US: Liquidation of the Commons

There has not been such a wholesale giveaway of Americas public assets since1310McKinley was president in the late 1800s
Publisher Name: 
In These Times

When the Bush administrations 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 Leavitts 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 administrations 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 cant 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 Bushs 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 Americas common assets under the direction
of Hanna.

The Bush administration, elected with the contributions of Americas 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
theyre 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 firms interests rather than on behalf of the
interests of the American people.

The destructive effects of the administrations 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 administrations plans for
natural gas development in the United States. Whats 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 administrations agenda. They recommended two major efforts:
lower the environmental bar and pay corporations to jump over it. With the help of
Enrons 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 its embedded within coal deposits deep
underground. The only way to get at this natural gascoalbed methaneis 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, natures 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

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 youd 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 Presidents Healthy Forests Initiative is returning the nations 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 Octoberand 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 Americas last old-growth forests, then its not surprising that
the administrations 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

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
acts 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 theyve 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, its not surprising to learn that the power companies are major
contributors to the Republican Party and had access to Cheneys 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 administrations efforts to undo 30 years of
environmental progress. Unlike previous attacks on the nations environmental
lawsby Ronald Reagans Secretary of the Interior James Watt and by Newt
Gingrichthese 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 administrations double-speak to differentiate the
Bush-Cheney 2004 Web site from the Sierra Clubs. But the Bush policies are like
week-old sushi advertised as fresh fish. The media has faithfully reported the names
of the Bush administrations billsHealthy Forests, Clear Skieswithout 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
administrations 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.

AMP Section Name:Corruption