Filthy Lucre Alaska's oil-happy pols are ensnared in scandal
SUITE 604 OF THE BARANOF HOTEL in Alaska's capital city, Juneau: Grainy video captures state legislators drinking with executives of VECO Corporation, the state's largest oil-field service company. Then money changes hands.
The corruption of Alaskan politics had long been suspected, but the FBI's hidden camera proved it. Last May, VECO's two top executives pleaded guilty to bribing legislators to pass a favorable oil-tax law. The unfolding scandal has tarred the state's entire congressional delegation, including Senator Ted Stevens (R)--a relentless proponent of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
VECO officials testified that they paid $243,000 in bogus "consulting fees" to Stevens's son Ben, the former president of the state senate. According to the Anchorage Daily News, the younger Stevens also collected tens of thousands of dollars from fishing companies that benefited from federal laws and funding overseen by his powerful father. VECO also supervised the extensive remodeling of a house belonging to Stevens pere, for which the company seems to have neglected to properly bill him.
The rest of the Alaska delegation isn't faring much better. Junior senator Lisa Murkowski (R) bought some prime Kenai River real estate from a developer for far below its value (returning it once the deal became public), and the Wall Street Journal and McClatchy newspapers report that veteran representative Don Young (R) is under investigation for his ties to VECO and for a $10 million earmark favoring a Florida contributor.
Yet to be determined is whether VECO was fronting for "the three big boys," as BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips are referred to on the surveillance tapes. VECO executives mention "producing" for their "clients," and a recorded phone call with the president of ConocoPhillips Alaska raises questions about how much others in the oil industry knew of VECO's bribery.
However the scandals fall out, environmentalists can actually look forward to a cleaner brand of politics emerging up north. Squeaky-clean governor Sarah Palin (R) called the legislature into special session and got a new oil-tax law that raised taxes and tightened loopholes. And a new statewide poll shows both Don Young and Ted Stevens trailing likely Democratic challengers in this year's election.
WWatch Keeping Tabs on Washington
WHAT A GAS In late December 2007, greenies were almost willing to give famously anti-environmental George W. Bush a bear hug for signing into law the first revision of vehicle fuel-efficiency standards since leisure suits were the rage. Committing the U.S. car and truck fleet to a 35-mile-per-gallon average by 2020 is considered the biggest single step the climate-challenged United States has ever taken to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions.
But Bush giveth and he taketh away: The same day, Bush's EPA refused to grant California the waiver it needs to enact a bold law mandating a 30 percent reduction in vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions. Last November, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) promised that if the waiver were turned down, he'd "sue again, and sue again, and sue again." Never underestimate a Schwarzenegger sequel: In January, 16 states, including California, sued the EPA over its decision. —Reed McManus
SLASH AND BURN Under the guise of preventing fires, a portion of the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative" has allowed the U.S. Forest Service to log 1.2 million acres of national forest without any environmental review. Last December, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals suspended the policy, agreeing with the Sierra Club that the agency failed to consider the rule's ecological impact, violating the National Environmental Policy Act. —Dashka Slater
JET BLUES Aviation is the world's fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions, and U.S. carriers produce almost half the world's aircraft exhaust, according to Greener by Design, a group formed by the United Kingdom's civil aviation community. Five states and three environmental groups want the EPA to do something about it, and they've filed petitions demanding that the agency regulate carbon dioxide emissions from planes. "This is a battering ram," says California attorney general Jerry Brown, who led the effort. "We have to keep pounding on the White House door until they finally wake up."
The driest regions of the United States stick out like angry bruises on maps prepared by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The Southwest (eight years into drought) and the Southeast (facing the driest conditions in more than a century) have garnered media attention, but nearly half the continental United States is suffering from moderate to extreme drought, according to the NOAA's National Climate Data Center. At press time, the agency was expecting 2007 to go on the books as the fifth-warmest year on record.
Explosive growth in the Sun Belt has worsened drought's effects, with the normally rainy Southeast caught particularly flat-footed. Regional water-conservation plans conceived after a drought that ended in 2002 have, for the most part, not been implemented. Historically, the arid Southwest has tended to its water issues. But a 2007 study by researchers at Columbia and Princeton Universities warns that the region's drought, which is attributable to global warming, may last at least through the rest of this century. —Reed McManus
Source: National Drought Mitigation center/USDA/NOAA
Headway on Headwaters
It's been 20 years since Texas corporate raider Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam company took over the family-owned Northern California logging firm Pacific Lumber and immediately doubled the cut in and around Headwaters Forest, California's largest unprotected groves of ancient redwoods. Today Hurwitz and Maxxam are hundreds of millions of dollars richer, and Pacific Lumber is bankrupt and mired in lawsuits. Rather than head back to Houston, Hurwitz is pursuing what Sierra Club California's forestry expert Paul Mason calls a "wildly delusional" reorganization plan that includes 22,000 acres of residential development. "He's trying to wear people down," says environmental attorney Sharon Duggan. "He gets away with it because he has more money and resources and tenacity than any government entity yet."
Happily the bankruptcy court has opened the door to other possible solutions. The Nature Conservancy, Save-the-Redwoods League, and a local community forestry team have proposed conserving the most ecologically important lands while turning the rest into a sustainable working forest. Another plan would have Pacific Lumber taken over by Mendocino Redwood, a well-run company owned by Gap cofounders Donald and Doris Fisher. The court is expected to decide Headwaters' fate in April.
Forty-four percent of the Mexican fir forests where migrating monarch butterflies take shelter have been damaged or destroyed in the past three decades, leaving the fluttering creatures vulnerable to cold and exhaustion. Now Mexican president Felipe Calderón has announced an additional $4.6 million investment in his country's 139,000-acre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The sanctuary already gets $36.4 million annually, an investment credited with reducing illegal logging by 48 percent in the past year. —Dashka Slater
Google is hunting for cheap renewable energy, and it isn't just typing those words into a search bar. The Internet powerhouse is investing millions in solar, wind, and geothermal technology, with the aim of generating a gigawatt of renewable energy that is cheaper than coal. A gigawatt is enough to power a city the size of San Francisco or three of Google's energy-sucking data centers. —D.S.
Home Heat Home
Portland, Oregon, builders hoping to erect wattage-wasting megahomes will think twice if the city goes ahead with a plan to charge a carbon fee for houses that don't exceed the energy-efficiency requirements of the city's already-strict building code. The plan offers a carrot as well as a stick: Developers whose buildings are 45 percent more efficient than the code requires would earn a cash reward. —D.S.
The United States' naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, fuels plenty of discussions, but its use of fossil fuels isn't one of them. Last November, Guantánamo purchased a biodiesel processor that will convert the base's used cooking oil into fuel. The project will prevent 18,000 gallons of oil from being sent to landfills each year. If all goes according to plan, Guantánamo's auto fleet will run on the french-fry blend by mid-year.
Up Your Alley
Chicago's 2,000 miles of alleys are being repaved with porous materials to allow rain to seep into the soil and restore the underground water table. The new pavement, made of recycled materials, also reflects heat rather than absorbing it, helping reduce energy costs during Chicago's hot summers. —L.H.
Picky, Picky, Picky The feds can't find any species in enough trouble
Like those safety notices at job sites, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can declare it "has worked 618 days [as of press time] without listing a new threatened or endangered species!"
The previous record for ignoring critters in trouble was 382 days under Ronald Reagan's reviled Interior secretary, James Watt. Current Interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne has listed zero species since replacing Gale Norton on May 26, 2006. Sneaking in just under the wire was the Hawaiian pomace fly, the last creature to win endangered status (and the mandatory federal protection it brings) on May 9, 2006.
Thus far, President George W. Bush's administration has listed only 58 species--compared with 522 under Bill Clinton and 234 under George H. W. Bush. It has also done its best to undermine the Endangered Species Act administratively, which has led to numerous lawsuits by environmentalists. To complete the circle, Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Valerie Fellows blames these lawsuits for her agency's inability to list more species, claiming that the litigation drains the department's budget. Anyway, she says, there are 280 species on the agency's "candidate" list, and "nobody's stopping any group from going out and conserving them."
As of mid-January, the agency postponed a decision on the highest-profile candidate for listing, the polar bear. While polar bear numbers are still relatively healthy, global warming is rapidly eating away at the sea ice they need to survive, and Arctic ice reached a record low last summer. The stakes are high: U.S. polar bears could be extinct by 2050 unless the Bush administration gets serious about both global warming and species protection. —Paul Rauber
About-Face Down Under Aussies address climate change at the polls
It was the world's first major election driven by global warming. Australia's November 24, 2007, vote turned into a referendum on climate change, thanks to the country's devastating six-year drought. It's considered the worst in a thousand years and threatens to shut down farming in the nation's breadbasket, the Murray-Darling River basin. Even drier times may be coming: Climate scientists forecast inland temperatures 7 to 9 degrees hotter by 2070.
The specter of global warming spooked the Australian electorate. Unfortunately for then prime minister John Howard, he was the only leader of an industrialized nation to join President George W. Bush in refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol. (Howard's response to the drought was "Pray for rain.") The economic growth for which he took credit was due in large part to the export of Australian coal to ravenous Indian power plants, and in the decade leading up to 2005, his compatriots emitted more greenhouse gases per capita than any in the world.
But Australians are having second thoughts. Last March, Sydney shut off its lights for an hour to show its concern, and last September, Al Gore toured the country promoting his movie An Inconvenient Truth. Howard refused to meet with him, saying, "I don't take policy advice from films."
Weeks later, Gore was calling Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd to congratulate him on his sweeping victory. Rudd's party committed to a 60 percent reduction in Australian carbon dioxide emissions from 2000 levels by 2050, and among his first official acts as prime minister was traveling to Bali for the United Nations Climate Change Conference and signing the Kyoto treaty. —Paul Rauber
As The World Warms Quick thinking before we slowly fry
THE MOUSE THAT ROARED "If for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way." That plea by Kevin Conrad, Papua New Guinea's negotiator at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali last December, moved a mountain. Until the eleventh hour, the United States had refused to support language that called on rich countries to provide technological help to poorer ones. The United States, the only industrialized country that has refused to cap its greenhouse-gas emissions, finally backed down, agreeing to a road map for developing a new global climate treaty by 2009. —Reed McManus
LOW-CARBON DIET Get Rush Limbaugh on the phone! It turns out that fighting global warming is good for the waistline. If every American spent 30 minutes a day walking or cycling instead of driving, the citizenry would collectively cut carbon emissions by 64 million tons and shed 3 billion pounds of excess flab, according to Paul Higgins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Trim even more by trading in that T-bone for tofu--livestock production produces 18 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization. -—Dashka Slater
EASY WAYS TO LOSE WATTS A study by McKinsey and Company, a global management-consulting firm, says that the United States could quickly cut emissions 28 percent by using existing technology to improve the efficiency of cars, buildings, and appliances and by upgrading the equipment in factories and power plants. Up-front costs would be recouped through energy savings, making the transition practically pain free. Such "low-hanging fruit" would be a first step toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, the target many scientists (and the Sierra Club) consider necessary if the world is to avoid serious climate-change impacts. —D.S.
Signs of a warming world ...
FASHION CASUALTY As the planet warms, the fashion industry is learning something polar bears already know: Thick winter coats are so 20th century. According to the New York Times, mild winters have left stores with piles of unwanted winter wear, and so apparel purveyors from Liz Claiborne to Target are hiring meteorologists and assembling "climate teams" to help them plan product lines. The result: Winter clothes are arriving at stores later, and heavy fabrics are giving way to lightweight "seasonless" clothes. —D.S.
YOUR LYIN' ICE Photos of White Chuck Glacier in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness taken in 1973 (above left) and 2006 (above right) show what a little heat can do. According to Mauri Pelto, director of the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, every one of the 47 glaciers that his project monitors is retreating or has disappeared. Writing in the Northwest Mountaineering Journal, Pelto concludes, "Prevailing conditions provide little evidence that North Cascade glaciers are close to equilibrium." —R.M.
Illustrations, from top: Victor Juhasz, Debbie Drechsler, Josef Gast; used with permission.
Photos: Neil Hinckley/NCGCP (above left), Leor Pantilat/NCGCP (above right); used with permission.