Political Climate

Palin asks California to scrap pollution law

Not content with cheerleading for Big Oil, lobbying against polar bears and denying global warming, GOP vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin is now trying to persuade Californians to scrap a new law that would limit the state’s exposure to shipping pollution.

Vast amounts of cargo enter the US through Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland - and the resultant emissions from trains, trucks and freighters lead to around 3,700 deaths each year. Unsurprisingly, Californians are keen to clean things up: state lawmakers have passed new legislation slapping a $30 charge on each shipping container that passes through the ports, and steering the money raised into new clean-air initiatives.

Now, though, Palin has asked Californian Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the bill on the grounds that a shipping surcharge might raise prices for Alaskan consumers. "Many communities [here] lack road access and depend entirely on the shipment of goods by marine containers," Palin wrote in a letter dated Aug. 28, the day before she was tapped as John McCain’s running mate. "Shipping costs have increased significantly with the rising price of fuel and these higher costs passed onto Alaskans. This tax makes the situation worse."

That’s preposterous: with the average shipping container holding $50,000 worth of goods, a $30 surcharge would have a negligible effect on the price paid by consumers. (Analysts estimate that the charge would increase the price of a pair of imported sneakers by just 10 cents.) It’s also deeply hypocritical: as Alaskan governor, Palin has been perfectly happy to tax the state’s oil and gas exports until the pips squeak, passing along price-hikes to consumers in the lower 48 in order to dole out free money to Alaskan residents.

Depressingly, though, California’s political leaders appear to be drinking Palin’s Kool-Aid. Gov. Schwarzenegger, currently wrestling with a budget crisis, is unhappy that the new law would fund local rather than statewide initiatives, so it’s possible he’ll veto or delay signing the legislation. Even the bill’s Democratic sponsor, Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, has said that he’ll consider amending the legislation so that containers bound for Alaska are charged half as much as those headed for the rest of the country.

Most worryingly of all, Palin’s shilling for the shipping industry is a sign of how she’d seek to run the country. When push comes to shove, she apparently prefers to watch thousands die than permit legislation that might impact, however slightly, on companies’ profit margins. We’ve seen how well that philosophy has worked for Bush; does anyone really want four more years of the same?

Serve the planet, says Obama

Last night, the presidential candidates called a truce - kinda, sorta - and headed to Columbia University for a forum on national service. That’s a subject that ought to be close to any green’s heart, both as a point of principle and as a matter of history: environmentalism and national service have been intertwined since at least the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt used the 250,000-strong Civilian Conservation Corps to build America’s national park system; in recent years those ties have been reaffirmed under Bill Clinton’s Americorps plan.

Speaking to that nexus should have been a slam-dunk for John McCain, who in his time in Washington has done more than most Republicans to promote the twin causes of environmentalism and national service. In the aftermath of 9/11, McCain wrote an influential Washington Monthly column calling for America to respond to its tragedy by embracing national service. “National service is a crucial means of making our patriotism real, to the benefit of both ourselves and our country,” he declared.

Stirring stuff - but since setting his sights upon the presidency, McCain has had remarkably little to say about public service. Last night, he seemed more eager to tout his own record as a POW than to discuss the potential of using service to promote national environmental priorities; it was left to his Democratic rival to join the dots.

Almost in his first breath, Barack Obama drew excited squeals from the audience by declaring that as president he would ask all Americans to join the fight for energy independence. “We are going to ask all citizens to participate in that process,” he said. “Not just government, but each and every one of us … are going to make commitments in terms of increasing fuel efficiency in our cars, in our homes.” Explicitly echoing FDR’s Conservation Corps, Obama went on to promise that he’d expand Clinton’s Americorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 people, while establishing a “clean energy corps” of volunteers to help weatherize buildings, promote energy efficiency, plant trees and clean up polluted land and waterways.

Those proposals stand a chance of coming to fruition whether or not Obama wins the White House: today, Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch are set to launch new voluntary-service legislation that borrows heavily from Obama’s service plan. Even John McCain has taken a leaf from Obama’s book: a hastily assembled page on his web-site now echoes Obama’s call for the creation of a clean energy corps. One way or another, it looks like Americans should soon have new ways to serve both their country and their planet.

Oh, baby: sex scandal rocks drilling agency

It looks like the Bush administration really is in bed with Big Oil: officials at the Minerals Management Service, the government agency that collects oil and gas royalties and doles out leases for offshore drilling, have been caught engaging in corrupt, drug-fueled sexual shenanigans with oil company representatives.

In three separate reports to Congress, the Interior Department’s inspector general blasted “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” that had taken root in the marketing wing of the MMS. One senior supervisor had sex with and bought drugs from his staff; another supplemented her income by selling sex toys at work. (She even bragged to co-workers that she earned more from dildos than from drilling.) Others attended alcohol, cocaine and marijuana-fueled parties, accepted lavish gifts, and had sexual relations with the same oil company representatives they were supposed to be collecting royalties from.

According to the inspector general, the agency “appeared to be devoid of both the ethical standards and internal controls sufficient to protect the integrity of this vital revenue-producing program,” reveling in a culture of depravity and corruption that cost taxpayers millions, and perhaps billions, of dollars. On at least 118 occasions, officials allowed oil companies to revise bids downwards once they’d been awarded competitive contracts, saving the companies around $4.4 million. On other occasions, officials shared confidential pricing information with oil companies, giving them an unfair advantage in future negotiations. “The fix is in throughout,” one agency lawyer told investigators. “This is tainted from the beginning, that is improper.”

Troublingly, the highest-ranking officials involved in the MMS sex-for-oil scandal appear likely to go unpunished: they retired before the investigation was concluded, putting them out of reach of administrative penalties, and Bush’s Justice Department has already said that it has no intention of taking on the criminal prosecutions suggested by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

And the oil companies themselves aren’t likely to have to face the music either: despite outcry from some Democrats and many greens, browbeaten congressional leaders look more likely than ever to push ahead with plans to open new areas for offshore drilling. In the aftermath of the Interior Department’s sex-for-oil scandal, it looks likely that Big Oil and the MMS will be allowed to continue their cozy relationship - only this time around, it’s going to be the American people who get screwed.

Where the race stands

Just a few months ago, many observers saw the 2008 presidential hopefuls in matching shades of green. “Climate change will get the aggressive attention it deserves from the White House, no matter which party wins in November,” editorialized the Washington Post in mid-May. “It will be a refreshing change.” Now, though, with the dust settling from the Democratic and Republican conventions and John McCain and Barack Obama essentially tied in the polls, it’s time to think again.

When the Post prematurely celebrated the next president’s commitment to environmental reform, it was on the strength of John McCain’s promise to follow Barack Obama’s lead and implement a national cap-and-trade system designed to harness the marketplace and cut America’s greenhouse emissions. McCain’s plan may not have been as strong as his rival’s - his decision to give away carbon credits rather than auctioning them off was particularly lamentable - but it was a dramatic break from the environmental apathy of the Bush administration.

Since then, though, McCain has been remarkably quiet about his cap-and-trade pledge. Instead he’s shifted his focus from climate change to energy independence, appointed Big Oil cheerleader and climate denier Sarah Palin as his number two, and begun to tout offshore drilling at every opportunity. Now, he’s busy presenting unchecked domestic drilling as his party’s killer app: while Democrats want renewables and energy efficiency, McCain’s GOP promises renewables and energy efficiency plus more drilling.

In fact, though, that’s back to front: it’s Obama who’s promised to allow offshore drilling as part of a package of more meaningful reforms. McCain, by contrast, says that “truly clean technologies don’t work” and will make only a “very small” part of America’s total energy portfolio. (That’s despite Bush administration projections that wind energy alone could provide a fifth of US energy by 2030.)

The truth of the matter is that McCain isn’t the clean-energy-plus-drilling candidate; he’s the drilling candidate, period. That may well be enough to win him an election; it’s certainly been serving him well in the polls. But it won’t be enough to put America on the path to true energy independence, and it won’t be enough to win the battle against global warming. As the 2008 election campaign enters the home straight, there’s still plenty to choose between the candidates - and plenty for America’s greens to fight for.

Democrats to allow drilling vote

Lawmakers head back to Washington this week, and with the GOP’s rallying cries - “Drill, baby, drill!” - still echoing around the rafters of St Paul’s Xcel Center, energy is foremost on everyone’s mind. Congressional Republicans are leading the charge, touting an “all of the above” energy plan that would lift the moratorium on off-shore drilling, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, and use the proceeds to fund “alternative” energy sources like coal, tar and shale. (The bill would also extend tax credits for genuinely clean energy sources like wind and solar.) 


The GOP clearly feels it’s found a winning strategy: lawmakers have been pushing the plan hard, holding sit-in protests on the floor of the House and comparing their efforts - apparently without irony - to the Boston Tea Party and the struggle of the Founding Fathers. (“This could be America’s greatest hour,” gasped one breathless congressman.)


That’s hyperbole and bluster: offshore drilling is a sideshow that would do little to alleviate America’s energy crisis, while tar and shale are expensive, inefficient and filthy alternatives to oil. Still, polls show that many voters now back the GOP’s drill-everywhere plan, so congressional Democrats have been forced to hammer out a compromise.


The party leadership now appears likely to allow a vote on offshore drilling as early as this Thursday - but will wrap the measure into a genuinely progressive energy package designed to boost the renewable-energy sector, establish new efficiency rules for buildings, and overhaul tax provisions for oil companies. That’s essentially an attempt to call the GOP’s bluff, forcing lawmakers to show their true colors in a vote that would allow drilling, but would also boost genuinely clean energy at the expense of Big Oil. 


In practice, there’s little chance of a bipartisan deal being worked out before the election; even if Congress passed energy legislation, Bush has said he’ll veto anything that strays from the GOP’s drill-here-drill-now template. “They should go ahead and pass a clean bill,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “We've given them the road map to do so.” 


Still, Democrats - both in Congress and in the Obama camp - are hoping that their new strategy will allow them to underscore the GOP’s ties to Big Oil and refocus the energy debate on issues like renewables and energy efficiency, where Dems have a clear upper hand. That’s a solid strategy - but having invested so much political capital in offshore drilling, it’s hard to see the GOP giving up their drill-drill-drill sloganeering without a fight.


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