Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Polluter's Feast
Bush has reversed more environmental progress in the past eight months than Reagan did in a full eight years


What can you say about the environmental record of an administration that seeks to test pesticides on poor children and pregnant women? That argues in court that a dam is part of a salmon's natural environment? That places a timber lobbyist in charge of the national forests and an oil lobbyist in charge of government reports on global warming? That cuts clean-air inspections at oil refineries in half, allows Superfund to go bankrupt and permits the mining industry to pump toxic waste directly into a wild Alaskan lake?
Only this: It's about to get even worse.

Since President Bush was sworn in for a second term, he has not only continued his unprecedented assault on the environment -- he's intensified it. In recent months, the administration has opened up millions of acres of pristine land to developers, allowing them to log and mine without leaving behind "viable populations" of wildlife. It allowed the import of methyl bromide, a cancer-causing pesticide that was due to be banned this year under an international accord signed by Ronald Reagan, and it scrapped plans to regulate lead paint in home-renovation projects, placing millions of children at risk for brain damage. And on August 8th, taking advantage of solid Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, Bush signed into law his long-stalled energy bill, a grab bag of industry favors that provides $10 billion in oil, gas and coal subsidies while exempting Halliburton and other polluters from environmental laws. The measure approves oil exploration in marine sanctuaries, greenlights drilling on millions of acres of public land in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska, fast-tracks sixteen new coal-fired power plants and provides cradle-to-grave subsidies for new nuclear reactors. In a grotesque fit of petro-nuclear synergy, the bill even funds research into refining oil -- using atomic radiation.

The administration's aim is to roll back four decades of environmental progress -- to an era before the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. "These laws were all started under President Nixon," notes Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island. "The environment has always been something that Republicans have been proud of -- but this administration sees it differently." Others put it even more bluntly. "In the eyes of this administration," says Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, the legal arm of the Sierra Club, "Ronald Reagan was an environmental extremist."

Indeed, Bush has undone more environmental progress in the last eight months than Reagan dreamed of in his full eight years in office. "Their goal is to take us back to where we were in the Eisenhower administration," says Buck Parker, Earthjustice's executive director. "Back to a time when the energy industry had free rein, citizens had no input and there were no environmental laws to be enforced."

A review of the damage already done in the second term reveals that the Bush administration has gutted environmental protections across the country, from Alaskan rain forests to the Gulf of Mexico:

Fouling The Air Nowhere is the administration's contempt for the environment more evident than in its about-face on mercury, a potent neurotoxin that causes brain damage in as many as 600,000 children a year. The Clinton administration, declaring the pollution a "threat to public health," ordered coal plants to slash their mercury emissions by ninety percent by 2008. But in March, the EPA implemented a new rule -- entire sections of which were drafted by industry lobbyists -- that allows three times the emission of the Clinton rule and delays implementation of the cleanup until 2030. "I don't think what the EPA is doing is pro-business," says Attorney General Peter Harvey of New Jersey, one of thirteen states suing to overturn the rule. "I think it's anti-humanity."

Drilling The West The administration is approving so many new permits for oil and gas drilling -- more than 6,000 last year alone -- that it can hardly keep pace with the paperwork. In February, the Bureau of Land Management brought aboard five "volunteer" consultants -- whose salaries are paid in full by industry -- to help with the rubber stamping. "What's next?" asks Johanna Wald, director of land programs for the National Resources Defense Council. "Hiring poachers as park rangers?" The energy bill goes even further, allowing federal authorities to open public lands to drilling without even considering alternative uses such as hunting and ecotourism. "You are supposed to find the best use of the land," says Kevin Curtis, vice president of the National Environmental Trust. "But the energy bill basically says, by statute, that oil and gas drilling is the best use of that land." As a result, millions of acres are sure to follow the fate of Jonah Field in Wyoming, where energy companies have turned the once-untouched desert into a Mad Max subdivision of drilling platforms, polluted ponds and pipelines. "The Bush policy is drill, drill, drill at all costs," says Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. "Those of us who want to protect sensitive ecosystems have no voice in this debate."

Polluting The Water Even as oil and gas interests get permission to drill on wild lands, the energy bill exempts most of the industry's 30,000 annual projects from the Clean Water Act -- allowing petrochemical runoff from well pads to bleed into creeks, rivers and aquifers. The bill also exempts one of Halliburton's most profitable practices from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Called hydraulic fracturing, the technique boosts the yield of oil and natural gas by injecting a toxic stew of benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sodium hydroxide and MTBE into the ground. "Fracing" earns Halliburton $1.5 billion a year -- twenty percent of its total energy revenues -- but also contaminates groundwater. "The exemption is just a piece of pork for Halliburton," says Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement, who quit in 2002 to protest the administration's pandering to industry. "It's astonishing to think that that kind of thing can go unchallenged."

Logging The Forests Mark Rey -- the former timber lobbyist now in charge of the Forest Service -- bragged to a gathering of timber executives last December that the administration would double the amount of logging on public lands in its second term. By May, it had scrapped the Clinton-era regulation known as the "roadless rule," which placed nearly a third of all national forests off-limits to industry. The Forest Service has already mapped roads into 34 million acres. The logging won't come cheap: Last year alone, taxpayers spent nearly $49 million to carve roads into the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the world's largest intact temperate rain forest. In return, the federal treasury collected less than $800,000 in royalties from industry.

Killing The Fish The energy bill lifts a twenty-five-year moratorium on oil exploration off the East Coast, allowing industry to conduct a new "inventory" of oil and gas reserves -- a maritime version of shock and awe that will pummel the ocean floor with massive acoustic waves and disrupt marine sanctuaries. Bush has also proposed turning 3,500 idle oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico into offshore fish farms to offset losses in traditional fishing -- a move that will actually increase the agricultural pollution that's responsible for the decline in fishing in the first place.

Nuking The Future In June, Bush became the first president to visit a nuclear plant since 1979, when Jimmy Carter toured Three Mile Island after America's worst atomic accident. "It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again," Bush declared, lauding nuclear power as "environmentally friendly" and "one of America's safest sources of energy." To spur construction, the energy bill grants up to $6 billion in tax credits to new nuclear plants -- subsidies traditionally reserved for windmills and other green energy sources. The bill will also reimburse power companies up to $2 billion if their nuclear projects are delayed by citizen opposition and force taxpayers to foot the bill for any American Chernobyls. "We're going back to the 1950s -- nuclear power is good for you," says Curtis of the National Environmental Trust. "But if it's such a great source of energy, then why do they have to do so much to remove all the risks for industry?"

One thing's for certain: there are more rollbacks to come. The energy bill cleared the Senate only after the administration dropped its most controversial provision: opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. But even before Bush had signed the measure, Sen. Pete Domenici, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, vowed to resurrect the drilling plan in September by tacking it onto the budget bill, which is immune to filibuster. That would effectively lower the number of votes required for Senate passage from sixty to fifty. "We're going to fight it like hell," says Curtis, "but there just aren't fifty-one votes."

The legislature isn't the only branch going along with Bush's environmental assault. Because most of the administration's rollbacks take place behind the scenes, in a series of bureaucratic nips and tucks to existing rules, they are subject to challenge in federal court. But thanks to Bush's effort to stack the bench with anti-regulatory ideologues, the judiciary isn't proving to be much of an obstacle. In July, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the EPA's decision not to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. And in August, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, one of the reactionary justices confirmed as part of the Senate deal that defused the "nuclear option," refused to block implementation of Bush's mercury rule.

Public outrage has forced the administration to give up a few of its wildest schemes: "blending" raw sewage into drinking water, for example, or exempting 20 million acres of wetlands from the Clean Water Act. But most of Bush's efforts to gut the nation's environmental protections are so incremental, they go unnoticed by the public -- even when they have far-reaching consequences. In August, the Forest Service quietly adjusted the numbers it uses to weigh the benefits of logging vs. tourism, slashing the "recreational value" of the forests by $100 billion. The EPA went a step further: Under its old cost-benefit formula, the agency valued each human life saved from toxic pollution at $6.1 million. But thanks to a new rule, the cost of polluting people to death has plummeted: Under Bush, your life has officially been devalued by $2.4 million.

(Posted Sep 08, 2005)

Was It Global Warming?
As the planet heats up and storms grow stronger, Katrina could be a sign of the coming destruction


In 2002, the Pentagon began exploring the national security implications of global warming. Military brass commissioned a report, subtitled "Imagining the Unthinkable," that forecast the impacts of an abrupt change in the Earth's climate. It's a grim scenario: Prolonged droughts in northern Europe and the United States lead to acute food and water shortages, while typhoons and hurricanes devastate low-lying regions like Bangladesh. Africa is crippled by disease and famine; southern Europe is flooded with millions of refugees; in the Persian Gulf, Chinese and U.S. naval forces square off over access to Saudi oil fields. "Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding," the authors of the study point out, "humans raid."
When the report was made public last year, it was widely criticized as unnecessarily alarmist. Global warming couldn't inspire that much chaos, could it? But after witnessing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina -- the bloated bodies, the toxic sludge, the rapes and looting, the bureaucratic failures, the political cowardice and finger-pointing -- the Pentagon scenario seems less far-fetched. Katrina showed us the colossal force of a pissed-off climate, reminding us of how powerless we are in the face of it. The storm was a natural disaster, to be sure -- but it was also a vision of our possible future.

For years, climate skeptics and fossil-fuel hacks argued that global warming was a fantasy of tree-huggers and blue-state hypocrites. But scientific evidence that the planet is indeed heating up has become so overwhelming that even noted skeptics like Ronald Bailey, editor of Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, have converted. After reviewing the latest satellite temperature data confirming a warming trend, Bailey wrote, "Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up."

Instead of denying the issue, some skeptics have switched tactics: They now argue that life on a hotter planet will be no big deal. "It's not the warming itself that we should be concerned about," Fred Singer, the dean of global-warming skeptics, argued at a power-industry conference last year. "It is the impact. And what is the impact on agriculture? I'd say it's positive. What's the impact on forests of greater levels of CO2 and higher temperatures? It helps them grow, so it's good. What is the impact on sea level? Nothing. It will not raise sea levels. What is the impact on recreation? It's good and bad. You get, on the one hand, maybe a little less winter sports; on the other hand, you get more sunshine and maybe better beach weather." Rather than cutting carbon-dioxide emissions, statisticians like Bjorn Lomborg argue, it would be cheaper to simply adapt to climate changes as they come. To hear the skeptics tell it, preparing for the consequences of global warming is no more difficult than nailing an extra sheet of plywood on the roof.

Hurricane Katrina should put an end to this happy delusion. The failure to prepare adequately for a hurricane slamming into New Orleans, the most predictable of natural disasters, demonstrates just how vulnerable we are to the kind of climate chaos imagined in the Pentagon report. As for adaptation being cheaper than cutting CO2 emissions, that is a tricky argument to make when the cost to clean up and rebuild after Katrina alone could run as high as $200 billion -- by far the most expensive disaster in U.S. history. A full-fledged energy revolution, on the other hand, could be a source of jobs and inspiration that would make the Silicon Valley boom look like a bake sale.

I'm not suggesting that solar panels would have saved New Orleans or that Katrina was caused by global warming in any direct sense -- devastating hurricanes are nothing new on the Gulf Coast. Overbuilding in hurricane-prone areas, as well as the destruction of protective wetlands, are the biggest reasons for the increasing destructiveness of hurricanes. But greater sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf can also contribute to their intensity: Hurricanes are essentially heat engines, powered by the difference in temperature between the top of the sea and the air above the storm. "I think it's a safe bet that the next hundred years are going to have more Category 4 and 5 hurricane strikes than the last hundred years," says Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But we're not used to thinking on those time scales, and that's part of the problem."

The larger problem with seeing global warming as a harbinger of better beach weather is that it assumes that the climate is a steady, balanced system. And it has been -- recently. For most of history, however, the climate has been wildly unstable. During the Younger Dryas, a climatic event that ended about 11,500 years ago, Greenland's temperature warmed fifteen degrees Fahrenheit in less than ten years. That's like going to sleep one night in Alaska and waking up in Costa Rica. Many researchers believe that greenhouse gases may be one factor pushing the system out of balance. "You might think of the climate as a drunk," writes Richard Alley, a paleoclimatologist at Pennsylvania State University. "When left alone, it sits; when forced to move, it staggers." Every ton of carbon dioxide we dump into the atmosphere is another kick in the drunk's ass.

New Orleans will rise again. The toxic mud will be washed away, the levees will be rebuilt, the evacuation plans will be revamped. But if that's all that happens -- if Katrina is seen as simply a random act of God, or Mother Nature, and does not wake us up to the dangers we face in an overheated climate -- then we are in deep trouble. The real message of Katrina is not that big winds blow down houses. It's that on the Greenhouse Planet, we all live in New Orleans.

(Posted Sep 22, 2005)