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David Helvarg | The Nation

David Helvarg

Author Bios

David Helvarg

David Helvarg is an author and President of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a marine conservation and policy group. His latest book is Saved by the Sea—A Love Story with Fish (St. Martin's 2010).

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Kiribati's President, Anote Tong, speaks about the struggles faced by climate refugees, solidarity within his country and getting the international community's attention.

With Republicans in full control in Washington, next year's prospects
are grim.

Questions about Enron's links to the White House and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.

Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force's records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron's Ken Lay. The Vice President's office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.

The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on "homeland security" and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.

Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its "free market" environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she'd altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. "We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that," she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.

Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won't violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to "correct these inconsistencies" with Norton's position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They'll just look more like panda bears.

Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged "no net loss of wetlands," George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America's vital wetlands through a "general permitting" process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat."

Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in "mountaintop removal" in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.

Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. "Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?" wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.

Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.

Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That's because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.

In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America's water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney's diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us "more secure at home." If nothing else, America's new "war on terrorism" is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.

In early April an alert was sent out by a longtime oceans activist worried that the Bush Administration was about to reverse a program to establish marine protected areas. A number of green groups relayed the warning to their members. Within days Chris Evans, head of the Surfrider Foundation (made up of more than 26,000 environmentally concerned surfers), got a call from a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration begging him to stop jamming the communications system with protests. "You've made your point. Nothing's been decided yet," the official said.

Bush's hard line on the environment, including decisions on carbon dioxide, oil drilling, arsenic, mining, forests, oceans and energy, as well as budget cuts that target agencies like the EPA and the Interior Department and laws like the Endangered Species Act, is mobilizing the environmental movement in a broader, deeper way than has been seen since the first Earth Day thirty-one years ago. "Bush said he'd be the great uniter, and he's united the opposition nicely in these early days," claims John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "It's better than I've seen it in years."

And while the environmental movement--some thirty large organizations with close to 20 million dues-paying members, along with thousands of regional and local activist groups--is raising much the same alarm it did in 1981, at the beginning of the "trees cause pollution" Reagan era, and 1995, when the 104th Congress tried to gut keystone environmental laws, it's discovering that many more Americans--including suburban "swing voters"--now seem to be listening. Over the past three decades environmentalism has evolved from a social movement to a societal ethic.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman tried unsuccessfully to warn Bush that backing off his pledge to reduce global warming CO2 emissions would not only hurt US credibility overseas but could also alienate a greening conservative constituency at home. The White House has since received protests from groups including the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. (The Catholic bishops are studying climate change and may take a stand this summer.) GOP moderates, having seen the public backlash against the anti-environment phobias of their colleagues undermine the Gingrich "revolution" (remember those shut-down national parks?), fear that their control of the White House, House and Senate could be jeopardized in 2002.

Another moderate Republican loser is Fred Krupp, head of Environmental Defense, a group that promotes market-based solutions to environmental problems. By refusing to attack Bush's anti-environment nominees, like former lead lobbyist (now Interior Secretary) Gale Norton, ED hoped to position itself to become the author of a CO2 pollution trading initiative. Instead Bush froze it out, turning to "free-market environmentalists" from the industry-funded libertarian right to defend his agenda.

While the Democrats' climate and energy proposals are only "a paler shade of brown," according to Sierra Club climate programs director Dan Becker, the Democrats have begun picking up on the growing public unease over Bush's green-bashing. On March 28 Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Dick Gephardt joined environmentalists for a rally and press conference, and three days later the Democrats dedicated their weekly radio address to going after Bush on arsenic in drinking water and other environmental issues. Among the most outspoken pols targeting Bush is Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful John Kerry, who has threatened to filibuster any effort to pass Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling. With a majority of Americans opposed to the drilling and Bush lacking the Senate votes needed for passage, enviros see a chance of turning caribou in the Arctic into an early and major policy defeat.

A greater challenge for the enviros will be sustaining public interest in the trench warfare that will continue on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies now filling up with former oil, mining, auto, timber and biotech lobbyists. One suggestion initiated by European Greens (reflecting the EU's disgust with Bush's sabotage of the Kyoto agreement) is a global boycott of a US oil company. Forced to unify and coordinate strategies, US enviros are also working more closely with labor, civil rights, feminist and public health groups on areas of common interest. (The way Congressional Republicans rammed through a reversal of ergonomic workplace rules, for example, was seen as a potential threat not only to worker safety but also to a host of environmental protection rules.)

This breaking down of issue barriers is also finding resonance among younger people entering the ranks of the movement. "What began in Seattle represents the next generation that cares about labor, safety, trade and very much about the environment and its global connections," says Greenpeace's Passacantando, who invited 225 college students to bird-dog the US delegation at the last climate talks in The Hague. "The game now is, How much can we hold Bush's feet to the fire?" With the President, Vice President and Commerce Secretary all veterans of the oil industry, the Greens ought to find plenty of fuel for their fire this Earth Day.

President-elect Bush's naming of former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton as Interior Secretary and recently defeated Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham as Energy Secretary suggests that Republicans haven't learned from the 104th Congress of 1995, when attempts to gut environmental protections helped undermine the short-lived Gingrich revolution. The beliefs that Norton and Abraham shared about natural-resource exploitation are as close as subsurface oil and gas but completely out of whack with their departments' stated missions.

As Colorado's Attorney General from 1991 to 1998 Norton pushed programs of voluntary compliance for industrial polluters and opposed government (and voter) initiatives to counter sprawl. She has been an active advocate for "property rights," the idea that government should compensate developers when environmental laws and regulations limit their profits, while also fighting hard to protect agribusiness access to cheap federal water. Since 1999 she's worked for Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland, a law firm that has lobbied for a range of sprawl-promoting clients, including Denver International Airport and the city's new taxpayer-financed stadium for its pro football team, the Broncos.

A four-year veteran of James Watt's Mountain States Legal Foundation, Norton continued to work for Watt after he became President Reagan's controversial ("We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber") Interior Secretary.

In 1998 Norton, along with right-wing activist and BP oil lobbyist Grover Norquist, became co-chair of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates. Dedicated to "free-market environmentalism," CREA included "wise users," property-rights advocates and auto, coal, mining and developer lobbyists. Traditional GOP environmentalists like the late Senator John Chafee refused to join the group.

In 1999 Norton joined the team advising the Bush campaign on developing a conservative environmental agenda. Among those working with her was David Koch of Koch industries, which last year paid a $35 million fine for oil pollution in six states; also Lynn Scarlett, a senior fellow at the antiregulatory Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), which according to the Washington Post lived up to its acronym by holding a series of all-expenses-paid "seminars" for federal judges at a Montana dude ranch.

Norton's commitment to begin oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could make her the most controversial Interior Secretary since her mentor. On the other hand, the media's focus on her being a pro-choice Republican suggests she'll also support a caribou's right to abort before losing its habitat.

Working closely with Norton as Energy Secretary will be longtime Republican operative and former Dan Quayle staff aide Spencer Abraham, who only last year called for the abolition of the Energy Department (as a cost-saving measure). During his one term as senator from Michigan Abraham fought to limit fuel-efficiency requirements for SUVs, limit renewable energy research, abolish the federal gasoline tax and open up ANWR to oil drilling. While this won him a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters, it also scored him close to $450,000 in contributions from energy and natural resources industries in his failed re-election bid. Ironically, he has now become a personal example of recycling.

Aligning with Abraham and Norton will be Don Evans, a FOG (Friend of George) oil executive and $100 million Bush fundraiser. As the next Commerce Secretary (another department Abraham wanted to abolish), Evans will oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead agency for America's oceans (which are the source of 25 percent of our domestic oil and 26 percent of our natural gas).

If, following the lead of the oilmen in the White House, Cabinet members Norton, Abraham and Evans should choose drilling, particularly in ANWR, as their first environmental battle (something national green groups believe they will), they could quickly find themselves sinking in a political quagmire of their own creation.