New Era, Old Oil The energy industry adapts to a changed political landscape
In its waning days, the 109th Congress handed a final gift to the oil industry: legislation that opens 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling. Even so, the measure is a pale imitation of what many high-riding Republicans had hoped for a few months earlier. In 2005, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have opened up nearly all Pacific and Atlantic waters more than 100 miles offshore. But as incoming Democrats began to measure the drapes for their new offices on Capitol Hill, the industry urged its GOP allies to pass whatever drilling law they could. "When you can't score a home run," opined Representative John Peterson (R-Pa.), an oil industry supporter, "you take a walk if you can get it."
To get the measure passed, Republicans put their oil platforms in a pretty package, attaching it to popular legislation that extended tax breaks for college tuition, provided funding for energy-efficient homes, and protected Medicare payments to doctors. To seal the deal, they promised to redistribute nearly 40 percent of federal oil royalties--worth some $60 billion over 25 years--to just four coastal states, ostensibly for restoration projects to repair damage from hurricanes. In the end, only 45 representatives and 9 senators voted against it.
Such legislative creativity may continue. When Peterson was asked by the Naples (Fla.) Daily News whether he would introduce another offshore-drilling bill, he said, "You betcha. We're designing one right now." The lesson is that even given the opportunity to protect coastal areas from drilling once and for all, legislators of both parties may still find it difficult to cut ties to the oil and gas industry. But, thankfully, Congress is no longer an oil lobbyist's dream.
Instead of committing the nation to decades of dependence on fossil fuels, the Sierra Club wants an end to the hefty subsidies to Big Oil and a strengthening of protections for coasts and marine ecosystems. And while it supports coastal restoration in the Gulf of Mexico, the Club wants funding for that to come from recapturing royalties lost through poorly negotiated offshore-drilling leases in the 1990s. That's creative lawmaking the Club, and plenty of other Americans, can support. --Reed McManus
WWatch Keeping Tabs on Washington
SMOKESTACK ATTACK Americans will have access to a lot less information about local pollution thanks to the EPA's new reporting rules. For two decades, industrial plants that released more than 500 pounds of any toxic substance had to fill out a Toxics Release Inventory. No longer. The EPA has quadrupled the amount of poison that can be emitted before a report is necessary. The agency boasts that the change will affect a third of the 24,000 companies now filing TRIs, saving them $6 million in paperwork costs. It did not calculate the cost to the people who live downwind or downstream.
FREE GAS PASS Oil companies that drill on public lands and in coastal waters aren't paying the royalty fees they owe, and the federal agency charged with collecting them isn't doing much about it. That's the conclusion of a blistering report by the Interior Department's inspector general, which found that the Minerals Management Service relies too much on an industry honor system. In response, in January the House passed a bill that would increase some royalties and reduce energy industry tax breaks. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President George W. Bush, the measure would raise $14 billion for renewable energy research.
FILTHY LUCRE Researchers at the environmental group Earthworks recently compared the actual water pollution caused by precious-metal mines in the United States with the federal standards the government predicted they could meet. The result: Over the past 25 years, 76 percent of approved mines have violated water-quality standards, contaminating surrounding waterways with chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, and cyanide.
WEIRD SCIENCE The EPA will no longer depend on the recommendations of staff scientists when deciding how tough standards should be for deadly air pollutants like lead, soot, and ground-level ozone. Instead, the agency will concoct something called "policy-relevant" science, which factors in the opinions of the researchers' politically appointed superiors. Similar fact-massaging may be in store at the U.S. Geological Survey, where scientists are now required to submit reports and public presentations to the agency's communications office for approval before sharing them with the public.
FISHY MOVE In January, the Bush administration lifted a ban on oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to endangered North Pacific right whales, the world's largest run of sockeye salmon, and important crab and halibut fisheries. The move allows the Interior Department to open 5.6 million acres to drill rigs over the next five years. Racked by winter storms, the area was closed to drilling after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. In fact, the feds have spent at least $95 million buying back leases sold before the ban went into effect. --R.M.
Those amber waves of grain we all sang about in school are moving to Canada. Over the next half century, global warming is expected to make much of the United States too hot to grow wheat, shifting the North American breadbasket much farther north. Alaskan and Canadian farmers may be able to ride their combines to within two degrees of the Arctic Circle. Once-arable lands to the south will suffer from scorching heat and drought: A forthcoming study by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center projects that India's wheat-growing region will shrink by 50 percent, threatening the food supply for hundreds of millions of people.
While the United States dithers about taking strong action to address global warming, international groups like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are helping farmers reduce their production of greenhouse gases--for example, by encouraging them to use less nitrogen fertilizer, which breaks down into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. For more information on CGIAR and its affiliates, visit cgiar.org. --Paul Rauber
Back From the Brink
Before his own political extinction, former representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) bellyached about how few critters the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has actually saved. Just in time for last fall's election, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to declare three California species recovered.
"Critics of the Endangered Species Act are dead wrong when they say species aren't recovering," says Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity--a frequent petitioner to get species added to the list. The island night lizard (at left), Bell's vireo, and California least tern, he says, "are just a few of the hundreds of endangered species with soaring population numbers." They join creatures such as the Peninsular bighorn sheep, the masked bobwhite quail, and the Aleutian Canada goose in getting a second lease on life--thanks to habitat conservation, smart management, and the clout of the ESA. For an overview of 100 species-recovery success stories, visit the center's esasuccess.org or sierraclub.org/wildlife/species/factsheets/ success.asp. --Paul Rauber
To reduce his environmental footprint, Britain's Prince Charles has pledged to stop getting the royal treatment. The heir to the throne will have his Jaguar and Range Rover converted to biodiesel, power his three homes with greener energy sources, and take commercial flights instead of gas-guzzling private jets. (No word yet on whether he will fly coach.) Charles hopes that his efforts will influence business leaders to investigate and address their own personal environmental impacts. --Sarah Ives
Ski resorts depend on Mother Nature, and projections that global warming could reduce the Colorado snowpack by 75 percent by 2090 have prompted them to come to her defense. Last fall, Vail Resorts invested in nearly 152,000 megawatt-hours of wind power--enough to offset 100 percent of the energy needed to run its five mountain resorts and corporate headquarters. And Aspen Skiing Company, the first Colorado resort to offset all of its energy use with wind power, joined the U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the EPA's unwillingness to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. --Robynne Boyd
Starting this spring, the grass will be a little greener in California. The EPA has granted the state permission to impose pollution limits on lawnmowers and other small-engine machines. The last unregulated smog sources in pollution-conscious California, small engines are responsible for 7 percent of the state's smog emissions from mobile sources--the equivalent of 3 million cars. --S.I.
Swath of Protection
The Brazilian government has announced the creation of the world's largest rainforest preserve, a 58,000-square-mile park in the northern Amazon that will be larger than Illinois. Over the past few years, the region has been a lawless frontier, with clashes over land rights and uncontrolled logging. Now environmentalists hope that the preserve will protect crucial territory for jaguars and monkeys. --S.I.
Congressional Facebook This establishment is now under new management
When last November's electoral gale swept through the halls of Congress, it cleared out of office some of the most virulently anti-environmental members the Hill has ever known. The new chairs of the major environmental committees are indeed a breath of fresh air:
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
No change in congressional leadership is starker than the ouster of climate crank James Inhofe (R-Okla.) as head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by green champion Boxer. Even before taking up the gavel, the senator made it clear that she intended to wield it vigorously--against stealthy, Friday-afternoon regulatory changes, backdoor appointments of industry insiders, and sabotaged environmental protections. "That's over," declared Boxer. "We are going to bring those things into the light." Watch for early action on global warming from her rejuvenated committee.
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.Mex.)
Leadership of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee stays in New Mexico but passes from nuclear booster Pete Domenici (R) to Bingaman, who is expected to use the position to push renewable power. Even when in the minority, Bingaman managed three times to get his colleagues to pass a "renewable portfolio standard," whereby 10 percent of the country's electricity would have to come from wind, solar, or geothermal sources by 2020. His efforts stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, but they seem a good bet to sail through now.
Representative Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.)
One of the first things Rahall did as chair of the House Resources Committee was to change its name back to the House Natural Resources Committee (as it was known until the Republican ascendancy in 1994). Under former chair Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the committee focused on limiting protection for endangered species, selling public lands, and reducing public participation in environmental decisions. On Rahall's agenda is overhauling the 1872 Mining Law and holding hearings on "underfunding and misplaced management priorities" for national parks and endangered-species protection. He has also declared his intention to end the royalty holiday enjoyed by oil and gas companies drilling on the outer continental shelf.
Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)
When asked what was the most important thing about winning majority status in the House of Representatives, incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was succinct: "Subpoena power." Anti-environmental Bush administration operatives are already lawyering up in expectation that they'll be called before Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Even as ranking minority member, Waxman produced report after damning report on the administration's environmental malefactions, including the politicization of science and abstinence-only programs that give false information to teens.
Thanks to changes Republicans made when they were in the majority, Waxman will inherit even broader subpoena powers than he had the last time he chaired the committee. "The most difficult thing," Waxman says, "will be to pick and choose."
Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.)
>The Sierra Club doesn't see eye to eye with Dingell on issues connected to his state's powerful automotive industry. But there's plenty more for this master of congressional oversight to dig into as incoming chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Hearings are expected on the Bush administration's efforts to weaken the Superfund program and the Clean Air Act, as well as on Vice President Dick Cheney's secret 2001 meetings with energy executives. Like Representative Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Dingell wants to find out how the oil industry got to drill public lands tax free. "If you lift the lid on that one," Dingell predicts, "you'll find some bad smells."
Representative Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.)
Cyclists nationwide rejoiced when they heard that the new head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is one of their own. Oberstar is an avid cyclist and Washington, D.C.'s strongest bike advocate. He'll now be in a position to influence the upcoming federal transportation bill, the prime vehicle for funding for bike paths, bike safety, and other measures to boost alternative transportation. (Two other members of the congressional peloton, Oregon representatives Earl Blumenauer [D] and Peter DeFazio [D], will chair key transportation subcommittees.) Oberstar's committee is also expected to tackle clean water and pipeline safety issues. --P.R.
Last December, the Interior Department proposed listing polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. That should spur significant attention to the plight of the bears, which have resorted to energy-sapping open-water swimming and cannibalism as the ice pack they depend on recedes. It could also signal a shift in the Bush administration's approach to climate change: For the first time, the feds are acknowledging that global warming is driving the extinction of a species. (See "Decoder," November/December 2005.)
Late last year, a federal appeals court in San Francisco halved the $5 billion in punitive damages levied against ExxonMobil after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. In 1994, an Anchorage, Alaska, jury had awarded the amount to 34,000 fishermen and other residents following the 11 million-gallon spill. The appeals court ruled that the punitive damages were out of proportion to the $287 million Exxon was fined in general damages to compensate for actual harm done. The oil conglomerate has argued that it should pay no more than $25 million in punitive damages. In 2005, it earned $36.1 billion, the highest ever by a U.S. corporation. (See "Pick Your Poison" at sierraclub.org/sierra/ pickyourpoison and "The Day the Water Died" at sierraclub.org/tv.)
VALLE VIDAL SAVED
Flip-flopping we love: Last December, President George W. Bush signed
a measure to protect the 102,000-acre Valle Vidal in New Mexico's Carson National Forest from natural-gas drilling. This was a total about-face for his administration, which had intervened to support El Paso Corporation's 2004 bid to drill as many as 500 wells. The move was opposed by hunters, ranchers, environmentalists, and the Boy Scouts, whose Philmont Scout Ranch is adjacent to the valley coveted by the Houston-based natural-gas company. (See "Thirty-Hour Valley," March/April 2005.)
Bling to Die For Feds take action on lead toys
Last February, the parents of a four-year-old boy brought their son to a Minneapolis emergency room because he had been vomiting for several days. Forty-eight hours later, after a series of seizures and emergency surgeries, the boy died. An autopsy identified the culprit: a silver heart stamped with the Reebok logo that the child had swallowed. The trinket was part of a bracelet that had come with a pair of sneakers and was 99 percent lead.
Incidents like this have drawn attention to the dangers of lead-containing toy jewelry, which can cause brain damage simply by being handled. A 2004 University of North Carolina at Asheville study found that a mere 20 seconds of daily contact with lead jewelry was enough to lower a child's IQ by two points. Since 2004 there have been 14 recalls of 160,000 pieces of the deadly bling, much of it sold in vending machines and dollar stores.
Last December, in response to a Sierra Club petition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission began a process to limit lead in children's jewelry to 0.06 percent by weight. The move came after the EPA, which has no regulations covering lead in toy jewelry, rejected a similar Club petition. The Club sued the agency last September in hopes of forcing it to stop the sale and production of the toxic baubles.
"It's crazy to sell toys made out of material known to be very harmful to children," says Jessica Frohman, who chairs the Club's National Toxics Committee. "American families really need the EPA to work together with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to get toxic toys off store shelves and out of vending machines. Without both agencies doing what they can, moms and dads will be fighting this problem with one hand tied behind their backs." --Dashka Slater
Hybrid Helpers Cities promote the next generation of cleaner cars
George W. Bush looks down the road to an era when hydrogen-powered cars travel U.S. highways, but municipal officials are looking at the dirty skies above them right now and choosing a different path. A coalition championed by Austin and more than a dozen other cities is promoting the development of "plug-in" hybrids: gas-electric vehicles with large batteries that can be recharged overnight.
These hopped-up hybrids can travel up to 60 miles without needing a boost from their gasoline engines--which is plenty for typical stop-and-go city driving and most commutes. According to the EPA, fuel combustion by motor vehicles accounts for more than half of the country's air pollution, and local officials see the plug-in hybrid as a tool for meeting ever-tightening urban-air-quality standards.
Plug-In Partners (pluginpartners.org) has broad support. Electric utilities welcome the market that would be created by vehicles recharged at night, when power is plentiful and cheap. So far, 170 energy utilities have signed on to the effort. National-security hawks see the next-stage hybrids as an antidote to foreign-oil entanglements. (Former CIA director James Woolsey quipped that the coalition consists of "tree huggers, do-gooders, sod busters, cheap hawks, and evangelicals.") Consumers should like the plug-ins too. Prototypes get 80 to 100 miles per gallon at a cost equivalent to 70 cents per gallon.
Only automakers need convincing. Most are wary of electric vehicles in general and the cost of larger batteries in particular. But Toyota, Ford, and GM say they will develop the vehicles (GM's design is purported to attain the equivalent of 100 mpg, but its batteries don't exist yet), while DaimlerChrysler has developed a prototype hybrid van. To give them a boost, Austin has pledged to purchase 600 plug-in hybrids for city fleets as soon as they're available.
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Peter Hoey, Josef Gast
Photo of Representative Henry Waxman by Hillary Schwab