Liquidation of the Commons

There has not been such a wholesale giveaway of America’s public assets since McKinley was president in the late 1800s

Adam Werbach

When the Bush administration’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency was asked to describe his goals, Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah summed up his general approach by invoking the Latin term enlibra, which roughly means “in balance.” In typical fashion for the Bush administration, the choice of language is both elegant and misleading. Environmentalists understand balance, but Leavitt’s balance is not the tending of the delicate interaction between nature and humanity in order to ensure that the ecological systems on which we rely are protected. An examination of the Bush administration’s record during its first three years in office demonstrates that it views its role as reestablishing the preeminent right of corporations to take from nature what they need with little regard for the long-term health of nature or for the communities that live downwind or can’t afford bottled water. The “balance” the administration wishes to strike is akin to an affirmative action program for corporate polluters.

There has not been such a wholesale giveaway of our common assets to corporate interests since the presidency of William McKinley. In the 1896 presidential election, McKinley was aided in his battle against the great American populist, William Jennings Bryan, by coal and oil magnate Mark Hanna. Hanna has been cited by Karl Rove, President Bush’s key political adviser, as a major influence and inspiration. Hanna raised more than $4 million in campaign contributions from corporations like Standard Oil and unapologetically blanketed the country with pamphlets suggesting that only a government that catered first to the needs of corporate interests could serve the needs of the people. Upon election, McKinley proceeded to give away large sections of America’s common assets under the direction of Hanna.

The Bush administration, elected with the contributions of America’s largest polluting companies, is on a similar path. Executing the plan are the same people who were lobbying for exemptions and tax breaks before Bush took office, only now they’re being paid by the federal government. For example, the Undersecretary of the Interior, J. Steven Griles, is an industry lobbyist still being paid by his former firm to work on behalf of that firm’s interests rather than on behalf of the interests of the American people.

The destructive effects of the administration’s policies are felt on the ground in places like Gillette, Wyoming.

Gillette, Wyoming

Gillette bustles with the energy of a town on the verge of a gold rush. The hard-scrabble landscape surrounding Gillette is pocked with drill pads and roads left by dried-up oil wells from previous plunders. The town lies in the middle of the Powder River Basin, which lies at the heart of the administration’s plans for natural gas development in the United States. What’s happening there illustrates the negative consequences of corporate-interested common-asset giveaways.

Soon after Bush took office, Vice President Dick Cheney convened a secretive energy task force to craft the administration’s agenda. They recommended two major efforts: lower the environmental bar and pay corporations to jump over it. With the help of Enron’s Ken Lay and other gas and oil industry leaders, they laid out a set of plans to weaken existing environmental regulations and provide a multibillion-dollar package of tax incentives to increase oil and gas production.

If natural gas development made economic and environmental sense in the Powder River Basin, capital from private investors would take the place of government subsidies. This is a gold rush where the gold is provided by Congress. There is a significant amount of natural gas in the area, but it’s embedded within coal deposits deep underground. The only way to get at this natural gas—coalbed methane—is by draining the groundwater to the level of the coal in order to release the gas. To do so requires an astonishing amount of water. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that if all goes ahead as planned, the miners will discard more than 700 million gallons of publicly owned water a year, water that will be pumped out of rapidly dwindling aquifers, nature’s water storage devices. Local ranchers already are complaining that their water wells are running dry and that their land is being invaded by mining companies given title to the minerals beneath the ranchers’ land. The mining of coalbed methane is as expensive as it is wasteful, and the industry has received promises from Congress of a $3 billion tax credit to help them on their way, despite the fact that it makes little economic sense to drill for marginal coalbed methane when larger deposits are elsewhere. In the Powder River Basin alone, the industry is proposing the development of 50,000 new wells. This number clearly highlights the harmful inefficiency of coalbed methane drilling. Each well requires miles of roads and power lines that despoil the landscape and threaten local wildlife. In contrast, Saudi Arabia, which has more than 10 times the natural gas, as well as billions more gallons of oil, has only about 1,000 oil and gas wells in the entire country. Meanwhile the U.S. government agencies normally responsible for protecting the land now serve as customer service organizations for the mining companies.

The Language Conundrum

Across the United States, cities like Gillette face similar threats from Bush policies. But to listen to the rhetoric of the administration you’d never know it. When wildfires ripped across California in November, it was quick to call upon Congress to pass the Healthy Forests Initiative, claiming it would speed up the clearing of brush-clogged forests near homes. In the words of the administration, “The President’s Healthy Forests Initiative is returning the nation’s forests to their natural condition by reducing unnecessary regulatory obstacles that hinder active forest management.” The administration poses the problem as one of regulatory burden and obstructionism by environmentalists, yet according to research conducted by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News, U.S. Forest Service records show that in the four national forests in Southern California that burned in early November, environmentalists had not filed a single appeal to stop Forest Service tree-thinning projects to reduce fire risk since at least 1997. In April of 2003, California Gov. Gray Davis requested $430 million to remove unhealthy trees on 415,000 acres of California forest, but the request for emergency funds went unanswered by the Bush administration until the end of October—and then was denied. If the administration were serious about making communities near forests safer, it would have put forward to fund to clear brush and overgrowth on the urban-forest boundary. Instead it has proposed to fund such projects by giving logging companies access to old-growth trees and paying them for brush clearing. To the administration, a healthy forest is a forest robbed of its old-growth trees, one that bears more resemblance to a Christmas tree farm than to a wild forest.

If the intention behind the Healthy Forests Initiative is to allow logging companies an excuse to cut America’s last old-growth forests, then it’s not surprising that the administration’s Clear Skies Initiative will do as much for clean air as George Bush has done for international diplomacy. The Clear Skies Initiative is the most extensive revision of the Clean Air Act in 13 years. The plan would allow power plants to emit more than five times as much mercury, twice as much sulfer dioxide, and more than one and a half times as much nitrogen oxides as the current Clean Air Act allows.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 is responsible for many of the improvements in air quality that America has seen over the past three decades. The skies over most cities are cleaner, and after the work of the Clinton administration, there remained only a few remaining hurdles to overcome before the main goals of the act would have been achieved.

One of the compromises made when the Clean Air Act was passed allowed a few existing power plants the right to continue to operate without new pollution controls. The act’s authors knew that without major repairs the plants eventually would be decommissioned. The law stated that if major repairs were undertaken, the old polluting power plants would need to employ state-of-the-art pollution-control technology. More than three decades later, these plants are still polluting, largely because they’ve been illegally repaired and upgraded without enhancing their pollution-control devices. The federal government filed suit against these power companies during the Clinton administration. Once Bush was elected, power companies began working to roll back the Clean Air Act regulations and to halt the settlement negotiations that were already under way.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that the power companies are major contributors to the Republican Party and had access to Cheney’s energy task force. The Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group with members who are Clean Air Act violators, had more than 10 contacts with the Cheney task force and contributed nearly $600,000 to the Republican Party from 1999 to 2002.

Coalbed methane development, the Healthy Forests Initiative, and the Clear Skies proposal are three examples of the Bush administration’s efforts to undo 30 years of environmental progress. Unlike previous attacks on the nation’s environmental laws—by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt and by Newt Gingrich—these attacks are made in front of scenic backdrops and with flowery language while the real agendas are hammered out behind closed doors. It takes an expert in decoding the Bush administration’s double-speak to differentiate the Bush-Cheney 2004 Web site from the Sierra Club’s. But the Bush policies are like week-old sushi advertised as fresh fish. The media has faithfully reported the names of the Bush administration’s bills—Healthy Forests, Clear Skies—without exposing the irony to the public.

In the end, Leavitt was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate for the post of EPA administrator, despite the fact that he did not reject any of the Bush administration’s environmental policies. Democrats on Capitol Hill pounded their chests for a while, and then quietly approved him. Leavitt now intends to bring more “balance” to a relationship that is already skewed toward corporate interests. No one at the hearings bothered to ask why the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency would set his goal as balance rather than protection.

Adam Wer­bach is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Com­mon Assets Defense Fund and a mem­ber of the San Fran­cis­co Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. He is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Sier­ra Club, a posi­tion to which he was elect­ed at the age of 23.
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