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Friday, April 13, 2007

Alaska's Governor Starts Exploring Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

New subcabinet on global warming created - Governor Palin's desire to curb contributions to global warming represents shift in emphasis

[From the Anchorage Daily News:]

Gov. Sarah Palin plans to explore ways Alaska can reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global-warming strategy to be developed by a new subcabinet of top administration officials.

State officials said this week that Palin's new subcabinet will develop policies to help the state adapt to climate changes that have been more pronounced in Alaska than elsewhere.

For the first time, the state will also begin looking for ways to curb Alaska's own contribution to the global atmospheric problem, officials said.

[Image: The phenomenon of 'drunken forests' seen above is just one of the many effects of global warming visible in Alaska. As permafrost melts and soil sags, trees lose their 'footing' and end up tilting 'drunkenly' and frequently falling.]

One of the state's first tasks: respond to a petition filed two weeks ago by an environmental coalition urging mandatory reporting by large Alaska industries of their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The environmental groups said self-reporting, even without mandatory emission limits, would spur companies to cut pollution.

The state's interest in curbing emissions represents a new emphasis for Palin, who pronounced herself unconvinced about global warming science during her campaign for governor last year.

"From my first meeting with her on this topic, I could tell she was interested in it and in the new information that was coming out," said Larry Hartig, Palin's commissioner of environmental conservation, who will be chairman of the new subcabinet.

An international report released in February by the United Nations' main scientific panel concluded there was no longer reasonable doubt that human activities were the main cause behind the documented increase in global temperatures.

Because of Alaska's northern latitude, the state is already seeing bigger impacts of climate change than most of the world. Dealing with those changes, some of them severe, will remain the state's first priority, Hartig said.

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing our fair share on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions," he added.

If anything, the state government has been on the other side of global warming politics until now.

Polar bears are one example. On Tuesday, the Palin administration released its official opposition to a federal proposal to declare polar bears a "threatened" species. The state asserted that Alaska populations of polar bears are healthy and said worries about the bear are based on questionable projections of a shrinking polar ice cap.

The state also sided with the auto industry before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case heard last year, opposing efforts to push the Bush administration to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, Alaska has seen increased erosion, melting of permafrost, dying forests and receding glaciers. The state Legislature finally got involved last year, creating a commission to assess the impacts of climate change in Alaska. That commission, which meets in Anchorage today and Friday, is not looking at causes of global warming or ways to begin solving the problem.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, expressed the state's past ambivalence in an interview aired on National Public Radio on Tuesday when he said, "We see the results. We want to deal with the results now and let other people argue about the causes."

That national debate over causes and solutions appears to be moving toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions by industry, utilities and automobiles.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled against the Alaska side in the Clean Air Act case. That decision could lead someday to a stronger federal role in regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Stevens himself introduced legislation this year to improve fuel economy in automobiles, saying this could reduce greenhouse gases.

But the state can do something about the problem right away by requiring industry to report emissions, Trustees for Alaska said in a petition representing 13 Alaska organizations. The environmental groups said a similar reporting program for toxic emissions, instituted nationally in 1986, led to substantial voluntary reductions by industry.

"Alaska is ground zero for the impacts from global warming, and it should be leading the nation in seeking solutions to it," said Randy Virgin, executive director for the Alaska Center for the Environment.

Some other states have imposed reporting requirements, which seem to be gaining acceptance from industry. Exxon Mobil has been reporting its emissions worldwide for four years, said company spokesman Dave Gardner.

Conoco Phillips went farther this week, announcing it is joining BP in support of a federal emissions cap -- in part to avoid a patchwork of state-imposed limits.

Hartig said no decision has been made on the environmentalists' March 29 petition, which legally must be answered in 30 days. But he said their proposal is generally in line with steps already under way by the state to figure out where greenhouse gas emissions in Alaska are being generated.

A preliminary consultant's report, done with eight other Western states, found that air transportation and oil and gas production were major sources in Alaska. The DEC is planning a more detailed follow-up report, Hartig said.

The new Palin subcabinet on climate change will include the heads of the Fish and Game, Natural Resources and Commerce departments, along with the state's Washington, D.C., office chief John Katz and a representative of the University of Alaska, Hartig said.

The group's first steps will involve gathering information, he said.

"Some states have set goals about reducing emissions by a certain percentage," Hartig said. "I don't think we have enough information in Alaska at this point to do that."

Good to see Alaska's government starting to come around on climate change. Given how significantly the state will be (and already is) affected by climate change, you'd think the Alaska would be at the forefront of state's taking action to curb global warming pollution. Instead, Governor Palin and the state government have tended to be on the wrong side of the issue, but perhaps they are starting to come around. Progress...

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