The fungible candidate

Fact-checking Sarah Palin, who "knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America."

Published September 24, 2008 10:58AM (EDT)

If this election is about judgment, then John McCain should lose in a landslide. He said of his V.P. pick, "She knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America."

We can judge knowledge by both breadth and depth. Palin lacks both. She said in the ABC interview with Charlie Gibson:

Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that's with the energy independence that I've been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy. notes that this is "simply untrue." Instead of "nearly 20 percent," try "under 3 percent." On Sept. 14, Palin corrected that to: "My job has been to oversee nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of oil and gas." In fact, as the Washington Post notes, "according to authoritative EIA [Energy Information Administration] data, Alaska accounted for just 7.4 percent of total U.S. oil and gas production in 2005." The Post gives her its highest (which is to say lowest) rating of "Four Pinocchios" for "continuing to peddle bogus statistics three days after the original error was pointed out by independent fact-checkers."

Just for the record, the statement is not true even if you replace the word "energy" with "oil." Alaska accounts for only about 13 percent of U.S. oil production. But the point is, you can't replace all energy with oil, as much as the "Drill, Baby, Drill" Republicans would like to. Palin made the same exact same overgeneralization in her convention speech, when she said, "To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of the world's energy supplies ..." Oil, maybe; energy, definitely not.

OK, so clearly Palin has no breadth of knowledge on energy matters beyond oil. Does she have any depth of knowledge on oil? Nope.

Her lack of depth was painfully on display last week when she was asked at a Michigan town meeting, "I'd like to know that all that oil we're going to drill here is going to stay here domestically and it's not going to be exported by the oil companies." You can listen to her answer here:

Oil of coal, of course, is a fungible commodity and they don't flag, ya know, the molecules where, where it's going to, where it's not, but and in the, in the sense of the Congress today they know our very, very hungry domestic markets that need that oil first. So I believe that what Congress is going to do also is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it's Americans who get stuck holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here; it's gotta flow into our domestic markets first.

Not quite Miss Teen South Carolina territory, but borderline gibberish, self-contradictory, and kind of pointless.

Let's forget that she starts by saying "of coal" instead of "of course." Could happen to anyone who is nervous. She is correct that oil is a fungible (i.e. completely interchangeable) commodity -- the world market doesn't care or have any way of knowing where the original oil comes from. But why add the "flag the molecules" line? Obviously nobody would flag molecules. If she thought "fungible" might not be understood by her audience, how could "flag the molecules" add either simplicity or clarity?

But it's the rest of the quote where her logic runs aground like the Exxon Valdez tanker. Palin was asked about the possibility that oil companies might export any newly drilled crude oil. She said that would be a bad idea (twice) because "domestic markets" should get that oil "first." She says Congress knows that, but that what Congress will do "is not allow the export bans to such a degree that it's Americans who get stuck holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here." That would be mostly coherent if she dropped the word "bans." But as it reads now, she seems to be contradicting herself.

But here's the real question: Just how much of the crude oil that America drills today is exported? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2007, America exported 27,000 barrels of crude oil a day. That's compared with 13,500,000 barrels of crude oil a day that we imported. So crude oil exports are about as consequential a national energy problem as my 18-month-old daughter insisting I turn the fan on whenever we enter a new room.

Just for the record, all of the crude oil we exported in 2007 went to ... wait for it ... Canada. But we imported 2,455,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada -- nearly 100 times what we exported to our neighbor. So, yeah, it'd be really shrewd energy policy to ban crude oil exports.

Now you'll be relieved to know that the Christian Science Monitor reported last week:

At a rally in Vienna, Ohio, Tuesday, Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said that, if elected, she would lead the nation's energy efforts.

"John and I, we've discussed some new responsibilities that I'm going to have as vice president," Reuters reports Palin saying at the rally. "First, I'll help to lead the mission of energy security."

Problem solved! Hey, Ronald Reagan's first energy secretary was a dentist. Well, he was an expert on drilling.

The point is that conservatives like McCain don't believe in using the tools of government to promote alternative energy, fuel-efficient vehicles or energy security. They don't believe in a serious energy policy at all, unless "Drill, Baby, Drill" counts. So they don't need people with either breadth or depth of knowledge. In that sense, Sarah Palin is just another fungible conservative energy expert.

By Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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