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“A Cudgel For The Oil Industry”: Chevron’s Lobbyist Now Runs The Congressional Science Committee

For Chevron, the second-largest oil company in the country with $26.2 billion in annual profits, it helps to have friends in high places. With little fanfare, one of Chevron’s top lobbyists, Stephen Sayle, has become a senior staff member of the House Committee on Science, the standing congressional committee charged with “maintaining our scientific and technical leadership in the world.”

Throughout much of 2013, Sayle was the chief executive officer of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, a lobbying firm retained by Chevron to influence Congress. For fees that total $320,000 a year, Sayle and his team lobbied on a range of energy-related issues, including implementation of EPA rules under the Clean Air Act, regulation of ozone standards, as well as “Congressional and agency oversight related to offshore oil, natural gas development and oil spills.”

Sayle’s ethics disclosure, obtained by Republic Report, shows that he was paid $500,000 by Chevron’s lobbying firm before taking his current gig atop the Science Committee.

In recent months, the House Science Committee has become a cudgel for the oil industry, issuing subpoenas and holding hearings to demonize efforts to improve the environment. Some of the work by the committee reflect the lobbying priorities of Chevron.

In December, the Science Committee, now chaired by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), held yet another hearing to try to discredit manmade global warming. In August, the committee issued the first subpoena in twenty-one years, demanding “all the raw data from a number of federally funded studies linking air pollution to disease.”

Though Chevron has gone to great lengths to advertise a lofty environmental record, the company continues to break air pollution laws while quietly backpedalling on its prior commitments to renewable energy. A Bloomberg News investigation reported that Chevron estimated that its biofuel investments would return only 5 percent in profits, a far cry from the 15 percent to which the oil giant is accustomed, and quietly moved to shelve renewable fuel units of the company. In California, Chevron is battling the newly created cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution. And in states across the country, Chevron has lobbied and provided financial support to a range of right-wing nonprofits dedicated to repealing carbon-cutting regulations, including the low-carbon fuel standard.

Earlier this year, Dow Lohnes’ lobbying practice merged with Levick, a public affairs firm.

 

By: Lee Fang, The Nation, February 21, 2014: This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

February 23, 2014 Posted by | Big Oil, Congress, Environment | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Let The Public Beware”: Is Fracking Causing Earthquakes?

In Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and other states, people who have rarely experienced earthquakes in the past are getting used to them as a fairly common phenomenon. This dramatic uptick in tremors is related to drilling for oil and natural gas, several reports find. And the growing popularity of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is in part to blame.

Between 1970 and 2000, there was an average of 20 earthquakes per year within the central and eastern United States. Between 2010 and 2013, there was an average of more than 100 earthquakes annually. A United States Geological Survey released last month summarized research on man-made earthquakes conducted by one of the agency’s geophysicists:

USGS scientists have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells. Much of this wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed for this purpose.

So, the actual hydraulic fracturing process itself is not to blame in these cases; instead, it’s the injection of wastewater into deep wells that accompanies it.

Hydraulic fracturing produces a higher volume of wastewater than traditional drilling — as the name implies, drillers use millions of gallons of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to break apart rock and release gas trapped in pockets in the earth. The wastewater generated is often contaminated with salt or poisonous chemicals, and environmental regulations bar drilling companies from allowing it to mix with drinking water; oftentimes, the most economical way for these companies to  dispose of it is to sequester it deep in the ground, below aquifers. Once there, it changes pressure underground and lubricates fault lines, with the potential effect of causing earthquakes.

In both Texas and Oklahoma, the number of earthquakes per year has increased ten-fold. And wells storing wastewater from fracking have also been linked to hundreds of earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio.

Studies last year found that the largest quake ever recorded in Oklahoma — which was felt 800 miles away in Milwaukee, Wis., damaged 14 homes, injured two people and buckled a highway — could be linked to wastewater injection. Damage from the quake, which measured 5.6 on the Richter scale, “would be much worse if it were to happen in a more densely populated area,” the USGS wrote.

And as quakes increase in frequency, residents of Oklahoma and Texas are taking notice. More noticeable than the shaking, for many, is the noise these quakes make: a loud boom, like artillery fire.

In the Netherlands, where the Groningen gas field lies, quakes have also become more frequent, increasing from about 20 each year before 2011 to an average of one per week. Shell and Exxon Mobile, active in the gas field, set aside $130 million to strengthen buildings as the quakes increased in severity. But residents of the area worried that a 4-or-5 magnitude earthquake –the likelihood of which, experts warned, is increasing — would threaten the integrity of the country’s dikes, which protect the low-lying northern Netherlands.

Last month, the country’s government decided to scale back production of natural gas on the Groningen field, foregoing one billion euros a year by 2016, even as the country struggles to cope with the European Union’s deficit reduction targets.

But similar reductions in the US are unlikely. The oil and gas industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in both Texas and Oklahoma, and natural gas has become widely popular among electric utilities for its low cost.

 

By: John Light, Bill Moyers Blog, February 14, 2014

February 17, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Fracking | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“You Don’t Need To Be A Scientist”: West Virginia Can’t Get Its Story Straight On The Chemical Spill

Over the weekend, West Virginia authorities lifted the last remaining tap-water ban in effect since a January 9 chemical spill at the Freedom Industries plant in Charleston contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people. But in a press conference Monday, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin hardly inspired confidence that the water was safe to drink, saying, “It’s your decision” to choose to drink the water and “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe.” Tomblin, a Democrat, later added, “It’s a very complicated issue. I’m not a scientist, you know.”

There’s the problem. Scientists don’t know much, either, about the leaked chemical, “crude MCHM,” and on Tuesday a Tomblin spokeswoman confirmed that a second chemical, a modified form of PPH, also leaked into the water during the spill. The Center for Disease Control insists that 1-part-per-millon or less of crude MCHM isn’t harmful, but adds, “Due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system…. Few studies on this specialized chemical exist and most have been conducted on animals.” The CDC reported that toxicologic information on PPH is also limited but does “not suggest any new health concerns.”

This is little comfort to #aquapocalypse victims whose tap water still smells like licorice, despite following a U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Register (ATSDR) recommendation that they flush their plumbing systems until the odor goes away. Dr. Paul F. Ziemkiewicz of the West Virginia Water Research Institute explained to me that crude MCHM is a surfactant that lowers the surface tension between a liquid and a solid—in this case, water and coal. It’s a detergent of sorts, cleaning coal by separating it from non-burnable (and thus non-usable) mined substances such as shale. Because crude MCHM is only slightly soluble in—and lighter than—water, it is possible that traces of the chemical could settle at the top of water tanks in homes, continuing to contaminate its contents even after households have flushed their plumbing system. Little is known, too, about PPH, which made up five percent of the leaked tank’s total capacity. According to the Charleston Gazette, “A Freedom Industries data sheet on the chemical says it can irritate the eyes and skin and is harmful if swallowed. The sheet lists the material as less lethal than Crude MCHM but also says no data are available on its long-term health effects.”

With the state sending mixed messages, West Virginians affected by the spill are hoping scientists can provide more clarity on the chemicals. “The governor has closed the book on this disaster,” said Rob Goodwin, an activist in Charleston, “and it’s unfortunate because the disaster relief aid as it was, especially in rural areas, is going to stop because the state is no longer seeing this as an emergency anymore.” Goodwin thinks that in the absence of a regulatory standard, the least the state and the water supplier, West Virginia American Water, could do is clarify and expand the flushing instructions. (Goodwin advises draining hot water heaters completely and minimizing exposure by leaving the home during the process.) But the state has confused even this relatively simple matter. West Virginia authorities rejected ATSDR’s flushing advice, and when asked about it Monday, Tomblin said, “I’m not aware that we did. I have not seen that.”

No wonder there’s still “a big demand” for the bottled water being trucked in by FEMA—a supply that, according to the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, is only expected to last through the weekend.

 

By: Claire Carusillo, The New Republic, January 22, 2014

January 24, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Public Health | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Culture Of Privatization And Deregulation”: West Virginia Spill, Where “Regulation” Is A Dirty Word, Shady Businesses Flourish

Asked about the spill of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into a West Virginia river – a disaster that shut down schools and businesses, sent hundreds of residents seeking medical treatment and left an estimated 300,000 Mountain Staters without potable water – Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters that he is “entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people.”

Others weren’t as sanguine. “We have a culture of deregulation – regulation has been turned into a dirty word down here,” says Russell Mokhiber, the West Virginia-based editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter. “Both the Democratic and Republican parties are complicit,” he told Moyers & Company.“The chemical and coal industries have a stranglehold on most institutions in the state. The political situation is locked up.”

Jennifer Sass, a lecturer in environmental health at George Washington University told The New York Times, “West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider EPA interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk.”

A 2009 investigation by the Times found that “hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia had violated pollution laws without paying fines.”

Current and former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection employees said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization; a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promised to try harder; and a revolving door of regulators who left for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.

But this isn’t just a story of anti-regulatory zeal – and the price hundreds of thousands of West Virginians paid for it. As new details emerge about Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the leak, it’s becoming clear that it’s also a tale of how shady businesses can prosper in an environment where regulatory capture by an industry is so deeply entrenched.

Even the history of Freedom Industries is murky. It was co-founded in 1992 by Carl Kennedy and Gary Southern — who during a Friday press conference sipped bottled water and told reporters that he’d had a really trying day. Southern had been president but the firm’s website now lists Dennis Farrell, a college friend of Kennedy’s (with whom he also opened a sports bar in 2002), as president instead. As Businessweek put it, “That clearly needs sorting out.” According to The Charleston Gazette, Southern is also the president of Enviromine, “which makes products to help remediate environmental problems from mining.”

Kennedy may or may not remain with the company; according to The Gazette, he’s still listed on documents the firm filed with the Secretary of State’s office, but a woman who answered the phone at the company said he was no longer with Freedom Industries.

That may be a distinction without a difference. Only weeks ago, the firm merged with several others: Etowah River Terminal, Poca Blending and Crete Technologies. According to The Gazette, in 2007, Kennedy claimed to have stakes in both Etowah River Terminal and Poca Blending. Prior to the merger, these companies already had complementary operations in the Kanawha Valley, known as “Chemical Valley.”

Carl Kennedy’s history reads like that of a character in an Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen novel. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to selling between 10 and 12 ounces of cocaine in a case that would lead to the federal prosecution of then-Charleston Mayor Mike Roark, a former prosecutor himself who, according to The New York Times, “was once nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ for his zeal in fighting drug abuse.” He was charged with 30 counts of cocaine possession.

The Gazette’s David Gutman reports that in the early 2000s, when Kennedy was the accountant for Freedom Industries, Poca Blending and New River Chemical Co., he pled guilty to withholding $1 million in taxes from employees’ paychecks and pocketing it rather than sending it to Uncle Sam. He also owed $200,000 in unpaid state taxes. Sentenced to three years in prison, Kennedy got his time cut in half “after he cooperated with authorities by making controlled cocaine buys and wearing a wire in conversations with a former business associate.”

In 2005, Etowah River Terminal lost its license for failing to file an annual report. It was resurrected in 2011, according to The Gazette.

Despite Kennedy’s reluctance to send tax dollars to Washington, in 2009 Freedom Industries was happy to accept stimulus funds which helped the company stay afloat. David Gutman recalled that “sand, silt and mud had built up in the river, making it difficult for barges to travel the 2.5 miles from the company’s river terminal to the Elk’s confluence with the Kanawha.”

The company was in deep trouble until the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the waterway, thanks to a $400,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. “It could’ve put us out of business,” Dennis Farrell told the Charleston Daily Mail. “At some point we wouldn’t have been economically fit to run the facility. That’s our claim to fame: the barges.”

Questionable Response

Last week, Gary Southern told reporters that Freedom Industries’ employees had discovered the spill, but that claim was contradicted by reports that officials from the state’s Environmental Protection Agency found it independently after nearby residents complained of a suspicious odor.

According to the Daily Mail, a team of inspectors visited the facility this week, and issued five violations for poor maintenance and operations, insufficient employee training and reporting, and storing chemicals in an above-ground tank without a secondary containment wall.

As The New York Times noted, “lawmakers have yet to explain why the storage facility was allowed to sit on the river and so close to a water treatment plant that is the largest in the state.” The facility hasn’t been inspected since 1991 because, unlike other states, West Virginia requires it only of chemical manufacturers and emitters, not storage facilities.

According to The Gazette, in 2010, experts from the US Chemical Safety Board asked the state to create a new program to prevent accidents and releases in Chemical Valley. Those recommendations followed a 2008 fatal explosion at a Bayer Chemicals plant. They were ignored.

The chemical released last week, 4-methylcyclohexane methane, isn’t classified as a hazardous material, which under state law would have required the leak to be reported within 15 minutes. The Daily Mail reported that “a different legislative rule states a facility must give ‘immediate’ notice of a spill, but leaves it up to the head of the [state’s Department of Environmental Protection] to determine what ‘immediate’ means in each case.”

The chemical’s classification as non-hazardous may also explain why state officials didn’t have an emergency response plan in place, despite the facility’s close proximity to a major water supply.

That 4-methylcyclohexane methane isn’t considered hazardous doesn’t mean it’s safe. Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Mother Jones that little is known about its potential effects in humans. According to Denison, studies have found the substance to be lethal in rats at high doses, but it’s impossible to extrapolate from those data how humans might respond to smaller quantities of the chemical.

Today, many West Virginia residents are angry that they had no idea of the hazards posed by the storage facility. Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told The Huffington Post, “No one seemed to be aware or care that this dangerous chemical was upstream from our largest drinking water intake in the state. It was a recipe for disaster.” The same chemicals are stored in above ground tanks across the state, but it’s difficult for public health and environmental activists to know where.

That’s why Russell Mokhiber cautions against focusing too much on Freedom Industries itself. “It’s really not about an individual corporation,” he said. “It’s a question of why the state has allowed the chemical and coal industry to get away with this. Because however you slice it, you see privatization and deregulation at the heart of these kinds of cases.”

 

By: James Holland, Bill Moyer’s Blog, January 16, 2014

January 19, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Public Safety | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Achieving Conservative Objectives:” Behold The Paradigm, Roberts Court Cloaks Its Activism In Complexity

To understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s order on greenhouse-gas regulations, I had to read it three times — and I’m a law professor. The complication isn’t a coincidence. It’s the very essence of the imprint that Chief Justice John Roberts is putting on the court.

As its ninth term clicks into gear, the Roberts court has finally developed something like an identity of its own. It avoids highly activist conservative headlines that would drive Democrats to the polls. At the same time, behind a screen of legal complexity, it achieves significant conservative objectives.

The court’s health care decision is an obvious recent example: Roberts cast the deciding vote to uphold mandatory coverage, enraging conservatives and encouraging liberals. But by striking down the provision that pressured states to extend Medicaid, the court gutted the universal coverage that was the Affordable Care Act’s ethical ideal.

The regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions bids fair to produce a similarly confusing result. The court had been asked to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that upheld Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gases that are the Barack Obama administration’s most significant accomplishments for environmental protection. The court declined to review — and thus left in place — the regulations on motor-vehicle emissions. It also chose not to review the basic question of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Environmentalists cheered this result.

At the same time, however, the court agreed to review a single, wildly technical-sounding question: “Whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.” What this question asks in English, roughly speaking, is whether the EPA was allowed to issue emissions regulations governing factories and power plants under the authority of the law that lets it regulate cars and trucks. And what that means in practical terms is that the court could strike down the Obama EPA’s existing greenhouse-gas regulations for the nonmoving (“stationary”) polluters who create much of the pollution that drives global warming.

Behold the Roberts paradigm! Or don’t behold it: The hand is quicker than the eye. The headline allows environmental regulation to stand. The fine print suggests that the most important part of the existing regulations enacted by the Obama administration could be ditched.

And, remarkably enough, environmentalists are buying into the shell game as well. Some experts hastened to explain that, even if the Roberts court were to strike down the stationary-source regulations on the grounds that they were not authorized by laws permitting regulation of motor vehicles, there would still be other ways under the Clean Air Act to enact such rules. The court’s decision to hear the case, they implied, shouldn’t worry environmentalists too much.

The experts’ observation is technically correct but could prove too optimistic. The administration plans to enact different regulations covering coal-fired power plants, under different authority. But if the court were to strike down the existing stationary-source regulations in June 2014, significant uncertainty will result. The court’s reasoning, which cannot be foreseen, could potentially call into question other types of regulation. The litigation surrounding the planned regulations — and believe me, there’ll be litigation — will have to take into account the court’s reasoning, whatever it may be. The apparently narrow question to be addressed doesn’t guarantee a holding acoustically sealed off from regulations under different authority.

Coincidentally, the energy producers and manufacturers who make up the stationary-source polluters form a concentrated interest group. They will lobby to fight the new regulations, no doubt using the argument that greenhouse gases have already been significantly cut by regulating drivers. And, of course, drivers’ interests are more diffuse, so (surprise!) their lobbying power is weaker. They are, in short, perfect patsies to take the regulatory hit.

All this adds up to an extremely sophisticated strategy for the justices who agreed to take the case. Even if they strike down the regulations, they will be doing so on the highly technical basis that the EPA relied on the wrong source of authority. Environmentalists will focus the public’s attention on enacting new regulation, thereby distracting the public from blaming the court. The whole decision will look Solomonic — upholding a part of the regulations while striking down another part — rather than like pro-business activism. The court’s legitimacy will be preserved, even strengthened.

What makes this strategy hallmark John Roberts is how markedly it differs from the approaches of the court’s other conservatives. Justice Antonin Scalia, still the intellectual leader of the conservative wing into his increasingly cantankerous mid-70s, declares his broad principles of originalism and textualism and puts them into practice, most of the time consistently. His swashbuckling decisions and clever, incisive rhetoric leave you in no doubt where he stands. You can love him or hate him (I myself feel both emotions, usually simultaneously), but you always, always know where he stands. Justice Clarence Thomas is similarly out there, lauding the virtues of the 18th century. No one could call either of these justices crafty.

In their decades on the court — each having served with Chief Justice William Rehnquist — Scalia and Thomas never managed to achieve the conservative revolution that the Ronald Reagan era promised and the Federalist Society championed. Radical — and radically consistent — they couldn’t hold the center, frequently losing the votes of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy when the chips were down. Rehnquist, equally conservative but less openly ideological, couldn’t help. As men of principle, which judges are supposed to be, Scalia and Thomas might feel a perverse pride in never winning the big ones. As men of action, they have mostly failed.

Roberts is a horse of a different color. As a former law clerk to then-Justice Rehnquist, he decided to win, even at the cost of temporarily alienating his conservative elders. His legal craft is unmatched — because if you’re the Supreme Court, it’s much better to win while appearing to lose than to lose by insisting on looking as if you’ve won.

 

By: Noah Feldman, Bloomberg View, Published in The National Memo, October 17, 2013

October 18, 2013 Posted by | Environment, John Roberts, Supreme Court | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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