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Wish You Weren’t Here

Bush officials would love to explore our protected wildlands too—with oil drills

by Reed McManus

President Bush has already expressed his eagerness to drill for oil in the biological heart of a national wildlife refuge in Alaska’s Arctic. But why stop there? Administration officials and their Republican allies in Congress have been poring over maps of public lands in all 50 states with the zeal of a family planning its summer vacation—except that these guys are searching for places to plunk down oil and gas wells.

The Interior Department first revealed its wish list in a draft report to President Bush’s energy task force that was leaked to environmental groups this spring. The federal lands it is considering opening up to oil interests include 17 million acres in the West that are wilderness study areas (places protected while they are being considered for formal wilderness status). The administration also suggested nonwilderness areas, most in Bureau of Land Management domain, where Interior officials might be able to explore for petrochemicals without as much controversy. To grease the wheels, the Bush administration has suggested revising BLM or Forest Service management plans that “unnecessarily restrict development” and giving the BLM more power to approve oil or gas leases on Forest Service lands even when the Forest Service or other agencies disagree.

This spring, the House Resources Committee--led by industry-friendly Republicans--conducted hearings to stake out national monuments where drilling might be profitable. Representative James Hansen (R-Utah) claimed analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey showed huge potential for oil and gas in the monuments established in the waning days of the Clinton administration. In fact, the agency’s report showed “moderate or high” potential in only 5 of the 21 recently created or expanded monuments.

The new national monuments deemed most likely by the USGS to have oil and gas deposits are Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Carrizo Plain and California Coastal in California, Hanford Reach in Washington, and Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana. (Most of Canyons of the Ancients was already leased for oil and gas before the monument was established in January, and it’s the state-controlled waters that surround California Coastal National Monument, not the protected rocks themselves, that might yield oil.) The USGS also reported that Hansen’s particular focus, 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in his home state, might have large coal and coal-bed gas reserves.

Other wildlands in the surveyors’ scopes include areas the Sierra Club has fought for years to protect: the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest, whose land-use plan bans drilling in sensitive areas; 37,000 acres adjacent to Gros Ventre Wilderness in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, which won protection from drilling this past December; and the 600,000-acre Red Desert in Wyoming, prized for its rugged beauty and herds of elk and antelope. The departing Clinton administration had forbidden exploration in the Jack Morrow Hills area of the Red Desert and ordered a new management plan that gave top priority to conservation, but that plan is now in limbo.

Environmentalists want to ensure that the country’s natural heritage doesn’t drown in the new rush for oil. All but 5 percent of federal public lands in the Rocky Mountain region controlled by the Bureau of Land Management are already open to exploration and leasing, and President Clinton set aside less than 2 percent of BLM land as national monuments. “These are some of the most spectacular lands left in the West,” says Jeff Widen, associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “They’re a tiny portion of the public land that’s out there. To talk about opening them up is just crazy.”

Ironically, public protest of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has put these western lands at greater risk. In March Bush acknowledged that opposition to opening the refuge may be insurmountable (though his administration has since reaffirmed its arctic pipe dreams). But the president still wants to expand domestic energy development, and included millions in tax incentives for oil exploration (along with cuts in funding for alternative energy sources) in his budget proposal to Congress.

Bush claims that the latest drilling technology won’t harm public lands. “There’s a mentality that says you can’t explore and protect land. We’re going to change that attitude,” he told reporters this spring. But even if they shared his faith in gadgetry, few environmentalists would trust the president’s commitment to protecting wildlands. Bush revealed his real priorities when he told reporters that Clinton-era national monuments should be judged on their “cost/benefit ratio.”

Implicitly acknowledging that a move to haul drilling gear into national monuments, wilderness study areas, and other off-limits areas would be unpopular even in a summer with looming energy shortages, the Bush team has proposed that “uncontroversial” wildlands be considered for drilling first. Once word gets out, it’s doubtful any of these areas will be free of controversy.

Click here for more information on the Bush energy plan.


Puget Sound’s Alarm

Banned PCBs still threaten marine life

by Jim Rendon

In March 2000, a 22-year-old killer whale washed ashore just north of Bellingham, Washington. In what should have been the prime of its life, the whale, known as J-18, was emaciated, its reproductive organs underdeveloped. A normally harmless bacterial infection in an abscess on its stomach had finally killed it.

The whale’s compromised immune system was the result of contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, according to Dr. Peter Ross, a research scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Victoria, British Columbia. As he reported in the June 2000 issue of Marine Pollution Bulletin, Puget Sound killer whales are the most PCB-laden marine mammals on the planet. Although no research has been conducted to determine the effect of high levels of PCBs on killer whales, Ross’s studies have shown immune system dysfunction in harbor seals at levels as low as 17 parts per million. In 1994, when researchers last tested J-18, they discovered 63 parts per million of PCBs in its blubber. At the time of its death, says Ross, it was useless to test for PCBs because the wasted whale had metabolized much of its body fat, where the PCBs are stored, and thus likely much of the contaminant.

PCBs came into widespread use in the 1930s. The stable oily liquid, which absorbs intense heat, was used as a coolant for electrical transformers and capacitors. It was also incorporated into a broad range of industrial products, including lubricants, insecticides, paints, and varnishes. By the time the compound was found to be toxic, it was being used and produced around the world.

The fight against PCBs was an early success story for the modern environmental movement, which managed to get the chemical banned in the United States in 1976. Worldwide, almost no PCBs have been made since 1989. But ceasing production is not enough to repair the damage caused by this sturdy, enduring compound.

Killer whales accumulate great quantities of PCBs because their primary food sources--salmon and, in some cases, seals--are high on the food chain and long-lived. The high levels of PCBs that build up in the prey are passed along to the whale. The whales have large fat reserves where PCBs can be stored, and since killer whales can live as long as 80 years, the toxic levels keep growing over a lifetime.

Richard Osborne, science curator of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, says that declining salmon runs may be contributing to the problem. Puget Sound whales are traveling farther and farther in search of food every year. Last winter a killer whale that usually resides in the southern part of the sound was spotted in Monterey Bay, California, something unheard of in past years, Osborne says. Ross and other researchers say whales that are exerting themselves because they are short on food will metabolize fat reserves along with the PCBs stored there, pushing more of the poison into their bloodstreams. “My gut reaction is that a lack of food may exacerbate problems,” Ross says.

Ross studied three Puget Sound whale populations: residents that stay in northern and southern parts of the sound and transients that move in and out of the area. The northern residents’ PCB-contamination level--37 parts per million--ranked them high on the most-polluted marine mammals list. But, Ross says, that was hardly the shocker. Among the southern residents, he found contamination levels far higher, 146 parts per million on average. The numbers for the transients were higher yet.

“These whales are telling us something about the degree of local contamination [in Puget Sound],” says Ross. Hot spots of PCB pollution have been recorded in parts of the sound that border urban and industrial areas, including Elliot Bay, Commencement Bay, and the Sinclair Inlet. As for the transient whales, they may be suffering because of an even more intractable problem: global atmospheric PCB contamination. Donald Mackay, a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and director of the Canadian Environmental Modeling Center, explains that when the compound escapes into the environment it can remain toxic for many decades. “There are PCBs everywhere,” says Mackay.

One widely used method of PCB disposal, incineration, releases PCBs into the atmosphere, where they are then easily spread. The compound has been found from isolated Rocky Mountain lakes to remote areas in the Arctic. High levels of PCBs have even been found in the eggs and tissue of the black-footed albatross on the isolated Midway Atoll in the South Pacific.

Activists are now working to get Puget Sound killer whales listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Washington State Department of Ecology is developing a program to reduce the release of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, and 122 nations are now engaged in ratifying a treaty that would not only work to phase out the production of these toxic chemicals, but also set up guidelines for their proper disposal. For a poison like PCBs, proper disposal is a vital step toward ensuring the health of Puget Sound’s majestic residents.


Keeping Tabs on George W. Bush

Dozens of Doozies

In his brief tenure, George Bush has earned at least three dozen environmental black marks, including his well-publicized backtracking on the Kyoto treaty on global warming, continued effort to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, delay in implementing arsenic standards for drinking water, and his move to weaken Bill Clinton’s roadless initiative for national forests, which would protect more than 58 million acres.

Bush even challenged citizens’ right to sue the government to protect wildlife under the Endangered Species Act. In his proposed budget, Bush would prohibit federal spending to carry out new court orders protecting plants and animals. That would give Interior Secretary Gale Norton--who once filed a legal brief arguing that the Endangered Species Act was unconstitutional--sole discretion over which new species are to be protected under the act.

The list of Bush’s not-so-subtle assaults on the environment includes:

  • An attempt to weaken efficiency standards for central air conditioners.
  • A proposal to cut energy-efficiency research and development by 27 percent.
  • A proposal to increase the Bureau of Land Management’s budget for oil drilling and exploration by $15 million and decrease its budget for conservation by the same amount.
  • Surprisingly, though, things could be worse. So we’ll give Bush this faint praise: The president has at least promised not to unravel several Clinton-era gains, among them a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and new standards for diesel engines.

    For a comprehensive and up-to-date look at the impact of the Bush presidency on the environment, go to www.sierraclub.org/politics/bush.


    Old King Coal

    by Paul Rauber

    Can W.’s second-favorite energy source ever come clean? Even though she’s been hearing about “clean coal” for 20 years, Citizens Coal Council director Carolyn Johnson still bursts into laughter when the subject comes up. “It’s such an oxymoron!” she says, “There is no way to clean it up.”

    Coal is our preeminent fuel, generating more than half of the nation’s electricity, but it’s hard to imagine a dirtier energy source. The billion-plus tons of coal burned each year in the United States create 60 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, a quarter of its nitrogen oxide, a third of its mercury, and nearly a third of its carbon dioxide--the single-largest contributor to global warming.

    If President Bush has his way, we’ll burn even more coal in the future. In February he boosted coal as a key solution to the nation’s energy problems: “We have got to understand that we need to work on the supply side,” Bush said, “and coal is in abundant supply here in America.” While his administration slashes funding for renewable energy and conservation initiatives, it proposes lavishing 2 billion taxpayer dollars on clean coal over the next ten years. Another $2 billion, that is, because that much has already gone to the endeavor since 1984.

    The Clean Coal Technology Program is corporate welfare in its purest form. Its scores of projects focus on reducing emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide (“nox and sox,” as they’re known in the trade), and “gassifying” coal for more-efficient combustion. The goals are laudable, but with the coal industry netting half a billion dollars a year, why should the public pay to clean up its mess?

    At the rate taxpayers subsidize coal, we might consider burning money for energy instead. According to Lexi Shultz, staff attorney for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, “Clean coal has been reviewed by the General Accounting Office seven times, and seven times they found a history of waste and mismanagement.” The GAO’s most recent report found eight clean-coal programs afflicted with “serious delays or financial problems,” with two of them in bankruptcy, despite the infusion of $79 million in public funds. “It’s one of the most poorly run programs in the federal government,” says Shultz. This has attracted the attention of congressional budget hawks; last year representatives Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) attempted to scuttle the program. “There is nothing new being developed under the Clean Coal Technology Program,” said Ryan, “except for new ways to squander taxpayers’ money.”

    And despite its name, clean coal results in a dirtier environment. While it can cut down on nox and sox, it does nothing to reduce the amount of poisonous mercury or global-warming CO2 that coal plants spew into the atmosphere. Btu for Btu, coal emits twice as much CO2 as natural gas; when Bush backtracked on his campaign pledge to limit CO2 emissions, the coal industry was the prime beneficiary.

    The coal industry, in turn, has been generous to Bush and his party. In the last election cycle the industry gave out $3.9 million, $3.4 million of it to Republicans. Bush also owes a political debt to coal-intensive West Virginia, which was one of three traditionally Democratic states that tipped last year’s election his way. In addition, West Virginia’s Senator Robert Byrd (D), who styles himself “the granddaddy of clean coal,” is the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Appropriations Committee; for Bush, a hefty contribution to Byrd’s favorite charity can only help prospects for passage of his budget in the Senate.

    The likely legislative vehicle for clean coal this session is Byrd’s S. 60, a smudgy Valentine to the coal industry that has even less to do with pollution reduction than past clean- coal programs. Byrd’s bill defines as “clean” any coal that burns more efficiently or produces less pollution; how much more or less than what is not specified. It would repeal provisions of the Clean Air Act for power plants with clean-coal technology, which could result in new “clean” coal plants that pollute more than plants built in the last ten years, and provide incentives to convert clean natural-gas burning plants to dirtier coal-burning systems.

    “The goal of the program is to promote the use of coal,” says Shultz. “To the extent it does, overall emissions are almost certain to go up.” In other words, the more clean coal succeeds, the dirtier our air becomes.


    For the Record

    "It's an all-you-can-eat buffet for the oil industry."
    --Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League on the GOP budget proposal that would open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to drilling and give the energy industry $21 billion in subsidies.
    Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, February 24, 2001

    "All the stars are aligned this year."
    --Roger Hererra, executive director of Arctic Power, a group formed to lobby for drilling in the Arctic Refuge.
    Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2001.

    "It would be helpful if we opened up ANWR. I think it's a mistake not to. And I would urge you all to travel up there and take a look at it, and you can make the determination as to how beautiful that country is."
    --George W. Bush press conference, March 29, 2001.


    OLD-GROWTH WON’T GET THE AX. Campaigns by the Sierra Club and other groups have convinced 400 corporations and several U.S. cities to phase out the sale or use of wood from old-growth forests. One of the converts was Home Depot, the world’s largest lumber retailer, which made the pledge in August 1999 after receiving more than 25,000 postcards from Sierra readers. As consumer pressure mounted, the government of British Columbia took notice: In April it announced an immediate moratorium on logging in 3.5 million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest rainforest conservation measure in North American history. (See “Canada’s Forgotten Coast,” March/April 1999.)

    ARMY CORPS MUST shape up. Efforts to remove four dams from Washington’s lower Snake River got a boost in February when a federal court ruled that the structures’ operation violates the Clean Water Act. When water is trapped behind a dam, it is heated by the sun for longer periods; once released, it increases the level of dissolved gas in the river. Both effects can be harmful or lethal to fish. The court ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a plan that protects the river’s water quality as well as its salmon and steelhead trout. (See “Salmon’s Second Coming,” March/April 2000.)

    A COUP FOR COHO. Coho salmon near the Oregon-California border can swim easier since a federal court in April ordered the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to temporarily stop diverting water for irrigation from the Klamath basin. (Affected irrigators, including the Klamath Water Users Association and the Tule Lake Irrigation District, immediately sued to block implementation of the new plan.) Low water levels imperiled not only the threatened Klamath River coho, but two endangered species of freshwater fish and one of the nation’s largest populations of bald eagles. (See “Home Front,” May/June 1998.)


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