Big Time's Big Secret Why did the vice president fight to keep the public in the dark?
After years of Freedom of Information Act requests, stonewalling by the Bush administration, and finally a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and others that went all the way to the Supreme Court, this summer "a former White House official" spilled the beans on the double-super-secret advisors to the energy task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney (or "Big Time," as the president calls him).
Are you sitting down? "The review leaned heavily on oil and gas companies and on trade groups," reported the Washington Post, "many of them big contributors to the Bush campaign and the Republican Party." To be fair, on April 4, 2001, Cheney's task force did meet with 13 environmental groups—including the Sierra Club. Half of the hour-long meeting was taken up by introductions, and it later turned out that the task force's report had already been written at the time. Industry groups, on the other hand, met at least 40 times with the task force and its executive director, Andrew Lundquist ("Lightbulb" to President George W. Bush). A chosen few, including Enron's Kenneth Lay and BP's John Browne, had private audiences with Cheney himself.
One "environmentalist" who got a private hearing with the task force was Italia Federici of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff later used Federici and the council to win favors from her then boyfriend, Interior Department deputy secretary J. Steven Griles. Both Federici and Griles subsequently pleaded guilty to obstructing the congressional investigation of Abramoff.
On balance, the list of those advising the task force jibes exactly with its industry-friendly recommendations and the industry-friendly energy bill passed by Congress in 2005. So why did Cheney go all the way to the highest court to keep the list secret?
One explanation is that when the Sierra Club first requested the information in 2001, the administration was still sensitive to portrayals of itself as wholly in the pocket of industry. Another, offered by Club senior attorney David Bookbinder, is that "this is truly a White House obsessed with secrecy for secrecy's sake." The Bush administration has drawn a veil over nearly all its workings, including secret CIA prisons and domestic surveillance. The curtain over Cheney's energy task force was only the beginning. —Paul Rauber
WWatch Keeping Tabs on Washington
TAINTED LOVE Thirteen percent of the food Americans eat is imported, much of it from China, but the Food and Drug Administration inspects less than one percent of it. That doesn't trouble FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, who wants to close 7 of the agency's 13 field labs, despite a rash of contamination scandals that include plastic in pet food, antifreeze solvents in toothpaste, and illegal antibiotics in fish. So far the plan has been thwarted by Congress, which refuses to go along.
POLICE INACTION By law, at least 200 EPA criminal investigators should be on the beat, going after the nation's worst polluters with guns and badges. But while the agency's enforcement budget keeps going up, the number of its cops has fallen to 174, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. Not surprisingly, the number of investigations is declining too, perhaps because EPA administrator Stephen Johnson likes to pull agents off their cases—so they can serve as his personal bodyguards.
POWER PARTNERS Taking a cue from the European Union, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico have agreed to work together to develop and promote new energy resources. Those resources range from attractive but unproven alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells and biomass to more dubious technologies like nuclear and "clean coal." The three countries are also working to create uniform energy-efficiency standards for consumer products, including standby modes that would reduce the power consumption of computers.
BEYOND POLLUTED The EPA wants to "virtually eliminate" pollution from the Great Lakes, or so it claims. But when Indiana gave BP permission to dump 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more toxic sludge into Lake Michigan, the EPA gave the plan the thumbs-up. "We want to work collaboratively with companies, including BP and others, to ... improve the condition of the Great Lakes," Administrator Stephen Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has a different definition of "improve"—he's vowed to fight the plan.
Derricks for Dollars
What does the oil and gas industry get for its contributions of nearly $8.5 million to U.S. senators and $29 million to representatives in recent years? The Center for American Progress Action Fund compared the industry's campaign contributions with the Senate's vote to block an energy tax package in June and the House of Representatives' passage of a similar bill in August. At stake is $16 billion in tax benefits. (At press time, a final energy bill had not been negotiated.)
The average contribution to the 35 senators who voted with Big Oil was $161,382 between 2002 and '07, while the 58 senators who voted against it received $56,942. In the House, the average haul of legislators who voted with the energy lobby was $109,277 between 1989 and 2006, while those who voted against its interests got $26,277.
Here's a look at Capitol Hill's top oil beneficiaries. All but two voted to keep Big Oil well lubricated with subsidies. —Reed McManus
This just in: Everglades National Park has been saved! It may not look that way to the untrained eye, though. More than half of the historic "river of grass" has fallen victim to development, 90 percent of the park's wading-bird population has vanished, and an ambitious $20 billion, multidecade restoration plan announced in 2000 has languished because the federal government failed to kick in its share, leaving the endeavor behind schedule and over budget.
But that's no reason to be glum, according to the Bush administration. In June, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Todd Willens convinced UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to remove the Everglades from its list of endangered places, where it has been since 1993. Willens's assessment ran counter to the opinion of the National Park Service, as well as the committee's own panel of scientists.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) argues that the Everglades' removal is just another example of the Bush administration putting politics before science. "This action is absolutely unacceptable," he wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, "and, I believe, warrants Willens's removal. —Dashka Slater
Editor's note: "Sustainable Crustaceans" noted that Wal-Mart is selling certified sustainably farmed shrimp. However, since no internationally recognized standards currently exist for aquaculture sustainability, we have removed the item.
Faced with an affordable-housing crisis, the United Kingdom plans to build five carbon-neutral "eco-towns" of 5,000 to 20,000 homes. Each town will be powered by wind or solar energy and will be designed to encourage car-free living and minimize water use. They will be the first new towns built in 40 years, but Housing Minister Yvette Cooper wants them to be commonplace before long. As of 2016, all of the country's new homes will be required to be carbon neutral.
The Real Thing?
Last year 76 billion gallons of water went into the production of Coca-Cola and sister beverages like Sprite and Fanta, leading to protests in India, where villagers have accused the company of depleting the groundwater that feeds local wells. Now Coke is promising to mend its thirsty ways, developing more-water-efficient manufacturing techniques and donating $20 million to the World Wildlife Federation to conserve seven freshwater river basins around the world.
The United Nations Environment Programme has launched a new effort to protect the diversity of the world's plants and animals. Backed by $8.8 million in funding, it will develop concrete indicators for assessing progress in reducing the rate of extinctions by 2010. The European Union and 189 countries have agreed to the goal, but measuring success has been difficult. Right now one in four mammals, one in three amphibians, and one in eight birds is in danger of extinction. —Dashka Slater
As The World Warms Quick thinking before we slowly fry
ZRO W8NG Starting next summer, residents of Ontario, Canada, who drive low-emission vehicles can get tinted license plates that entitle them to park for free and use carpool lanes. Provincial officials figure that the sight of a green-plated auto whizzing past in an uncluttered lane might persuade envious drivers to opt for a hybrid instead of a Hummer. The green plates are part of a new transportation package that also includes $15 million to encourage businesses to adopt fuel-efficient technologies.
SOLAR SELLS Up to 6,000 acres of the Mojave Desert will be decorated with bright, shiny mirrors by 2011, part of a solar project that will generate 553 megawatts of electricity annually for California consumers, or enough juice to power 400,000 homes. Utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company has signed on to buy the sunny megawatts, spurred by a state mandate that requires California to get one-fifth of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Unlike familiar rooftop solar panels, the Mojave facility will use arrays of mirrors assembled in troughs that concentrate the heat of the desert sun, producing steam to drive a turbine. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, utility-scale "concentrated solar" plants generate the lowest-cost solar power available today.
OFFSET YOUR SINS If your conscience prickles after every mall spending spree, GE Money's Earth Rewards credit card offers a balm. Instead of flight miles, users get rebates in the form of carbon offsets—money invested in reforestation efforts and projects that capture methane from landfills and coal mines. Some naysayers argue that the best thing we can do for the earth is to consume less. But how many eco-points have they racked up on their credit cards?
KANGAROUTE Already the world's driest inhabited continent, Australia is expected to be hit especially hard by global warming. That's why the country's conservation officials are creating an ambitious escape route for its wildlife. The 1,740-mile corridor will connect the tropical north with Oz's snowy southern alps, allowing wildlife to migrate to cooler pastures as their habitat heats up.
SIGNED ON THE DOTTED LINE Coca-Cola, DuPont, Fuji Xerox, and Lego are among the 123 large companies that have signed the "Caring for Climate" letter issued by the Global Compact, a United Nations-sponsored network of businesses committed to reducing their carbon footprints and to working with government and industry to build a low-carbon economy.
GETTING FOX TO FACE FACTS In April, Home Depot launched Eco Options, a marketing program designed to steer customers to environmentally friendly products like front-loading washing machines. A few months later, a coalition of environmental, religious, and activist groups began pressuring the DIY giant to choose an eco-option of its own: The coalition, Fox Attacks, wants Home Depot to pull its advertising dollars from Fox News, which continues to portray global warming as a hoax. For more information, go to foxattacks.com. —Dashka Slater
Undead! Environmentalism lives, despite one book's obit
Three years ago, political consultants Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger tossed a rhetorical grenade by arguing that environmentalists' "doomsday discourse" was like Martin Luther King Jr. trying to inspire a civil rights movement by declaring "I have a nightmare." As far as the authors were concerned, it was RIP, environmentalism.
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility is their attempt to flesh out the obituary and envision a more capable successor. Environmentalism isn't dead, of course; heightened awareness of Earth's rising thermostat has given the movement a shot of adrenaline. But while the prognosis was overly dire, the diagnosis merits attention.
Activists need to see prosperity and security as prerequisites for, not impediments to, environmental concern. And mainstream groups, including the Sierra Club, should reexamine their timidity in the face of hard choices—such as the Club's initial decision to remain "actively neutral" in the controversy over a proposed wind farm off Cape Cod. A movement that can't abide mussing the horizon off Nantucket, the authors argue, is unlikely to help China find alternatives to burning all its coal. (The Club now supports the wind project.)
Sadly, Nordhaus and Shellenberger's prescriptions are less compelling. Many are tangled in thickets of jargon ("The pre-political institutions that secular self-creators might join will almost certainly be more network-centric than hierarchical"). Others are contradictory—decrying, for example, environmentalism's nostalgic streak while wistfully invoking Alexis de Tocqueville's America.
Too bad, because the crux of the authors' message is dead-on: Environmentalism really does need leaders who, confronted by an uncertain and foreboding future, inspire us to imagine a better one. —reviewed by Pat Joseph
Creating Criminals Mix lead and kids, wait 20 years
The prospect of a generation of dumber kids wasn't enough to get the Bush administration to lower the "acceptable" amount of lead in children's blood. So how about a generation of dumber and criminally violent kids?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current "level of concern" for lead in children's blood is ten micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl), even though a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that kids with that blood level had IQ scores seven points below those with a lead level of one mcg/dl. Now a study by economist Rick Nevin in the journal Environmental Research suggests a strong association between lead in the blood of preschoolers and violent crime rates two decades on. Spikes in environmental lead levels—such as when it was added to household paint in the early 20th century and to gasoline post–World War II—match neatly with subsequent spikes in crime. When lead levels go down, such as when leaded gas was banned in the 1970s, so do crime levels several decades later.
Herbert Needleman, a child psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, also found that lead levels in youths who had been arrested were four times higher than those of other high school students. "The important point is that this is biologically based," says Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Lead is a neurotoxin that affects developing brains, causing impulsiveness and aggression. Reducing childhood exposure, she says, "would have a high social payoff."
Where is lead coming from today? Chipping and deteriorating paint in older homes remains a major source, although it is being rivaled by toys from China with lead-based paint. Still, Congress has yet to ban it from children's products—an omission that, given the stakes, seems almost criminal.
Affluence and Effluents Prosperity brings out the Eurotrash
Europe is thriving these days, thanks to the breakup of the communist bloc and the expansion of the 27-nation European Union, which now controls 30 percent of the world's economy. But the prosperity flowing from high-fashion Milan, high-finance London, and high-tech Munich is pounding the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Black, Baltic, and Mediterranean Seas, according to an EU-sponsored study by the European Lifestyles and Marine Ecosystems project.
Higher incomes, for example, mean that Europeans can enjoy more fish and meat. While overfishing's impact on the ocean is obvious, the impact of eating beef is less so. But as meat consumption increases, so does the agricultural production of animal feed, which leads to fertilizer runoff into rivers and high nitrogen loads in the seas, prompting algae blooms.
With consumption up, more goods travel by ship—a spike that has increased the need to dredge and exacerbated marine pollution and the spread of invasive species carried in bilgewater. Affluence has also led to the discharge of chemicals from "lifestyle" products into wastewater systems. These are the synthetic chemicals found in consumer products like cosmetics, paints, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October) And new resorts and second homes along the Mediterranean are increasing damage to coastal habitats.
So has Europe's rising affluence done anything beneficial for its oceans? Concern about pollution of the North Sea has sent some of the continent's dirtiest industries abroad to the developing world, but that's hardly a cause for celebration. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the European Union has the wherewithal—and now the information—to act. —Dashka Slater
Illustrations, from top: Joel Castillo, Debbie Drechsler, Peter Hoey; used with permission.