Greed led to miscalculation, which led to brownouts and soaring rates.
There wasn't much good news to report from the year 2000, but topping the list in health terms was the long-overdue final shutdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power station on December 15. Unit Four at the Ukrainian complex blew up in 1986, spewing radioactive death and destruction around the planet. Evidence points to a skyrocketing death rate among the 800,000 "liquidators" who were forced by the Soviet government to help clean up the stricken reactor, while new studies also show escalating cancers among civilians in the downwind areas.
Earlier in the year, on the fourteenth anniversary of the Chernobyl debacle, the Radiation and Public Health Project and Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR), a national safe-energy organization, released a pathbreaking study showing that radioactive emissions from commercial reactors are having catastrophic health effects on people living near them comparable to those experienced by nuclear weapons workers, for which the Energy Department has finally admitted responsibility. The study, by Joseph Mangano, a nationally known epidemiologist, compared infant death rates in areas surrounding five nuclear power plants while they were operating and in the years after their shutdowns. Mangano found that from 1985 to 1996, average nationwide death rates for infants under the age of 1 dropped 6.4 percent every two years. But in the areas surrounding five reactors closed down between 1987 and 1995, infant death rates dropped an average of 18 percent in the first two years. "It's hard to imagine a clearer correlation," says Mangano. "The fetus in utero and small babies are the most vulnerable to even tiny doses of the kinds of radiation emitted from nuclear power plants. Stop the emissions, and you save the children."
Published in the journal Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology, Mangano's study covered these reactors: Wisconsin's LaCrosse, which closed in 1987; Rancho Seco, near Sacramento, and Colorado's Ft. St. Vrain, both closed in 1989; Trojan, near Portland, Oregon, which shut in 1992; Connecticut's Millstone plant, which closed in 1995. Later research on two additional reactors, Maine Yankee and Big Rock Point in Michigan, both of which went cold in 1997, showed that infant death rates fell a stunning 33.4 percent and 54.1 percent, respectively.
"Forty-two million Americans live downwind within fifty miles of commercial reactors," says Mangano. "The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows nuclear plants to emit a certain level of radiation, saying that amount is too low to result in adverse health effects. But it does not do follow-up studies to see if there are excessive infant deaths, birth defects or cancers." Additional research by Mangano also indicates a drop in overall cancer deaths among elderly people living near nuclear plants once they are deactivated.
On June 5 the Supreme Court ruled that some 1,900 central Pennsylvanians living downwind from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant could sue for health damages. Local residents and researchers claim that a plague of death and disease followed the March 28, 1979, radiation leak at TMI Unit 2.
Even longer-overdue justice is coming to workers in the Energy Department's nuclear weapons production facilities. From the 1943 beginnings of the Manhattan Project to the ongoing enrichment of uranium at gigantic plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the government has denied virtually all claims from thousands of workers suffering from a range of radiation-related diseases. But the DOE finally issued a series of sweeping admissions after DOE-sponsored research found excess worker deaths from cancer and other causes at fourteen DOE facilities. A DOE report issued in May confirmed that hundreds of workers at Ohio's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, whose supervisors did not require them to wear protective masks, routinely inhaled uranium dust, arsenic and other lethal pollutants. President Bill Clinton signed into law a federal compensation program for DOE workers exposed to radiation, beryllium and silica. The program will cover some 600,000 people involved in making nuclear weapons.
The DOE's admissions give new weight to public demands that the commercial reactor industry come to terms with public health risks now that numerous aging and leaky reactors are waiting in line for extended licenses from the NRC. "How much more of this bodies-in-the-morgue approach to public health research do we need?" asks Robert Alvarez, executive director of STAR. "Shutting reactors may save lives. What more needs to be said?"
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.
When W. gave the nod to New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman for the top EPA spot in his administration, the tone-deaf national press corps praised the appointment of a "moderate" (largely on the basis of Whitman's inconstant pro-choice positions). A little digging would have revealed that Whitman has been an unmitigated disaster for New Jersey's environmental protection. Under her governance, fines of air and water polluters have plummeted 70 percent. Indeed, after her nomination the head of the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey praised her to the Newark Star-Ledger for having restored "balance" to the state's enviro policies after the aggressively antipolluter measures taken by her Democratic predecessor, Jim Florio.
Thanks to Whitman's evisceration of state enviro regs as well as a raft of subsidies and tax cuts to developers, suburban sprawl gobbled up more open space and verdant land during her tenure than at any other period in New Jersey's history. Moreover, she decapitated the state Department of Environmental Protection staff by 738 employees in her first three years in office, cut the remaining staff's workweek by five hours, eliminated fines of polluters as a source of DEP revenue and made large cuts in the DEP's budget. That's why the New Jersey Sierra Club's Bill Wolfe has warned that Whitman might "dismantle [federal] EPA and take it out of the enforcement business. I believe that this is precisely the policy Whitman has presided over and legitimized in New Jersey." One mechanism was the Office of Dispute Resolution, which she established to mediate conflicts over environmental issues (usually resolved in favor of business). She also installed an Office of Business Ombudsman under the Secretary of State (the Star-Ledger labeled it "essentially a business lobby") to further grease the wheels of the bureaucracy for polluters and developers, and to act as a counterweight to the DEP.
If Senate Democrats want to take a serious look at Whitman's record in the Garden State, they should start with "Open for Business," a three-part exposé by the Bergen County Record in 1996. After a ten-month investigation, The Record detailed dozens of cases in which Whitman's corporate-coddling policies had circumvented laws designed to protect the environment. Often, those getting favored treatment were big campaign contributors, like Finn Caspersen, then chairman of Beneficial, at the time the nation's largest independent consumer-loan company. The firm got more than $182 million in taxpayer subsidies in the form of road construction designed to ease traffic around its lavish office complex in Peapack--improvements that increased the value of an open 700-acre tract that Beneficial owned nearby. While all this was going on, Caspersen, his family and their political action committee gave the state GOP $143,250.
A more recent example: For the past three years, Roche Vitamin, a manufacturing plant in Belvidere, has been "belching out 300 tons of methanol annually--at least 10 times the rate state permits allow," according to the Star-Ledger. And Clinton's EPA has been fighting Whitman's proposals to further dilute state regs controlling water pollution and coastal development, which would sanction gigantic increases in pollution and hand over environmentally sensitive lands to rapacious developers. No wonder The Weekly Standard's David Brooks praised Whitman's nomination (and that of her anti-enviro counterpart proposed for Interior, Gale Norton) as reflecting the Bush Administration's "corporate mentality."
Whether the Dems have the stomach for a real fight against Whitman is an open question--her nomination has already been endorsed by her state's influential senior Democratic senator, Robert Torricelli. (Says a knowledgeable state Dem: "This is The Torch's way of paying back [Woodbridge mayor] Jim McGreevey," whose aggressive politicking in the gubernatorial race caused Torricelli to abort his plans to run this fall. "With Christie at EPA, McGreevey's GOP opponent, State Senate president Donald DiFrancesco, becomes acting governor and gets a big advantage.") Whitman and The Torch also get campaign cash from many of the same corporate polluters, and such bipartisan influence-buyers are likely to go all out in lobbying Senate Dems on Whitman's behalf.
After three years of diplomatic fatigue, the United States put delegates from 170 countries out of their misery at the latest round of climate talks at The Hague in November by scuttling the negotiations and, in the process, thumbing its nose at nature as well as at the rest of the world. The good news is that the collapse of the global warming talks may set the stage for a truly transformative initiative to pacify the inflamed climate and, at the same time, dramatically expand the global economy.
The world's glaciers are melting, the oceans are heating up, tropical diseases are migrating north and the weather is becoming increasingly destructive. All that is the result of a l-degree increase in temperature over the past century. By contrast, the world will warm by up to 11 degrees this century, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The United States killed the Hague negotiations by insisting on meeting its Kyoto goal (reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily coal and oil, to 7 percent below 1990 levels) simply by planting trees and buying cheap emissions credits from poor countries. But the escalating pace of climate change makes it clear that a reliance on carbon-trading and tree-planting is nothing more than an expression of institutional denial of the magnitude of the problem. The EU, frustrated by US foot-dragging, refused to cave, demanding that Washington meet at least half its obligation through real domestic reductions in oil and coal burning. The result was a diplomatic meltdown.
Abandoning the minimalist goals of the Kyoto Protocol, many European nations are now taking their cues from science: The climate crisis requires 70 percent cuts in a very short time if civilization is to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. Britain, which in November suffered its worst flooding in centuries, will cut emissions 60 percent in the next fifty years. Holland, faced with a devastating sea-level rise, will cut emissions 80 percent over the next forty years. Germany is contemplating 50 percent cuts.
The US obstructionism also ignores a recent sea change in attitudes among Congressional Republicans, corporate leaders and multinational oil companies. Three years ago, Nebraska's Senator Chuck Hagel co-sponsored a resolution not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Today Hagel concedes the science of global warming. Last year, Indiana's Richard Lugar and James Woolsey, former head of the CIA, called for the United States to begin reducing coal and oil use by substituting energy from agricultural wastes.
Oil companies, with the exception of ExxonMobil, are similarly moving to confront the crisis. Shell has created a new, $500 million core company for renewable energy. Its director was recently appointed to head a new G-8 task force on clean energy. Texaco is putting serious resources into renewables. British Petroleum, with major solar investments, now advertises that BP stands for "Beyond Petroleum." In the auto industry, William Clay Ford recently declared an end to "the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine." That declaration follows Ford's participation in a $1 billion joint venture with Daimler-Chrysler and Mazda to bring fuel-cell-powered cars to market in three years. (These initiatives are partly "greenwashing," aimed at pacifying environmentalists, but they also reflect preparations by oil and auto companies to maintain their role as prominent players in a new energy economy.) Most striking, at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January, the CEOs of the 1,000 largest corporations voted climate change the most urgent issue facing humanity today.
What growing numbers of corporate leaders understand is that a global transition to clean energy would create millions of jobs, especially in poor countries. It would transform dependent, impoverished countries into robust trade partners, substantially expanding global markets. It would make the renewable industry a central engine of economic growth.
Ironically, the corporate powers behind the Bush administration may prove more alert to the wealth-creation potential of an energy transition than Gore. While Christie Whitman, expected to be the new EPA administrator, didn't know the difference between ozone depletion and global warming (and questioned the science behind both), Paul O'Neill, the new Treasury Secretary, has expressed serious concerns about the climate--and even, at one point, pushed for a carbon tax on oil to reduce emissions.
In May, when the parties to the climate talks reconvene, they should consider three interactive strategies:
§ Subsidy switches. The United States currently spends around $20 billion a year in direct subsidies of fossil fuels. If that money were put into renewable technologies (as well as into retraining displaced coal miners) it would provide incentives for the big oil companies to aggressively develop and market fuel cells, wind farms and solar systems.
§ A progressive fossil fuel efficiency standard. The parties should scrap international "emissions trading" and instead adopt a standard under which every country would begin at its current baseline to improve its fossil fuel efficiency by a specified amount every year until the 70 percent reduction is attained. By drawing progressively more of their energy from noncarbon sources, countries would create mass markets that would make these sources as cheap as coal and oil.
§ Creation of a large technology-transfer fund. The nations of the world should consider a tax on international currency transactions to fund the transfer of clean energy to developing countries. A tax of a quarter-penny per dollar on those transactions--which total $1.5 trillion per day--would help stabilize capital flows as well as net about $300 billion a year for wind farms in India, fuel-cell factories in South Africa and solar assemblies in El Salvador.
These measures would be far easier to negotiate, monitor and enforce. More important, they would represent a scale of response appropriate to the magnitude of the climate crisis that threatens the continuity of our organized civilization.
So it all came out right in the end: gridlock on the Hill and Nader blamed for sabotaging Al Gore.
First a word about gridlock. We like it. No bold initiatives, like privatizing Social Security or shoving through vouchers. No ultra-right-wingers making it onto the Supreme Court. Ah, you protest, but what about the bold plans that a Democratic-controlled Congress and Gore would have pushed through? Relax. There were no such plans. These days gridlock is the best we can hope for.
Now for blaming Nader. Fine by me if all that people look at are those 97,000 Green votes for Ralph in Florida. That's good news in itself. Who would have thought the Sunshine State had that many progressives in it, with steel in their spine and the spunk to throw Eric Alterman's columns into the trash can?
And they had plenty of reason to dump Gore. What were the big issues for Greens in Florida? The Everglades. Back in 1993 the hope was that Clinton/Gore would push through a cleanup bill to prevent toxic runoff from the sugar plantations south of Lake Okeechobee from destroying the swamp that covers much of south-central Florida. Such hopes foundered on a "win-win" solution brokered by sugar barons and the real estate industry.
Another issue sent some of those 97,000 defiantly voting for Nader: the Homestead Air Force Base, which sits between Biscayne National Park and the Everglades. The old Air Force base had been scheduled for shutdown, but then Cuban-American real estate interests concocted a scheme to turn the base into a commercial airport. Despite repeated pleas from biologists inside the Interior Department as well as from Florida's Greens, Gore refused to intervene, cowed by the Canosa family, which represented the big money behind the airport's boosters. Just to make sure there would be no significant Green defections back to the Democratic standard, Joe Lieberman made a last-minute pilgrimage to the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa.
You want another reason for the Nader voter in Florida? Try the death penalty, which Gore stridently supported in that final debate. Florida runs third, after Texas and Virginia, as a killing machine, and for many progressives there it is an issue of principle. Incidentally, about half a million ex-felons, having served sentence and probation, are permanently disfranchised in Florida. Tough-on-crime drug-war zealot Gore probably lost crucial votes there.
Other reasons many Greens nationally refused to knuckle under and sneak back to the Gore column? You want an explanation of why Gore lost Ohio by four points and New Hampshire by one? Try the WTI hazardous-waste incinerator (world's largest) in East Liverpool, Ohio. Gore promised voters in 1992 that a Democratic administration would kill it. It was a double lie. First, Carol Browner's EPA almost immediately gave the incinerator a permit. When confronted on his broken pledge, Gore said the decision had been pre-empted by the outgoing Bush crowd. This too was a lie, as voters in Ohio discovered a week before Election 2000. William Reilly, Bush's EPA chief, finally testified this fall that Gore's environmental aide Katie McGinty told him in the 1992 transition period that "it was the wishes of the new incoming administration to get the trial-burn permit granted.... The Vice President-elect would be grateful if I simply made that decision before leaving office."
Don't think this was a picayune issue with no larger consequences. Citizens of East Liverpool, notably Terri Swearingen, have been campaigning across the country on this scandal for years, haunting Gore. So too, to its credit, has Greenpeace. They were active in the Northeast in the primaries. You can certainly argue that the last-minute disclosure of Gore's WTI lies prompted enough Greens to stay firm and cost him New Hampshire, a state that, with Oregon, would have given Gore the necessary 270 votes.
And why didn't Gore easily sweep Oregon? A good chunk of the people on the streets of Seattle last November come from Oregon. They care about NAFTA, the WTO and the ancient forests that Gore has been pledging to save since 1992. The spotted owl is now scheduled to go extinct on the Olympic Peninsula within the next decade. Another huge environmental issue in Oregon has been the fate of the salmon runs, wrecked by the Snake River dams. Gore thought he'd finessed that one by pretending that, unlike Bush, he would leave the decision to the scientists. Then, a week before the election, his scientists released a report saying they thought the salmon could be saved without breaching the four dams. Nader got 5 percent in Oregon, an amazing result given the carpet-bombing by flacks for Gore like Gloria Steinem.
Yes, Nader didn't break 5 percent nationally, but he should feel great, and so should the Greens who voted for him. Their message to the Democrats is clear. Address our issues, or you'll pay the same penalty next time around. Nader should draw up a short list of nonnegotiable Green issues and nail it to the doors of the Democratic National Committee.
By all means credit Nader, but of course Gore has only himself to blame. He's a product of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose pro-business stance was designed to regain the South for the Democrats. Look at the map. Bush swept the entire South, with the possible exception of Florida. Gore's electoral votes came from the two coasts and the old industrial Midwest. The states Gore did win mostly came courtesy of labor and blacks.
Take Tennessee, where voters know Gore best. He would have won the election if he'd carried his home state. Gore is good with liberals earning $100,000-$200,000. He can barely talk to rural people, and he made another fatal somersault, reversing his position on handguns after telling Tennessee voters for years that he was solid on the gun issue. Guns were a big factor in Ohio and West Virginia, too. You can't blame Nader for that, but it's OK with us if you do. As for Nader holding the country to ransom, what's wrong with a hostage-taker with a national backing of 2.7 million people? The election came alive because of Nader. Let's hope he and the Greens keep it up through the next four years. Not one vote for Nader, Mr. Alterman? He got them where it counted, and now the Democrats are going to have to deal with it.
When members of the Arab League gathered for an emergency summit in Cairo on October 21 to discuss "the grave situation in the Palestinian Territories and its impact on the peace process," hopes were high among ordinary Arabs that their leaders would reflect popular opinion and at least call on the states having ties with Israel to cut them forthwith. They were to be disappointed. When Libya's Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, reflecting that feeling, saw the draft communiqué prepared by the league's foreign ministers, which merely said that member states that had diplomatic relations with Israel might consider severing them, he was so angered that he leaked the document to the press and left the conference.
No other leader followed his example, though--not even Izzat Ibrahim, the representative of Iraq, which is technically at war with Israel. Having been excluded from Arab League summits for ten years because of its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq could hardly afford the luxury of a walkout. As it was, taking into account the threat posed by Israel's hawkish actions, the conference's Egyptian host, President Hosni Mubarak--working closely with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah--had decided to close the chapter on Arab divisions caused by Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and invite President Saddam Hussein to the summit. Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, the country's supreme authority, served as Saddam's stand-in.
Iraq's re-emergence as a player in the Arab world came at a time when many countries were already moving to restore normal relations with Baghdad. In recent months, dozens of flights from several Arab capitals, as well as Paris, Moscow and New Delhi have landed at the newly reopened Saddam International Airport near Baghdad. None of them were cleared in advance with the United Nations 661 Sanctions Committee, which is charged with overseeing the embargo on Iraq. The defiance of the UN came after President Clinton's softening toward Iraq because of the tight market in oil and its rising price. Clinton's behavior had been forecast earlier by James Akins, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "When the oil price rises above $30 a barrel," he said, "Saddam Hussein will be treated like Mother Teresa."
There is an indisputable link between the high price of petroleum, Iraq's endowment with the second-largest oil reserves in the world and US policy on Saddam. With Iraq producing some 3 million barrels a day, its highest output ever, the removal of a UN ceiling on its petroleum sales in January and US oil corporations buying a third of its oil exports, Saddam is now a major player in the market. Adding to his weight is the fact that Iraq has been exempted from OPEC's quota system because of its dire economic state.
Little wonder that Madeleine Albright announced in early September that the United States would not use force to compel Iraq to accept inspectors of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), formed in December under Security Council Resolution 1284, who had just finished their training. Following his testimony to the Security Council on September 2, UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix said that it was a good guess "that not much might happen before the American elections." After all, who would be so foolhardy as to upset the dictator, who might turn off his oil tap and cause a spurt in gasoline prices during the run-up to the November 7 poll, thereby ruining Al Gore's chances?
What started as a token defiance of a UN ban on flights to Iraq by Russia's Vnukovo Airlines with the Kremlin's backing in mid-August has snowballed into an international challenge to the 661 Sanctions Committee. The dozens of flights to Baghdad from Arab as well as European and Asian capitals were not cleared in advance with the sanctions committee. A large number of Arab countries have sent their aircraft, loaded with prestigious delegations of cabinet ministers, legislators, trade union leaders, businessmen, doctors, engineers, actors and entertainers--and token humanitarian aid. It is easier to name the exceptions: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Both allow the use of their air bases by the Pentagon to enforce an air-exclusion zone in southern Iraq.
Touching on the larger issue of sanctions against Iraq, King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close US ally, said at the Arab summit, "Our [Arab] nation can no longer stand the continuation of this suffering, and our people no longer accept what is committed against the Iraqi people from the [UN] embargo."
On the central issue before the summit, Izzat Ibrahim was hawkish: "Iraq is calling [for] and working to liberate Palestine through jihad because only jihad is capable of liberating Palestine and other Arab lands [from Israel]." To show that Iraq's sympathy meant more than words, Saddam immediately dispatched a convoy of forty trucks loaded with food and medicine to the Palestinian territories via Amman. This kind of gesture should boost Saddam's already high standing among young Palestinians and accelerate his rehabilitation among Arabs, creating a symbiosis between him and the Arab street.
The old politics of oil has resurfaced to add a nervous flutter to Election 2000 and also to revive an enduring question of modern industrial life--what is the right price for oil? The media's New Economy cheerleaders scolded Clinton/Gore for tampering with the answer, but those pundits are under an illusion that the market, not governments and international politics, determines the price of crude oil. Their rage at Clinton for unleashing a little extra crude from the government's strategic reserve is an amusing non sequitur. For the past thirty years, the world price of oil has been "managed" by governments, albeit with haphazard results. The price was maintained by the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations, with discreet consultations from the United States and other industrial powers. Before OPEC, the world price of oil had been managed since the thirties by the fabled Seven Sisters, global oil corporations that still have an influential voice in the conversations. Oil-price diplomacy, for obvious reasons, is mostly done in deep privacy.
Indeed, Riyadh and Washington are at this moment attempting once again to get the price right, that is, to steer crude oil back down to a mutually acceptable zone, centered on $25 a barrel. That's what Saudi Arabia, the largest producer, says it wants--a target range between $22 and $28 a barrel--and what Bill Clinton has called "a reasonable range" acceptable to Washington. Oil at $25 a barrel would be a lot cheaper than the recent peak of $38, but also a lot higher than the $10 bottom that oil hit in 1998, when prices were severely depressed by collapsing demand triggered by the Asian financial crisis the year before. Splitting the difference is a better solution than continued crisis, especially for Europe, because stability helps sustain everyone's economic growth.
So is $25 the right price? Maybe not. Because $25 is still cheap oil--too cheap to allow the producer nations to recapture their massive revenue losses and possibly too cheap to force US consumers and companies to undertake serious, self-interested industrial conversions away from petroleum. Since oil is traded worldwide in dollars, its real price declines automatically from US inflation. Thus, measured in constant dollars, $25 oil is really only about $13 in historical terms--right where it was in the mid-seventies. This level would be modestly above the average real price of the past fifteen years but still far below what OPEC initially gained after its two dramatic spikes in the seventies. Because of the interaction of currency values, Europe is taking a much more severe hit this time. The euro is down and the dollar is strong, so the real price of imported oil is much higher for European economies.
Texas oil guy George W. Bush is making the same retrograde noises Republicans always make--Drill for more oil! Open up the Alaskan wilderness! Drill offshore! Whatever! Bush's nostalgic notion that the United States can drill its way out of its petroleum problem is out of touch by about twenty-five years. The world isn't running out of oil--the undiscovered reserves are probably good for another century--but the United States is running out of its own oil. The proposition that we should pump and burn our remaining reserves first is completely backward, both as energy policy and for long-term national security. Al Gore, in his best moments, understands all this and has long championed a fundamental shift to alternative fuels, but he has lacked the courage to force the issue. The Clinton Administration provided gorgeous subsidies to the Big Three auto companies to develop electric cars and then allowed the industry to backslide by not increasing the government's fuel-efficiency requirements. Maybe the price crisis will prompt Gore to reread Earth in the Balance.
Oil politics is many-layered and so paradoxical that public opinion is not only confused but frequently led in the wrong direction. "Bad news" may actually be good news; the "villains" are sometimes actually victims. In real terms, OPEC's oil revenues peaked two decades ago--$493 billion in 1980 (in 1990 dollars)--and have declined unevenly since then. OPEC's oil income hit bottom in 1998, at $80 billion in real terms. So they regard the recent price run-up as a justifiable attempt to get well, to recover some of their losses. It's hard to muster much sympathy for oil potentates, but their national budgets have been severely squeezed--especially Saudi Arabia's, which absorbs more than its share of the production cutbacks because that country is the biggest and least aggressive player.
OPEC, on the other hand, has been a clumsy, hapless manager of world oil prices. Twice, it wrong-footed emerging economic conditions by increasing production just as global demand was about to swoon--inadvertently feeding the severe price collapses in 1986 and 1997. This time, they overshot again but on the upside --cutting oil supply just as the world's economies were gaining momentum. With the rising demand, prices were driven higher than the Saudis, at least, intended. Among the present dangers, the tight supply still threatens to stall out economic growth, especially for Europe, and it also gives temporary leverage to Iraq. If Iraq were to halt its exports, prices might soar again, just as Saudi Arabia and the United States are pulling in the opposite direction.
But here's some good news. Extreme price gyrations in oil promote fundamental change in US industrial structure. The seventies stimulated major shifts toward energy conservation and persuaded some sectors, like electrical generation, to decouple entirely from the vulnerability of unpredictable price shocks. Electric companies converted to natural gas and other fuels so that a major US user of petroleum was permanently lost as a market for OPEC exporters. Some authorities think this new mini-crisis is likely to encourage similar movements, especially in transportation. The auto industry, for instance, has toyed for years with available technologies like fuel cells, which liberate cars from oil, but they never moved seriously. Now Japanese manufacturers are making electric hybrids with far greater fuel efficiency. In other words, if high oil prices linger awhile, the permanent market for oil might shrink. Detroit could once again lose market share to Japan, but Americans and the environment would benefit enormously.
Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia's former oil minister and a founding architect of OPEC, already fears this--another round of innovations that drastically reduce gasoline and oil consumption. "Technology is a real enemy for OPEC," Yamani warned in a Reuters interview. "Technology will reduce consumption and increase production from areas outside OPEC. The real victims will be countries like Saudi Arabia with huge reserves which they can do nothing with--the oil will stay in the ground forever."
OPEC, the sheik predicted, "will pay a very heavy price for not acting in 1999 to control oil prices. Now it is too late. The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil." His forecast may be a bit premature, but it's a lot more cheerful than the oil chatter in American politics.
What an odd presidential race! So long as George W. Bush keeps his mouth shut and remains in seclusion he floats up in the polls. His best strategy would be to bag the debates, take Laura on an extended vacation and come back a couple of days before the election. Meanwhile, Gore reinvents himself on an almost daily basis. Nothing has been more comical than his "populist" posturings about the Republicans being the ticket of Big Oil and himself and Lieberman being the champions of the little people.
This is the man whose education and Tennessee homestead came to him in part via the patronage of Armand Hammer, one of the great oil bandits of the twentieth century, in whose Occidental oil company the Gore family still has investments valued between $500,000 and $1 million.
At the LA convention the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was on the 42nd floor of the Arco building, and the symbolism was apt. In 1992 Arco (recently merged with BP Amoco) loaned the Clinton/Gore inaugural committee $100,000. In that same year it gave the DNC $268,000. In the 1993-94 election cycle it gave the DNC $274,000. In the 1995-96 cycle it ponied up $496,000 and has kept up the same tempo ever since.
Was there a quid for the quo? You bet there was. Early in Clinton-time, the President overturned the longstanding ban on the export of Alaskan crude oil. Why that ban? When Congress OK'd the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the seventies, the legislation triumphed by a single vote only after solemn pledges were made that the North Slope oil would always be reserved for domestic markets, available to hold prices down. Congress had on its mind precisely such emergencies as this year's hike in prices and consequent suffering of poor people, soon to be trembling with cold for lack of cheap home-heating oil.
With the help of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Arco was also, at the start of the Clinton era, in the process of building refineries in China. Hence Clinton's overturn of the export ban was an immense boon to the company, whose CEO at the time, Lodwrick Cook, was given a White House birthday party in 1994. The birthday presents to the favorite oil company of the Clinton/Gore era have continued ever since.
While the Democrats and mainstream Greens fulminate about Bush and Cheney's threat to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nary a word has been mentioned about one of the biggest giveaways in the nation's history, the opening of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Back at the start of the nineties Arco's Prudhoe Bay reserves on Alaska's North Slope were dwindling. Now Arco will be foremost among the oil companies exploiting a potential $36 billion worth of crude oil.
Gore's "populism" is comical, yet one more facet of a larger mendacity. What suppressed psychic tumult drives him to those stretchers that litter his career, the lies large and small about his life and achievements? You'd think that a man exposed to as much public derision as was Gore after claiming he and Tipper were the model for the couple in Love Story, or after saying he'd invented the Internet, would by now be more prudent in his vauntings. But no. Just as a klepto's fingers inevitably stray toward the cash register, so too does Gore persist in his fabrications.
Recently he's claimed to have been at the center of the action when the strategic oil reserve, in Texas and Louisiana, was established. In fact, the reserve's tanks were filling in 1977, when Gore was barely in Congress, a very junior member of the relevant energy committee. The legislation creating the reserve had been passed in 1975. At around the same time as this pretense, the VP claimed to have heard his mother crooning "Look for the union label" over his cradle. It rapidly emerged that this jingle was made up by an ad man in the seventies, when Al was in his late 20s.
As a clue to why Al misremembers and exaggerates, the lullaby story has its relevance as a sad little essay in wish fulfillment. Gore's mother, Pauline, was a tough character, far more interested in advancing Albert Sr.'s career than in warbling over Gore's cot. Both parents were demanding. Gore is brittle, often the mark of the overly well-behaved, perfect child. Who can forget the panicked performance when his image of moral rectitude shattered at the impact of the fundraising scandals associated with the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles?
"He was an easy child; he always wanted to please us," Pauline once said of him. The child's desire to please, to get the attention of often-absent parents, is probably what sparked Gore's penchant for tall tales about himself.
Gore's official CV is sprinkled with "epiphanies" and claims to having achieved a higher level of moral awareness. In interviews, in his book Earth in the Balance and, famously, in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, Gore has shamelessly milked the accident in which his 6-year-old son was badly hurt after being struck by a car. Gore described how, amid his anguish beside the boy's hospital bed, he peered into his own soul and reproached himself for being an absentee dad. He narrated his entry into family therapy. But Tipper and the children didn't see more of him as a consequence. Despite that dark night of the soul beside Al III's bed, Gore plunged even deeper into Senate business and spent his hours of leisure away from the family, writing Earth in the Balance while holed up in his parents' old penthouse in the Fairfax Hotel. Soon after, he accepted Clinton's invitation to run for Vice President.
Gore's a fibber through and through, just like Bill. A sad experience in the closing weeks of the campaign is to encounter liberals desperately trying delude themselves that there is some political decency or promise in the Democratic ticket. There isn't. Why talk about the lesser of two evils, when Gore is easily as bad as Bush and in many ways worse? The "lesser of two evils" is by definition a matter of restricted choice, like a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine. But in this election there are other choices, starting with Nader and the Greens. It isn't just a matter of facing seawater or piss.
Contrary to the impression fostered by the government's supporters, not all the fuel protesters are selfish, gas-guzzling throwbacks greedy for a bigger TV.