Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to US foreign policy. On November 10 George W. Bush appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and, in a speech praised by the New York Times for its "plain-spoken eloquence," admonished his audience that the responsibility to fight terrorism is "binding on every nation with a place in this chamber." Bush apparently felt no need to practice what he preached about international responsibilities, though. On the same day--indeed, at the very moment--he was lecturing UN members, his own Administration was shunning negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco, to finalize the Kyoto accord on global warming.
"How long can the Administration turn its back on issues the rest of the world cares about--from global warming to trade in small arms--and expect broad support on issues like the war on terrorism?" asked Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. Bush's double standard is all the more grating, considering that the United States is the leading source of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Like terrorism, global warming is an issue in which every nation has a stake. Already the Earth's glaciers are melting and catastrophic storms are becoming more severe and more frequent--this, after a mere 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures over the past century. Scientists expect four to eleven degrees of additional warming by 2100, bringing more violent weather, flooded coastlines and social havoc. New research released in Marrakech by the UN Environmental Program warns that global crop yields could fall 30 percent over the twenty-first century.
The Kyoto accord addresses this danger by ordering industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 5.2 percent by 2012, compared with 1990 levels--a very modest target, considering that scientists say global emissions must eventually be cut 60 percent. Last summer in Bonn, 178 nations signed the accord; the meeting in Marrakech, where US officials observed but did not participate, hammered out rules for implementation. "Other countries have chosen their path, and our answer is still no," said a Bush Administration official.
Will Marrakech make much difference? The good news is that the world has put in place a binding framework requiring greenhouse gas reductions, and this framework will likely become law despite the US boycott. To come into force, the accord must be ratified by fifty-five countries, including a group responsible for at least 55 percent of the industrial world's emissions. Forty smaller nations have already ratified it, but with the United States holding out, the 55 percent standard can be reached only if the European Union, Russia and Japan all ratify. The EU has long been on board, and in Marrakech the Russians said they were finally satisfied. Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretary is pushing for a ratification vote in January, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has signaled his support. So Kyoto could become law as early as next spring (although the United States, because it didn't sign, won't be bound by it). A further bright spot: Delegates at Marrakech authorized $410 million a year by 2005 for a "clean development mechanism" to subsidize the shift from carbon-based fuels in poor countries.
The bad news is that the Kyoto accord got so watered down in Marrakech that it may have very little practical effect during the next ten years, when progress is most needed. The original accord relied heavily on emissions trading, a dubious mechanism that allows countries whose emissions are less than the maximum permitted, like Russia, to sell their excess to countries that are over their quota, like Japan. Now this loophole has been not only codified but expanded. The chief culprit is Russia, which has 120 million tons of emissions to trade and which also demanded twice as much credit as previously agreed on for the role its vast forests can play in absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Meanwhile, two studies published in Nature this past July suggest that forests are not nearly as effective in neutralizing emissions as was thought.
Some environmentalists argue that these loopholes can be fixed later, that the emissions targets will be gradually tightened and eventually produce meaningful effects. And it's true that since carbon will now have a price in the marketplace, thanks to emissions trading, corporations, governments and individuals may make better choices about the products they produce and consume. US firms might even obey the accord, despite Washington's stance, in order not to be left behind by foreign competitors. But wouldn't it be easier if the United States simply showed as much commitment to the battle against global warming as it demands from everyone else in the battle against terrorism?
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
This past March, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) made history with a march on Mexico City from its jungle stronghold in the poor southern state of Chiapas, demanding acceptance of its peace plan, the San Andrés Accords [see Al Giordano, "Zapatistas on the March," April 9]. But within six weeks, the accords--constitutional amendments recognizing the autonomy of Mexico's indigenous peoples--were gutted by federal legislators, causing the rebels once again to break off dialogue. At the heart of the debate over the plan is the question of who will control the fate of the Chiapas rainforest, the Selva Lacandona--where real indigenous autonomy has been in place ever since the 1994 Zapatista uprising.
The UN-recognized Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve holds the Selva's last, threatened heart of virgin forest. Despite President Vicente Fox's pledges to withdraw troops from Zapatista territory, many military positions remain in the Selva. Barred by the cease-fire from attacking the Zapatistas, the troops are ostensibly policing Montes Azules against drug traffickers and protecting it from deforestation. But the Selva's Maya inhabitants, the Zapatista base communities, say that--in defiance of both UN guidelines and the San Andrés principles--Montes Azules is not being protected for the resident indigenous peoples but for transnational biotech corporations that hope to profit from the region's genetic wealth.
In 1998 the California firm Diversa signed a three-year "bio-prospecting" deal with the Mexican government. Diversa, which has a similar deal with the US government for Yellowstone National Park, is granted access to Mexico's biodiversity in exchange for $5,000 to train and equip personnel from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who are to collect the samples; $50 per sample; and royalties of between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of net sales on products derived from them. In contrast, Yellowstone National Park got $15,000 of equipment, royalties of from 0.5 to 10 percent--and $100,000.
The terms of both deals had been secret. Environmental groups went to US federal court to try to get the Yellowstone terms released--but they were eventually reported in the Salt Lake Tribune. The terms of the Mexican deal were leaked to the daily La Jornada, which lambasted them as "bio-genetic plunder."
The University of Georgia, the Britain-based company Molecular Nature Ltd. and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur have launched a similar five-year project. This one, titled Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of Mexico, specifically targets Chiapas. Tapping the vast reservoir of Maya herblore, the program will receive $2.5 million from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), a consortium of US government agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture. The Chiapas Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and Healers (COMPITCH) is urging Indians not to cooperate with the researchers, charging that "the pact was developed without notifying or informing indigenous communities and organizations." The US program has developed its own partnership with local Indian communities, called ICBG-Maya. Director Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia told the Associated Press that the project has received the consent of nearly fifty communities and forged profit-sharing deals with them. But Berlin said he warned them that financial windfalls were a long shot.
Since 1993 the ICBG has awarded eleven bio-prospecting grants totaling $18.5 million worldwide. Commercial partners include GlaxoSmithKline, Dow Agroscience, American Cyanamid (recently acquired by BASF) and, until recently, Monsanto Searle. The revenues at stake contrast sharply with the agonizing poverty of Chiapas villages. A unique geyser-dwelling microbe collected from Yellowstone in 1966 was the source for enzymes widely used in DNA research and sold to Hoffman-LaRoche for $300 million. Rather than bring wealth to impoverished villages, new patents may impose economic burdens by requiring farmers to pay royalties to foreign corporations to grow their own indigenous maize. The Mexican government has expressed concern over DuPont's recent patenting of all corn varieties with certain oleic acid levels, including many originating in Mexico.
Beth Burrows of the Seattle-area-based Edmonds Institute, one of the litigants in the Yellowstone case, is still waiting for a court-ordered impact study on the bio-prospecting program there. Says Burrows: "To privatize living organisms, whether it is Mexican maize or Yellowstone microbes, may serve corporate interests, but it does not serve our social contract or our duties to steward the land and support farmers. Farmers all over the world save seeds and trade them with neighbors. But Monsanto has taken farmers to court for violating their property rights. Farmers have to go to the corporations like to masters on the manor."
This system is now supported by the "trade-related intellectual property rights" provisions--or TRIPs--of NAFTA and the WTO, instating international recognition of patents on life. In contrast, the United States still resists ratifying the Biodiversity Treaty, unveiled at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which would recognize indigenous peoples' intellectual property rights. Adds Burrows: "We're creating a social disruption which I'm not sure people are seeing."
Some people are seeing it. In April representatives from more than 100 Chiapas Indian communities held a Maize Meeting in the highlands city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, vowing not to plant bio-tweaked corn. In mid-June COMPITCH held an international anti-bio-piracy Forum for Biological and Cultural Diversity, in San Cristóbal. And on June 24, when the Biotechnology Industry Organization met in San Diego, Diversa's hometown, activists held their own "BioJustice" counterconvention.
The San Andrés Accords would create a formidable obstacle to corporate designs on Mexico's Indian lands: uncooperative Indian communities with greater control over their turf. Which is why peace is likely to remain illusory in southern Mexico as long as the government remains beholden to corporate globalization. But the issues raised by the Zapatista autonomy demands have implications for indigenous peoples, farmers and environmentalists worldwide.
No one would have expected ultraconservative San Diego to be the cradle of a revolution against privatization. Nixon's "lucky city," it was one of the few places in California actually carried by George W. Bush. But as a result of the electricity deregulation plan passed by the state legislature in 1996, San Diego County became the first area in California to be completely deregulated--that is, subject to the "market" for both wholesale and retail rates.
The results were immediate, unexpected and, for many, devastating. Within thirty days, monthly electricity bills, both residential and business, doubled. In sixty days, they tripled. A commodity that produced steady profits when selling for 4 cents a kilowatt-hour zoomed to $4 a kilowatt-hour. Dozens of small businesses folded. Those on fixed incomes panicked. Fear, then outrage, engulfed the community. A true populist revolt erupted. Urban workers, suburban professionals and small-business people burned their utility bills at protest rallies. School boards and city councils voted not to pay their bills.
The state legislature responded to the San Diego revolution with a temporary cap on retail rates, but local progressive forces (led by the Coalition for Affordable Public Power) developed a long-range solution--the formation of a municipal utility district (MUD) to provide local control of the increasingly dysfunctional electricity market. Although some 2,000 communities across America today control their own electricity supply, and the City of Los Angeles generates and distributes electricity for its 3.8 million citizens, such a proposal could scarcely have been imagined in San Diego before the crisis. In fact, no new municipal utility has been formed in California for over half a century. Yet almost instantly San Diego was ready for such a "radical step." Three million people in the county "got it" all at once: This wasn't a free market at work but a manipulated market that threatened their future. This was not primarily a "supply and demand" crisis, nor one caused by wacko environmentalists, but one brought about by greedy marketers and wholesalers who withheld supply and took plants offline to drive up prices. Deregulation had put the whole economy at risk.
My conservative Republican neighbor, US Congressman Duncan Hunter, summed up San Diego's discovery: "It's as if the hospital administrator, five minutes before your scheduled life-or-death operation, suddenly tripled the cost of the oxygen. It's not scarcity, it's not cost of production, it's control of a vital necessity at the moment you need it." Hunter had seen his individualistic, entrepreneurial, small-business constituents brought to their knees by the price gouging. And virtually every other public official in the county--in both parties, at every level of government--came together to support my calls in Congress for a municipal utility district, a return to regulated rates and refunds of a year's criminal overcharges. Even the San Diego Union-Tribune, the staunchly conservative, pro-free market flagship newspaper of the Copley Press, consistently editorialized against the wholesale power industry, in support of price controls and more federal regulation. It too supported public power and criticized the Bush Administration on numerous occasions for its failure to respond to California's crisis.
Various cities in San Diego County have tentatively explored setting up their own municipal utilities. But there is general consensus that a countywide district would be most viable. And, under the real threat of a grassroots petition movement to put a MUD on the ballot, the five conservative Republicans on the County Board of Supervisors have pledged to secure state legislation to authorize the district. Once a formal MUD structure is in place, a variety of options are available, from community co-op power purchasing to full ownership of generation and distribution capacity. I have advocated MUD ownership of enough power (say, 1,000 megawatts out of the 3,000 we use daily) to give the community leverage over the market. We would not need--and thus would not face future political opposition to--a complete takeover of transmission and distribution lines. And the MUD would provide leadership for conservation and renewable energy development. We are now actively planning the San Diego Community Power Project, designed to be completely environmentally friendly and to offer electricity at the previous regulated rates. The public once would have winced at the $400 million price tag--but that's what we paid in overcharges in just two months last summer.
Many obstacles remain to securing local control. But the remarkable political consensus has held, and I believe that San Diego will soon be generating its own power. The national movement toward electricity deregulation has abruptly slowed in the wake of California's disaster. If San Diego can emerge from the crisis with a new vision for our energy future, the nation will have gained a truly progressive alternative.
Forget Three Mile Island! The buzzword now is "environmentally preferable."
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.
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.
Despite local outrage, Feds approve an expansion of toxic waste storage.
George W. Bush's energy plan fudges the facts, raises false alarms, shamelessly peddles halfhearted green measures--all to provide a cover under which to slide the oil industry's wish list. Jimmy Carter, who knows a real energy crisis, in a Washington Post Op-Ed accused the administration of using "misinformation and scare tactics to justify such environmental atrocities as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." Bush cites California's troubles as a call to action for a plan that does not address them. It revives nuclear power with no ideas on where to safely put the waste, trashes environmental regulations and airily dismisses international concerns about global warming, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly noted in a little-reported speech at Tufts University on May 20. "We do not face a choice between economy and ecology," Annan said. "In fact, the opposite is true: Unless we protect resources and the earth's natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth."
Bush's plan, crafted in secret sessions with input from industry reps and none from consumer advocates, is a mélange of vague ("make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy"), sometimes contradictory suggestions and steps the Bush Administration can take unilaterally (easing regulations for the electric, oil and nuclear industries). It will unleash much squabbling in Congress, as legislators take up other portions of the package. Not only will enviros face off against industros on assorted fronts--the consensus of the moment is that Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness is near-DOA in Congress--but energy-producing states will square off against consuming states.
Industries themselves could be at each other's throats, competing to gain an edge via legislation. Natural gas companies, for instance, have no interest in seeing environmental rules relaxed for coal-burning utilities. Electricity cooperatives will wrangle with electric utilities. Northeast power-generators could tussle with Midwest utilities over emissions. Conservative free-marketeers will decry using the tax code to assist one industry or another. All in all, this is a full-employment project for Washington lobbyists. Expect campaign contributions from energy companies to rise faster than the price of gasoline.
But the many fault lines and divides have yet to be defined, and the possibility of Jim Jeffords's switch (still not officially announced at press time--see the editorial, following) injects a new element of uncertainty into the mix. Democrats are in some disarray; senators and House members have home-state concerns. Think of John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of oil-producing Louisiana, who already have broken with their party to support a tax bill resembling the Bush plan. As the tax-bill fight demonstrates, Republicans need only to peel away a few Bush-friendly Democrats in the Senate to succeed. And in the House, as one senior Democratic staffer notes, "there are a number of Blue Dog Democrats who get their money from the same people who fund Bush and Cheney." But at the same time, there are House Republicans--including several in California--worrying about energy legislation that rewards price-gougers and gives no short-term relief to consumers.
One liberal-leaning Democratic senator surveys the landscape this way: "Senate Democrats should be able to stick together on much of the environmental and policy matters regarding, say, regulations and more resources for conservation and alternatives. It's going to be much harder on the populist front. They're not all going to want to be tough on the industries."
The Democrats' message so far is that Bush and Cheney are just pimping for Big Oil and other energy interests while trampling the environment. Perhaps that will resonate with voters. But it remains to be seen if Democrats can sell a bold alternative approach that promotes conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. At a recent meeting with reporters, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt dismissed the notion of raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Like his Republican foes, he fears proposals that might impinge on the American way of life (read: consuming oil in gluttonous amounts).
Republicans think that blaming environmental extremists for the nation's (real or imagined) energy troubles--like California's deregulation mess--is good politics, while the Democrats almost giddily believe environment/energy to be Bush's main vulnerability. Given the muddy legislative swirl Bush's energy plan will stir up, the public will be lucky if the debate stays that starkly defined.
Environmentalist groups should forcibly inject broader public interest considerations into the mix and seek to provoke a real national energy dialogue that goes beyond green-versus-brown accusations and political point-scoring. Any serious, comprehensive energy policy would start by taking the $100 billion the Pentagon wants for a technically dubious National Missile Defense system and investing it in enhancing proven alternative-energy and efficiency technologies. Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells (the idea Al Gore pushed during the late campaign and Bush derided, then stole for his energy plan)--all these renewable technologies are proven and feasible. A multibillion-dollar federal investment in them would assure their cost-effectiveness and wider use.
Bush has declared an energy crisis and opened the door to a national discourse on saving energy. The Democrats should say, "Thanks, George," and take the opportunity to supplant his hot air with action.