By Javier Sierra
Tradition tells us the US president's residence is the "People's House," and that we all own the keys to it. For the last four years, however, the Bush White House has been for sale to the highest bidder-- usually one of President Bush's or Vice President Cheney's former colleagues from the oil and gas industry. Today we very well could call it the Corporations' House.
And the best example of this change of ownership is Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, which President Bush appointed only days after his inauguration. Although supposedly set up to help America avoid "catastrophic" energy shortages, what really happened was that Cheney played Santa Claus to the energy industry, climbing down their chimneys with a sack full of gifts for corporations and tons of coal for the rest of us.
In spite of Cheney's staunch efforts to keep his scheming secret, we've learned, through the Freedom of Information Act, that the task force's workings were dominated by corporate cronyism and the triumph of the highest bidder.
The energy industry, upon Cheney's request, wrote their letters to Santa Clause recommending the adoption of a long wish list of tax breaks, subsidies and the elimination of environmental regulations protecting us all. This Santa Clause, however, is a very peculiar one, because along with the letter, he expects a check, the fatter, the better.
Who participated in these secret meetings and how much did they pay? Here are three examples:
-Enron, the energy trading company that eventually would cause the largest corporate bankruptcy in history, donated $2.5 million to the Cheney's GOP between 1999 and 2002, and had six face-to-face meetings with the vice president. The Administration then looked the other way while Enron made millions from creating the 2002 California energy crisis that almost bankrupted the state.
-Southern Company, an electric utility, donated $1.6 million in the same period of time and met seven times with the task force. In return, EPA dropped eight lawsuits against Southern for violations of the Clean Air Act.
-The Edison Electric Institute, the industry trade association, contributed with almost $600,000 and met 14 times with the Cheney task force. The payoff came when the Bush Administration weakened regulations that limited emissions of carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, all toxic substances.
These donations turned out to be a magnificent investment.
Environmental groups and the alternative energy industry, however, were almost completely excluded from the task force's workings. The only meeting they were part of lasted only 40 minutes and took place a day after the Cheney plan was completed, and at the printer.
In the midst of this process of the oil-like transparency, the Sierra Club sued the administration to reveal exactly who participated in the meetings and what was discussed there. The White House stonewalled, and the case finally reached the Supreme Court.
But the cronyism continued there. After the Court accepted the case, one of the justices, Antonin Scalia, was caught taking part in a duck-hunting party along with his old friend Dick Cheney. Scalia even flew to the party on Cheney's Air Force Two. In the face of such a huge conflict of interests, 35 of the nation's largest newspapers demanded for Scalia to recuse himself from the case.
Scalia refused, and the justices eventually returned the case to a lower court postponing a final decision until after the Nov. 2 election.
And who foots the bill for all this corruption? We all do, especially Latinos, the usual victims of environmental injustices. The Bush administration has already implemented two thirds of the task force's recommendations, making our air and water dirtier, opening our national forest to oil and timber exploitation, and leaving millions of acres of wetland unprotected.
In exchange, the energy industry is still opening their gifts, including preferential enforcement of the law, huge subsidies and outrageous tax cuts on the backs of the taxpayers.
The government is for sale, and in the process, our democracy is running out of energy.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.
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