Archive for November, 2008

Defend public lands from last minute giveaways

November 28, 2008

Apologize for the delay in writing. I was following the elections quite closely.

Politics and environmentalism do mix. In the spirit of non-partisanship, I won’t say who is the threat to the environment, simply that under Obama, the United States might revert to more historical norms in terms of stewardship and protection. We certainly can’t get much worse than now.

The last days of the Bush Presidency have seen an onslaught of regulatory abandonment, a last chance giveaway from those in power to their friends in industry. National parks have become victims in a planned round-up of Yellowstone’s buffalo (Oppose it here.) The Clean Air Act is under assault–Bush wants to allow new power plants and natural gas wells to be built right at the borders of national parks. (See an AP article here.)

Lower air quality standards (or inadequate enforcement) could allow more coal burning that invariably means more mercury in our air, rivers, lakes, and streams.

Natural gas is a clean burning fossil fuel and should be preferred to coal, but exploratory drilling uses toxic chemicals and gases. (See “Unwell” in the print version of Nov.-Dec. issue of Mother Jones.) Little is known of their long-term effects. Some wellheads are also very close to human habitation, and higher incidences of sickness are associated with the drilling. Apparently many people out in the rural West live on or very near federal lands and have limited protections from exploration contracts that allow companies to drill virtually anywhere.

Little allowance appears to be made for the pollution that the extraction and use of fossil fuels generates. Nor do any improved energy consumption guidelines appear forthcoming. I’ve said for a while now that the absence of conservation is a troubling indicator that our national leadership is concerned more with stimulating a healthy market for energy use than it is in reducing demand. Improving energy efficiency is so easy, so why haven’t Bush and Cheney tried it? Perhaps because their energy policies and wars have been focused on driving energy prices up for their cronies’ benefit.

We can’t separate the political from the environmental. This is frustrating because we “environmentalists” (a loaded term in itself) tend to alienate less liberal factions because our political positions are so different. This split doesn’t have to be. Just because a few social conservatives advocate rampant environmental exploitation doesn’t mean conservatives in general are opposed in principle to preserving natural resources. It’s just that over recent years the greed-is-good complex has overtaken common sense. As the stock market crashes and the American people come to realize we can’t have it all, that there is a long-term price to be paid for short-term profit, then the environmental priorities of our nation can be put back in order.

Lower pollution makes business sense. As the cost of health care for asthmatic children rises, and is borne by the public at large in the form of higher health care insurance premiums, the price of pollution becomes more apparent and its reduction more desirable. Increased CO2 emissions can mean worse droughts and floods, more extreme storms, and rising seas–surely prevention now makes more economic sense than waiting and paying for clean-up, seawalls, etc..

As the haze of pursuing market-first principles clears, it becomes apparent that our country is about more than the pursuit of wealth. People need more time with nature and to commune with America’s natural beauty. We can’t do this if the mountaintops have been removed by coal mining. We also can’t enjoy the non-material aspects of being an American if we’re so wrapped up in the endless pursuit of wealth, texting, multi-tasking and over-working.

If the pot of gold doesn’t wait at the end of the rainbow, many of us will discover that we’ve followed the false gods of materialism and in so doing we may end up poorer both spiritually and materially.

Good Shepherd Wanted

The tragedy of the commons is a phenomena that occurs when no one is put in charge of administering public held lands. You see, early in our nation’s history, in New England, tracts of land were set aside to be available for the public’s use, in grazing, recreation, hunting, or whatever else suited their fancy.

Over time these commons were overgrazed by livestock from commercial entities. There was little to keep them from being exploited. Without anyone to administer these areas, to monitor them for overuse, the commons because unsuitable for the purpose for which they were intended.

We see abuse of our public lands in a similar way today. Changes in the rules governing the use of publicly owned areas have left them open for abuse by commercial entities.

The Bureau of Land Management has tried to kill an important stream buffer rule that prevents mine waste from being dumped within 100′ of a stream. Previously we saw mountaintop removal practices devastate over a thousand miles of streams in Appalachia. Rather than act to protect streams, the BLM has allowed coal mining companies to use them as a dumping area. This on top of numerous concessions that include lower standards for air and water pollution that result from the destructive practice of MTR.

Rather than conserve public resources, the BLM has enabled the rapid destruction of millions of acres, and not to coal mining either. See this 2004 article¬†from MotherJones. Out west Utah’s vast Canyonlands have recently come under attack from new off road vehicle (ORV) trails. [Take action here.] Thousands of acres of publicly owned forest in Oregon have been opened to logging (Complain here.) Wyoming’s Powder River basin has also been listed for further strip mining (see some of the background here.)

If we can count on the federal government for something, it will be to act as industry lobbyists command. The leadership at federal supervisory agencies consists of former industry executives, who will likely return to their former jobs at the end of the employment (if indeed they ever left.) The most notable case of this conflict of interest was a White House “climatologist” who’d formerly worked for Exxon Mobil who rewrote scientific reports in order to downplay Global Warming risks. Days after he’d been forced to leave his job he went back to his former employer.

It’s hard to keep track of all the proposals that are essentially exploiting the commons. Part of the exploitation strategy may be to spread out opposition by attacking the environment on so many fronts.¬†

With the responsibilities to protect these lands either forgotten or willingly discounted, it’s no wonder that America’s public lands have been abused. The trust of people in our federal government has also been abused. Not only do they have no desire to protect and preserve, federal officials appear intent on giving away as many concessions as they can before the next administration comes in. Such a fire sale provides ample evidence that not only do the political appointees know what they are doing is wrong, they are aware that their best chance to provide giveaways to friendly industries is fading fast, which makes this period especially important.

Americans need to be hypersensitive to any last-minute changes in policy. We need to oppose vocally and vociferously any subversion of federal responsibilities over our public lands. These we own and they must be administered with the public interest in mind. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council track the proposals and fight them. We need to remain vigilant and supportive.

The new administration will view its responsibilities in a radically different way, which should bode well for wildlife and the lands on which they depend. We humans will also benefit from a reduction in abuses of the public trust. Our public lands are our property, not those of our government. They exist at our pleasure, not that of some political appointee. The benefits of conservation include a better quality of life and we must not let private interests destroy these lands or damage our environment.

Other Sources

DemocracyNow offers a July article on the scale of oil and natural gas drilling going on out west here. David Sirota has also been researching this topic. More on the giveaway and favorable leases is available at MotherJones here.