Questions about Enron’s links to the White House and Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.
Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force’s records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron’s Ken Lay. The Vice President’s office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.
The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on “homeland security” and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.
Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its “free market” environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she’d altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. “We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that,” she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.
Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won’t violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to “correct these inconsistencies” with Norton’s position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They’ll just look more like panda bears.
Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged “no net loss of wetlands,” George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America’s vital wetlands through a “general permitting” process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in “tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat.”
Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in “mountaintop removal” in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton’s deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.
Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. “Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?” wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.
Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.
Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham’s recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That’s because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.
In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America’s water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney’s diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us “more secure at home.” If nothing else, America’s new “war on terrorism” is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.