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A Democratic Congressman relates what happened when a large California city rebelled against privatization of its electricity.

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.

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."

Act I

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.

Act II

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.

Act III

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.

Industry has been doing all it can to keep an EPA report from being published.

Unwilling to pay for a PCB cleanup, it argues that nature can do the job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogs

For protesting Harvard’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, campus police have told me I will be arrested if I return to the university—which is exactly what I plan to do on Sunday.

October 24, 2014

The bright spot for environmentalists in the midterms is, improbably, in deep-red South Dakota.

October 23, 2014

Mitch McConnell isn’t a stranger to doubting science—he also pushed back on medical anti-smoking claims while accepting lavish industry gifts.

October 21, 2014

CNN’s climate change coverage almost disappeared like Malaysian Flight 370.

October 2, 2014

A Q&A with the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

September 24, 2014

The de Blasio administration unveils an ambitious plan: reduce emissions and inequality at the same time.

September 24, 2014

Every good movement needs its music.

September 19, 2014

A roster of events and happenings leading up to the People’s Climate March mobilization in New York City.

September 19, 2014

As climate activists converge on New York, world leaders will meet behind closed doors with corporate honchos who bank on fossil fuels.

September 18, 2014

In a remarkable turn of events, a Massachusetts DA drops charges against climate activists—and then defends them.

September 8, 2014