News and Features
The Department of Energy has hit upon a new idea for nuclear waste clean-up: just leave it there and declare the area a wildlife preserve. The animals won't complain.
Allied 'surgical strikes' in Kosovo in 1999 created environmental hotspots yet to cleaned up; the same might happen in Afghanistan.
It's time for the United States to show as much commitment in the battle against global warming as it does in the "war on terror."
The current uproar
over the posture of the Bush Administration on global warming and,
most recently, on power-plant emissions vividly illustrates the
political hypocrisy and opportunism imbuing debates on environmental
issues. Take first global warming. The charge that the current phase
of global warming can be attributed to greenhouse gases generated by
humans and their livestock is an article of faith among liberals as
sturdy as is missile defense among the conservative crowd. The
Democrats have seized on the issue of global warming as indicative of
President Bush's willful refusal to confront a global crisis that
properly agitates all of America's major allies. Almost daily, the
major green groups reap rich political capital (and donations) on the
Yet the so-called anthropogenic origin of global
warming remains entirely nonproven. Back in the spring of this year,
even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which now has a
huge stake in arguing the "caused by humans" thesis, admitted in its
summary that there could be a one-in-three chance its multitude of
experts are wrong. A subsequent report, issued under the auspices of
the National Academy of Sciences, is ambivalent to the point of
absurdity. An initial paragraph boldly asserting the caused-by-humans
line is confounded a few pages later by far more cautious paragraphs
admitting that the thesis is speculative and that major uncertainty
rules on the role played in climate equations by water vapor and
It's nothing new to say the earth is getting
warmer. I myself think it is, and has been for a long, long time. On
my shelf is an excellent volume put out in 1941 by the Department of
Agriculture called Climate and Man, which contains a chapter
acknowledging "global warming" (that same phrase) and hailing it as a
benign trend that will return the earth to the normalcy in climate it
enjoyed several hundred thousand years ago.
than a glance at the computer models favored by the caused-by-humans
crowd will show that the role of carbon dioxide is grotesquely
exaggerated. Indeed, the models are incapable of handling the role of
the prime greenhouse gas, water vapor (clouds, etc), which accounts
for twenty-five to thirty times as much heat absorption as carbon
Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change admits to a "very low" level of scientific understanding on an
"aerosol indirect effect" that the panel acknowledges is cooling the
climate system at a hefty rate (aerosols are particles so fine they
float in air).
In a particularly elegant paper published in
May in Chemical Innovation, journal of the American Chemical
Society, Professor Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State reminds us that for
the past 850,000 years, global temperature and carbon dioxide have
been moving up and down in lockstep. Since 849,700 of these years
were ones preceding any possible human effect on carbon dioxide, this
raises the question of whether global warming caused swings in carbon
dioxide or vice versa. Essenhigh argues convincingly that the former
is the case. As global temperatures warm, a huge reservoir of carbon
dioxide absorbed in the oceans is released into the atmosphere.
Clearly, this is a much more potent input than the relatively puny
human contribution to global carbon dioxide. Thus natural warming is
driving the raised level of carbon dioxide, and not the other way
But science can barely squeeze in the door with a
serious debate about what is prompting global warming. Instead, the
Europeans, the greens and the Democrats eagerly seize on the issue as
a club with which to beat President Bush and kindred targets of
Now take the latest brouhaha over emissions
from coal-fired plants. The industry wants what is coyly called
"flexibility" in emissions standards. EPA chief Christine Whitman is
talking about "voluntary incentives" and market-based pollution
credits as the proper way to go. Aware of the political pitfalls, the
Bush Administration has recently been saying that it is not quite
ready to issue new rules.
Now, there's no uncertainty about
the effects of the stuff that comes out of a power-plant chimney.
These heavy metals and fine particles kill people or make them sick.
There are also cleaning devices, some of them expensive, that can
remove these toxic substances. Ever since the 1970s the energy
industry has fought mandatory imposition of such cleaners. If Bush
and Whitman enforce this flexibility they will be condemning people
to death, as have previous foot-dragging administrations, Democratic
as well as Republican.
Both political parties have danced
to the industry's tunes. It was with the propagandizing of Stephen
Breyer (now on the Supreme Court, then a top aide to Senator Ted
Kennedy) that the trend toward pollution credits began. And after the
glorious regulatory laxity of the Reagan/Bush years, the industry was
not seriously discommoded in Clinton Time. Ask the inhabitants of
West Virginia and Tennessee whether they think the coal industry lost
clout in those years.
The sad truth of the matter is that
many "big picture" environmental theses, such as human-caused global
warming, afford marvelously inviting ways of avoiding specific and
mostly difficult political decisions. You can bellow for "global
responsibility" without seriously offending powerful corporate
interests, some of which, for reasons material, cynical or both, now
have a big stake (the nuclear industry, for example) in promoting the
caused-by-humans thesis. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill loves it,
and so does the aluminum industry, in which he has been a prime
player. On the other side we can soon expect to hear that powerful
Democrat, Senator Robert Byrd, arguing that the coal industry is in
the vanguard of the war on global warming, because the more you shade
the earth, perhaps the more rain you cause. So burn dirty coal and
protect the earth by cooling it.
The logic of the
caused-by-humans models installs the coal industry as the savior of
"global warming"--you want to live by a computer model that does
A Democratic Congressman relates what happened when a large California city rebelled against privatization of its electricity.
Mexico's Zapatista community is protesting the commercial exploitation of the country's ecological riches.
The potential domestic consequences of the Administration's national energy policy--opening up protected areas to drilling, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, building more nuclear reactors--have galvanized environmentalists, but its international ramifications, which have received scant comment in the press, give equal cause for alarm. Closer scrutiny of the National Energy Policy Report, released in May, reveals that the White House expects to obtain most of the additional oil and natural gas the United States will need in the years ahead from foreign rather than domestic sources. As the report makes clear, this will entail greater political and military intervention abroad.
According to the report, US consumption of oil is expected to rise from 19.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2000 to 25.8 million in 2020, an increase of 32 percent. At the same time, domestic oil production is expected to remain more or less flat, at about 9 million bpd--meaning that total imports will have to rise by 61 percent, from 10 to 16.5 million bpd.
In the report's final chapter, the Administration spells out how America will achieve these increased oil imports. It articulates an aggressive, two-pronged strategy for gaining access to key overseas supplies of petroleum: first, pressuring foreign governments to open up their energy sectors to significant investment by US energy firms, and second, insuring political stability in producing countries so that the US companies can safely operate in them.
In particular the report calls on the government "to continue supporting American energy firms competing in markets abroad," "to level the playing field for U.S. companies overseas" and "to reduce barriers to trade and investment." To overcome these barriers in Latin America, the secretaries of State and Commerce are directed to take steps "to improve the energy investment climate for the growing level of energy investment flows between the United States and each of these countries," especially in Brazil and Venezuela, which historically have resisted foreign involvement in their petroleum industries.
Other such directives are aimed at increasing the involvement of US energy firms in the petroleum industries of Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the Persian Gulf countries. The State and Commerce departments are expected to use economic and political pressure to remove impediments to investment by foreign firms, which could provoke strong opposition in these countries.
But it is not only State and Commerce that will carry out this policy. The report makes clear that the procurement of sufficient energy for future US requirements is a matter of "national security," and it highlights a number of areas where this effort is likely to require support from the US military. One of these is Colombia, now in the throes of a brutal civil war. Because Colombia's oil fields and pipelines are located in areas often attacked by guerrillas, any increase in production there would require intensified counterguerrilla operations by the Colombian military and its US allies, though this is not mentioned in the energy report.
Similarly, the report calls for increased energy production in the Caspian Sea basin, where the Administration seeks to accelerate the construction of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. Because these countries are suffering from internal unrest and violence, any such effort will mean stepped-up arms deliveries and the dispatch of US military advisers.
Even more worrisome are the implications of increased US dependence on the oil supplies of the Persian Gulf. As the report notes, the Gulf is the only area with sufficient petroleum reserves to satisfy expanding American demand over the long term. Given the instabilities in the region, a permanent US military presence there will be necessary, along with intervention in local conflicts.
The basic thrust of the Bush energy policy is clear: To acquire an ever-enlarging supply of imported oil, Washington will have to step up its meddling in the internal affairs of numerous countries around the world, many of which are deeply divided along political, ethnic and religious lines. The accompanying risk of involvement in foreign wars will grow proportionally.
Opposition has already been voiced to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to the construction of new nuclear power plants. Now it must be joined by vociferous protest against White House plans to funnel more and more of the world's oil to the United States, which will only lead to increased anti-Americanism overseas and endless energy wars.
Forget Three Mile Island! The buzzword now is "environmentally preferable."
For years, environmental advocates in and out of government have labored to construct a connecting arch between opposing interests that could lead to the first real legislative action on global warming. Last year the elements for a breakthrough deal seemed in place. Both major presidential nominees said they were on board. Then George W. Bush came into office and removed the keystone from the arch.
The keystone is the bundle of federal lawsuits that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department have filed against electric utility polluters, plus the active investigations of a hundred or more other power plants and refineries for similar gross violations. The President has ordered a "review" of these legal actions--in effect freezing enforcement and perhaps halting it entirely. Without the threat of these lawsuits, electric utilities have no incentive to accept new federal regulation of their carbon dioxide emissions--a crucial first step in the long-delayed imperative to reduce global warming.
Bush's action may sound like inside-the-Beltway intrigue--and it is--but the consequences could be momentous if not challenged by a public outcry. His action should also inspire a careful Congressional investigation. Who exactly put the fix in at the White House? The defendants, appears to be the answer, joined by old reliables like ExxonMobil. The companies threatened by the EPA's multibillion-dollar lawsuits--coal, oil and the big-time scofflaws in electricity generation--evidently went through a back door labeled Rove-Cheney Office of Political Environmentalism. Their achievement illustrates another bipartisan scandal--our torturously slow-acting and incomplete environmental laws. The government is, in fact, still struggling to get this crowd to comply with clean-air standards put in place thirty years ago.
To appreciate the contradictions, start with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which grandfathered in, as exempt from the new pollution standards, hundreds of outmoded power plants. Regarded at the time as necessary for passage of the act, this trade-off allowed the plants to keep operating--but not to expand their output--on the assumption that they would gradually be phased out. Instead, more than 300 of the grandfathered power plants are still going and produce more than half the country's electricity, as well as the bulk of its mercury, nitrogen and sulfur air pollution (electric utilities are also the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution). And, in defiance of the law, a lot of the exempted plants expanded. Those violations, after decades of regulatory debate and failed persuasion, led to the first batch of EPA lawsuits filed against seven companies in 1999, with many more promised. They involve serious lawbreaking and huge liabilities--and potentially expose companies to public-health damage suits as well.
Several of the more enlightened companies began looking for a deal: In exchange for relief from the lawsuits, they'd accept a new regulatory law curbingtheir pollution. That's when enviro groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put global warming on the table too. If Congress enacted legislation covering the other three pollutants, it made sense to include carbon dioxide, never before subject to regulatory curbs. Some utility executives, recognizing its inevitability, accepted the trade-off. Why modernize plants for the three established pollutants, then have to come back to retrofit for carbon emissions? That promising confluence of interests inspired the four-pollutant legislation now pending in Congress.
But the Bushies are proceeding to let industry off the hook. First, Bush canceled his campaign promise to support mandatory carbon dioxide reductions (his policies will likely be hammered at the United Nations conference on global warming in Bonn this month). Then Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force proposed the "review," virtually suspending compliance agreements that some companies had already negotiated with the EPA. The NRDC has identified the National Coal Council, a supposedly nonpolitical federal advisory committee, as a central meeting place where defendant firms and their lawyers collaborate with coal and oil reps on devising the counterattack. Lois Schiffer, head of the Justice Department's environmental enforcement under Clinton, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's sort of like going to the White House to get your parking tickets fixed."
White House tampering with law enforcement on behalf of accused lawbreakers who are the President's patrons ought to be treated as a big deal, even in scandal-jaded Washington. Senate Democrats do not need to engage in bipartisan niceties on this-- they must make a full-throated commitment to legislate and to make global warming a decisive election issue for 2002 and especially 2004, if Bush persists in pandering to the most retrograde industrial interests. Democrats, quite by accident, have a running start here. The new chairman of the Senate environment committee--former Republican Jim Jeffords--is the co-sponsor of the four-pollutant legislation (with Democrat Joe Lieberman). If Jeffords couldn't rally his old party to the cause of global warming, maybe he can convince his new friends on the other side of the aisle to take it seriously.
We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
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