villainess. Had Portfolio run a story that reads, “Palin’s gas-pipeline plan has an element of risk but could work,” some readers no doubt would have complained that a previously respectable business magazine had suddenly scrapped its credibility by serving up a puff piece about the Cruella de Vil of the liberal imagination. (The cover photo has Palin in the snow in a fur-collared jacket.) Instead, the Portfolio piece follows a simple tune: Whatever decisions Governor Palin makes about this massive, complicated project, she is always wrong.
Palin is accused simultaneously of empowering the oil companies and of being needlessly antagonistic to them; she’s the lone impediment to the project but foolishly overlooking numerous unresolved obstacles; she’s accused of making a risky bet on the future value of natural gas and simultaneously blamed for not acting quickly enough in light of the world’s rapidly expanding energy demands.
BIG OIL: VICTIM OR VILLIAN?
At times, in Portfolio’s telling, Palin’s main motive is harming oil companies, no matter the collateral damage to her state. McGinniss charges that she “built a career out of puffing up dragons she could then slay.”
She saw the launching of a natural-gas-pipeline project as a God-given opportunity to prove herself bigger than Big Oil. . . . She felt that with [the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act], she’d stuck her thumb in the eye of Big Oil as no governor before her ever had. She was good, and they were bad, and she’d defeated them. She was Joan of Arc at Orleans. . . .
What Alaskans wanted to hear as Palin assumed office at the start of 2007 — what they’d been wanting to hear, in fact, ever since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 — was that Big Oil, especially Exxon Mobil, was evil. Looking back over their 40-year partnership with the oil multinationals, most Alaskans concluded that no matter how many tens of billions of dollars in revenue the state had received as a result of North Slope production, it should have gotten more. And it would have, according to popular sentiment, if the greedy, crafty, amoral, conniving, duplicitous, and nefarious oil companies hadn’t robbed Alaska blind — in many cases, with the illicitly bought-and-paid-for cooperation of the state’s elected and appointed officials.
Perhaps that derision is fair; Palin’s populist streak has always been clear, and she’s been accused of seeing the world in black and white. But when McGinniss needs to paint the big oil companies as bad guys, they suddenly cease being victims of a runaway populist fury. Then Palin’s wary stance sounds pretty well justified. The article refers to Big Oil as “the industry that had ruled Alaska like a colonial master for 40 years” and details bribery and secret deals:
Then-Governor Murkowski, who had been secretly negotiating a gas-pipeline deal with the oil companies, fired Tom Irwin, the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, after Irwin questioned whether Murkowski’s secret talks were legal. Six Irwin aides resigned immediately, the negotiations went nowhere, and Murkowski became as unpopular in Alaska as Saddam Hussein.
Anger at the oil companies grew stronger still over the next two years. In 2007, an FBI investigation led to the conviction of a number of Republican political figures who had accepted bribes from the head of an oil-services company in return for their votes supporting oil-tax legislation and other favors.
McGinniss at first shakes his head at Alaskans’ resentment of oil companies and their belief that the industry exploited Alaska with the “illicitly bought-and-paid-for cooperation of the state’s elected and appointed officials“ and then, two paragraphs later, details . . . illicitly bought-and-paid-for cooperation from the state’s elected and appointed officials.
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS
A key factor determining the project’s future is, naturally, its estimated profitability. The article explains that if natural gas is selling for less than $2 per million British thermal units (MMBtus), the pipeline won’t turn a profit. The article notes that natural gas was at $12 last summer, but by February it was down to about $4.75. This week, gas futures were trading at $4.31.