Nel's New Day

February 28, 2014

Conflict of Interest, in the Eye of the Beholder

When is a conflict of interest not a conflict? Today it’s when the State Department says it isn’t. After the agency hired the Environmental Resources Management (ERM) as its consulting firm to review environmental effects of the Keystone XL pipeline, people complained about the connections of the consulting firm, but the agency’s inspector general investigated and found—no problem!

The State Department’s has again reported that the environmental impact study commissioned to ERM regarding the trans-country pipeline found no significant climate impacts. That’s the study from a company listing TransCanada as a client just a year before the Keystone contract while telling the State Department that it had been at least five years since ERM worked with the company building the pipeline. ERM didn’t mention that one of its divisions, ERM West, worked with TransCanada on the Alaska Pipeline Project until last summer—after ERM was hired to write the report.

Until the State Department was asked about the conflict of interest, ERM didn’t say anything about its bidding for contracts in Canada that could include two new TransCanada projects. As recently as 2010, ERM was part of a lobbying group, the International Carbon Black Association, that a subsidiary (Cancarb) of TransCanada owns—a company that includes major Keystone XL proponents and potential beneficiaries. ERM also failed to identify its membership in several trade organizations that support the pipeline, including the Western Energy Alliance, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.

ERM must have understood its conflict of interest when the firm suddenly removed the names of subcontractors formerly working on TransCanada projects from its website. Later the names reappeared without their affiliations to TransCanada.

Although ERM was paid to prepare the environmental impact report, another firm, one that is outright owned by a tar sands developer, actually did the assessment. Jacobs Engineering’s most recent contract was with Canadian oil sands leader Suncor.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) has asked the Government Accountability Office to do a separate investigation into State’s process for vetting contractors, and he says the GAO is planning to act on his request. He added that the inspector general’s report focused on “whether the State Department followed its own flawed process for selecting a third-party contractor. The fact that the answer is ‘yes’ doesn’t address any outstanding concerns about the integrity of ERM’s work, the State Department’s in-house ability to evaluate its quality or whether the process itself needs to be reformed.”

Supporters of the Keystone XL think that it will solve their dual needs for jobs and low-cost energy. The short film “Keystone PipeLIES Exposed” explains how the Keystone XL project fails to do either one. Big business has highly inflated the number of jobs created, and most of the smaller number of jobs disappears after construction ends. Even with a rosy view, the State Department concluded that 3,900 direct jobs would be created during pipeline construction; at its completion, there would be 35 permanent and 15 temporary jobs.

The pipeline would most likely increase fuel prices in the United States while generating no taxes from TransCanada after it files a “Master Limited Partnership.” Tar sands oil shipped to the Midwest current sells for about $70 per barrel, much less than the $100 a barrel possible on the open market. As the map shows, the oil will move through the U.S., be refined, and then ship off to the international market which has a higher yield than in this country.

pipeline

The United States gets higher fuel prices and almost no jobs, but it does get leaking pipelines across the country that destroy the nation’s water, especially in the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater supply in the middle of the country. As the leaks devastate the U.S. agriculture, taxpayers pay to clean up the spills because tar sands oil is exempt from corporations having to pay into the oil spill liability trust fund.

In its environmental impact, the State Department certified that the pipeline’s additional carbon emissions would be the equivalent of an additional 300,000 cars on the road. The contractor most closely linked to TransCanada reported, however, that this was negligible because TransCanada wouldn’t stop drilling.

So who benefits from the United States destroying its food supply, water, and environment? China, according to Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). Now that the Chinese have our manufacturing jobs, they need raw materials and energy. Canada is the most stable country to provide energy, and people in the United States might be willing to let the oil pass through our country into China—all with no benefits for anyone in the U.S. China annually imports about $50 billion in goods from the United States and exports about $350 billion in mostly manufactured goods to the United States. Each year, China also buys about $300 billion in U.S. assets, mostly U.S. Treasuries.

China has put about $30 billion of the trade surplus into Canadian tar sands. All the oil that passes through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has to be sold in the U.S., but the Keystone XL Pipeline is permitted a tax-free zone to provide Chinese energy independence. The Koch brothers, who own the refineries, benefit; the people of the United States don’t.

If people in the United States were intelligent and far-seeing, we would keep the environment clean and sell food to China when they can no longer grow it. Their air pollution is so bad that it is like a nuclear winter. The slowing photosynthesis in plants may greatly decrease the possibility of growing food. This week’s smog in Beijing and large parts of six northern provinces is so bad that the PM 2.5 particles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs. A safe level is 25. Flights are grounded, highways are closed, and tourists are kept at home. Air pollutants adhering to greenhouse surfaces have cut the light inside by 50 percent.

Buildings are seen through thick haze in Guangzhou

In a first for China, a man in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province near Beijing, is suing the local environmental protection bureau for failing to rein in the smog. Li Guixin is also asking for compensation because of economic losses.

The Keystone XL pipeline has received publicity because it goes from one country to another, requiring presidential approval. Within the United States, however, pipeline construction is not inhibited in the same way. In the five years since the first TransCanada application, the 589-mile Flanagan South, moving through about 1,950 wetlands and waterways including the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, has been approved because of a loophole allowing companies to fast-track pipeline projects and bypass environmental protection laws. About half the length of Keystone XL, Flanagan South carries tar sands and Bakken crude from Pontiac (IL) to Cushing (OK).

FlanaganSouth

Although each part of the pipeline could not exist without the rest of it, the Army Corps of Engineers allowed each water crossing to be separate for the purpose of permits, thus avoiding any environmental review. A federal judge who heard a lawsuit last week will decide within the next few weeks whether the Sierra Club’s claims have merit. The same loophole was used on the southern half of Keystone XL, which began shipping oil last month despite the pipelines’ leaks.

Enbridge, the company in charge of Flanagan South, was responsible for the 1,000,000-gallon spill in July 2010 when tar sands crude went into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Oil is still being removed from the area after Enbridge missed its EPA deadline to finish cleanup by the end of 2013.

Even conservative Nebraskans understand the danger of pipelines crossing lands vital for agriculture and water. After Gov. Dave Heineman approved the Keystone XL route through the state, a judge struck down his decision because it forced landowners to sell their property. Lancaster County Judge Stephanie Stacy ruled that only the state Public Service Commission can give TransCanada eminent domain powers. The commission was created in the 1890s to stop governors from giving political favors to railroad executives.

Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, said,”TransCanada learned a hard lesson today: Never underestimate the power of family farmers and ranchers protecting their land and water.” We need more Jane Kleebs to protect land and water across the United States.

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February 27, 2014

LGBT Rights v. Religion

For an entire week, the nation’s media was obsessed about Arizona’s bill that would let everyone in the state do anything they wanted as long as they said it was because of religion. The bill went to Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday, and many Republicans—including three legislators who voted in favor of it—asked her to veto it. Last night she did. According to her speech about the veto, she didn’t want to divide the state so she denied the right-wing groups their wish.

Using political-speak rather than reason, she said her veto was to stop a divide. And of course, the wacko right got very divided–against Brewer:

Fox network Tucker Carlson maintained that requiring people to provide service to everyone is “fascism.” [For those lacking a dictionary, fascism is an authoritarian nationalism that has a veneration of the state and devotion to a strong leader and invokes the primacy of the state.]

Another Fox network host, Todd Starnes, tweeted: “AZ Gov. Jan Brewer makes Christians in her state second-class citizens.”

 A tweet from Rich Lowry of the National Review: “The Brewer veto shows that poorly informed hysteria works.” He skipped the fact that the loudest protests against the bill came from the business community, usually allied with conservatives.

President of Tea Party Nation, Judson Phillips: “Tyranny is on the march!” And my favorite, the veto means that bakers will be forced to sell cakes with “a giant phallic symbol on it” or cakes with another “shape of genitalia.”

Michele Bachmann claimed that Brewer “eviscerated free speech.”

According to Brewer’s speech, she is comfortable that Arizona law protects religious people from discrimination. There was no mention of the state’s discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing, hospital visitation, education, health care, marriage. While claiming that people in her state didn’t suffer from religious discrimination, she still managed to figuratively shake her finger at President Obama by blaming him for the concerns in the state.

Logic tells us that protecting LGBT people had no relationship to Brewer’s decision: it was purely business.

brewersuperbowlap-638x461

 

The NFL threatened to pull the 2015 Super Bowl in Glendale (AZ), and a number of large companies had said that they would either not expand or even come to the state with SB1062. Even now, Arizona may take a hit as Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton suggested. He said, “The negative national and international publicity that our state has already received — it sends a message that our state is not a warm, welcoming place.” The Hispanic National Bar Assocation has already pulled its 2015 national convention.

Another reason for Brewer to veto the bill is highly personal. She became governor after then-governor Janet Napolitano was tapped for the director of the Department of Homeland Security. Her win a year later seemed unlikely until she signed into law the discriminatory anti-immigrant profiling bill. Her GOP opposition dissipated, and she defeated long-time Democratic icon AG Terry Goddard. The state constitution limits governors to two terms, but Brewer has always maintained that she has served only one term. Thus far, eight GOP gubernatorial candidates have signed up for the primary. Some believe that her vetoing the bill indicates she won’t be running, yet her action has gained her support from some of the most powerful GOP leaders both inside and outside Arizona.

Although Arizona got massive publicity from passing its bill in the legislature,  a similar bill was already passed in the Mississippi Senate—with no hoop-la. After the Arizona debacle, Democrats are backing off, such as Sen. David Blount who said he didn’t know that the bill to change the state seal included discrimination. The 2.5-page bill clearly stated that the religious right would discriminate; the following one-page provision added “In God We Trust” to the state seal. Blount added that no one else knew the bill was discriminatory. The debate on the floor did concern issues such as people “praying facing Mecca” and religious liberty for “devil worshipping” and “voodoo.”

The bill has moved to the Judiciary B Committee. Its chair, Rep. Andy Gipson, once invoked a biblical passage asking for the death penalty for gays. If the bill passes the House, it moves to the governor, Phil Bryant, who has violated a federal order by denying spousal benefits to same-sex National Guard spouses.

Then there’s Georgia, another state that wants to get in on the discrimination action with a similar bill. The Preservation of Religious Freedoms Act would erase a law in Atlanta that protects LGBT people in lodging, housing, and employment. The shotgun approach is like that of the Arizona bill: any person or business can discriminate against anyone. Based in Atlanta, Delta Airlines is one company that has spoken out against the bill.

Georgia has tabled its “freedom act,” taking it off the calendar. Mississippi is considering a re-wording of its “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” perhaps because the state’s chamber of commerce, the Mississippi Economic Council, has issued a statement against discrimination by businesses.

The lead author of a similar bill in Oklahoma said he will re-write it, and Ohio has withdrawn its anti-LGBT legislation. Idaho Deputy AG Brian Kane told legislators that their proposed “religious freedom” bills would have constitutional problems. Kansas withdrew its bill after it passed the state House but before the Arizona bill was passed. In Maine, both legislative chambers voted down a bill similar to that in Arizona. Tennessee’s bill suffered serious backlash from the business community and disappeared, as did one in South Dakota. A state representative has filed an Arizona bill in Missouri. In all, 13 states have introduced so-called religious anti-LGBT bills in less than two months.

Oregon is unique in the discrimination game. Instead of a legislative bill, the proposed measure for the 2014 ballot comes from a religious group that claims it only wants to protect businesses from having to provide services at a same-sex wedding or commitment ceremony. In order for the initiative to be on the ballot, the group must collect 116,284 valid signatures by July 5, and signature-gatherers can’t begin until the state AG determines a 15-word title for the ballot. A measure to overturn the constitutional ban on marriage equality in Oregon has already obtained over 160,000 signatures.

Many people in Oregon think that the initiatives attempting to discriminate against LGBT people in the state actually benefited the community. Threatened by the far-right in the 1990s, lesbians and gays came out of the closet to fight the measures, created alliances, and increased support by becoming visible. One of the men who pushed anti-LGBT laws in Oregon, Scott Lively, left the state and moved his mission to other countries, including Russia and Uganda where LGBT people can be physically abused and sent to prison with the sanction of the government.

The large number of big businesses that opposed the Arizona bill is also a positive affirmation of LGBT people. A solar company fired Jack Burkman as its lobbyist after he said he would push for legislation to stop the NFL from having gay players. Meanwhile, federal courts continue to rule in favor of marriage equality, the most recent Texas. This map shows the status of marriage equality in separate states—at least today! 

map of states marriage equalityUsing religion to justify bigotry is not new. Segregationists used the same argument, often in the U.S. Congress. As late as the 1970s, Bob Jones University excluded blacks and then let them enroll if they were married. When they allowed unmarried blacks to attend the religious school, they prohibited interracial relationships, trying to keep federal subsidies by claiming that their racism came from religious beliefs. The Supreme Court finally struck down the argument of using religious beliefs for racial discrimination. As the court decided, religious liberty is important, but it should not be allowed to eradicate the rights of others. 

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February 26, 2014

What the Do-Nothing U.S. House Is Up To

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 9:26 PM
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Wouldn’t it be nice if Congress helped people—create jobs by improving the infrastructure, keep families together by not sending small children back to Mexico when they don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, etc.  But in the U.S. House, Republicans have announced that they are through legislating until after the 114th Congress arrives in 2015.

Rep. Todd Young (R-IN) hasn’t quit yet. He’s introduced a bill with the optimistic name of “Save American Workers Act” designed to change the definition of “full-time” from 30 hours to 40 hours a week in the Affordable Care Act. Young thinks that corporations that have more than 50 employees are cutting their hours below 30 hours a week to avoid paying health insurance on them. Although there has been no large-scale shift in hours, Young maintains that companies shouldn’t have to pay health insurance for employees working 39 hours a week or less.

The Congressional Budget Office has weighed in on the bill’s effects. Making “full-term” 40 hours would kick about one million people off health insurance. Some of them might find Medicaid in the states that provide this or be able to pay less for insurance through the marketplace tax credits, but almost 500,000 wouldn’t fit into these categories. Another impact would be a $73-billion cost to the government over a ten-year period, adding this amount to the deficit.

Young’s bill had 208 co-sponsors in the House—at least before CBO came out with its numbers.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has decided to again question Lois Lerner, former IRS official, who was already interrogated about the myth that the agency audits targeted Tea Party groups. Congress came up with nothing the last time. The FBI came up with nothing. Journalists came up with nothing. House GOP members have paid $14 million in their attempt to create a scandal that wasn’t. A letter from the IRS reports that 255 IRS workers spent 97,542 hours responding to congressional investigations. It also stated that the $14 million didn’t include work by the offices of Legislative Affairs, Public Affairs, Human Capital, and the Executive Secretariat.

This is the background of the investigation costing $14 million. After over 5,000 applications for 501(c)(4) status swamped the IRS within the two years after SCOTUS’s ruling in Citizens United, the agency was falsely accused of giving “heightened scrutiny … to non-profit applications from Tea Party-affiliated groups.” Before this decision, organizations had to report who gave money and how much. After Citizens United, 501(c)(4) organizations could keep all donors secret as long as the groups claimed to be at least a little bit for “social welfare.”

The Revenue Act of 1913, the law that covered this situation before Citizens United,” required that earnings be “devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.” In 1959, the IRS adopted a new regulation by adding that this “exclusively” devotion be also “primarily engaged.” Thus Citizens United went with “primarily” which morphed into “somewhat” or “a little bit.”

In June 2013, the Inspector General for Tax Administration sorted out 298 cases of the 5,000 political organizations, none of which was denied 501(c)(4) status. Of these, 96 were identified by “Tea Party,” “9/12,” or “Patriots.” Thus fewer than one-third of the identified cases appeared to be right-wing groups. All of these groups are violating IRS regulation because of the “devoted exclusively” part of the policy.

Today the House voted 243-176 to pass Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI)’s bill to block any new IRS regulations and make it illegal for the administration to follow the law. “Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act of 2014” would keep the IRS from defining political activities for “social welfare” groups. Fourteen Democrats joined all 229 to vote for the measure.

Camp used the First Amendment in his bill, calling on free speech rights that have nothing to do with 501(c)(4) groups. No regulations prevent the people in these organizations from saying whatever they want with the usual restrictions. The tax-exempt status of organizations is a government subsidy; political campaigning in secret does not receive these subsidies. Up from $1 million in 2006, one-fourth of the $1 billion spent in 2012 came from these groups, some of it illegally provided by foreign donations.

Not satisfied with attempting to ignore existing law by controlling IRS regulations, Camp has released a monumental tax reform plan of almost 1,000 pages. His actions go against the wishes of party leaders who consider—correctly—that this overhaul will endanger the GOP in an election year. One of the most vivid parts of Camp’s plan is his slaughtering the sacred cows of deductions for home mortgage interest and carried-interest tax breaks for hedge fund managers. Deductions for state and local taxes also disappear in the plan. Credit unions would keep their tax exemptions. Banks would gain a tax, but only 0.035 percent.

On the side of the wealthy, the proposal lowers the corporate rate to 25 percent, whacking off 2 percent each year for five years. Taxation on most offshore income that corporations have stashed away would also be limited.

As Politico wrote, the proposal “includes something to offend seemingly everyone: manufacturers, the poor, Wall Street banks, governors and deficit hawks.”

I’m with Kevin Drum when he writes about the nuggets in the long document that make for fun reading.

 

  • It’s highly specific: One of the deductions to be dropped is “preventing makers of violent video games from qualifying for the R&D tax credit.”
  • The language doesn’t always sound like a Republican: The plan makes references to “Wall Street tycoons” and proposes to end tax breaks that allow university presidents to live tax free in mansions.
  • The cuts go across the board: On the one side, he cuts the Earned Income Tax Credit; on the other he wants to get rid of the NFL’s tax exemption on their annual $9 billion take.

 

The House also passed a bill yesterday allowing owners of cell phones to unlock them for personal use but not for resale. It looks as if the House has pretty much quit—at least for now.

They should look at Michigan to see a legislature that passes bills. The extreme GOP legislature has joined with the state’s right-wing governor, Rick Snyder, to pass the emergency manager law allowing the governor to replace any elected official with his own man, the so-called “right to work” law that passed after voters were locked out of the capitol, the “rape insurance” bill requiring women to purchase this insurance separately from other health insurance, and the fanatic anti-abortion legislation. The most recent bill, that gives every indication of passing is a daily $1,000 fine for picketing workers. Any labor organization leading or organizing a strike will be fined $10,000 a day.

Since the GOP took over, Michigan has joined the South in poverty. Its average income ranked 35th in the nation in 2012. Personal income between 2000 and 2010 increased 18.5 percent compared to 45.2 percent for the United States, a state growth that ranked 50th out of 50 states over a 30-year period.

This is what the United States could become if the Republicans take over as they did in Michigan.

February 25, 2014

People Changing the World

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 5:19 PM

Three years this month, protesters from Wisconsin started the highly visible pushback against legislative efforts destroy all public-employee unions. Newly elected GOP governor Scott Walker’s attempt to eradicate most actions of all public-employee unions except law enforcement and firefighters led to massive protests at the state capitol. Thousands of people stayed there 24/7 for months with signs describing their distress at Walker’s determination to give all the state’s power and wealth to corporations and the rich. My partner’s all-time favorite sign came in a pair: a man’s sign stating, “Support Walker” and his sister’s sign with an arrow pointing to her brother and stating, “I’m with stupid.”

Wisconsin farmers held a “tractorcade,” a parade to support these unions. The state failed to reinstate the unions’ power although neighboring Ohio failed to erase public-employee unions after a ballot initiative gave the power back to the middle class.

This month, VW workers in Chattanooga (TN) voted against unionizing after state and federal officials threatened to remove financial incentives from the plant if employees formed a union. Labor relations experts believe that Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) comments about these incentives before the vote could be against federal labor law, yet he continues to repeat the threats.

The South may have lost any other VW plants. The German “co-determination” model mandates that all large German companies have works councils connecting employees to management. After the U.S. vote, the head of Volkswagen’s works council told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the automaker would hesitate to expand in the U.S. South. Bernd Osterloh added that they would be unlikely to build “another plant in the right-to-work South.” He blamed conservative lawmakers for influencing the vote through misleading VW employees, an “unfair labor practice.”

Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) announced that she doesn’t want to give people jobs in factories where employees can belong to unions:

“South Carolina is glad to have non-union jobs from BMW, Michelin and Boeing, but don’t expect any factories from Ford, General Motors, Chrysler or other companies with unionized work forces.”

Haley claims that companies in South Carolina take care of their employees, but workers in the state rank 44th out of 50 states for income.

Protesting continues. The Wisconsin Uprising was followed by international protests against the effects of an unjust economy and increased poverty from austerity and lower taxes for the wealthy. After the Middle East Arab Spring and European Indignado movements came Occupy, beginning on Wall Street before it spread around the planet.

One of Occupy’s issues was shifting political power from the wealthy to the public with programs that benefit communities in the need for shelter, food, education, healthcare, and income. Launched last week, It’s Our Economy plans to advance the growing movement for economic democracy.

During the 20th century, U.S. government used public funding to establish infrastructure such as roads and communication devices; protection of land, water, and air; knowledge and technology; etc. Conservative leadership changed this increasing success into stagnation with large numbers of people dropping out of the labor, record poverty and lowered incomes, and the divide between the few  rich and the rest of the people. Lawmakers continually cut the social safety net and refuse to re-build the infrastructure and economy while costs of food, shelter, healthcare, and energy grow at a faster pace than inflation.

It’s Our Economy uses five human rights principles as the foundation for healthy institutions:

  • Universality: Everyone must be afforded human rights.
  • Equity: Everyone is entitled to the same access to services and public goods.
  • Accountability: Human rights should be enforced through mechanisms.
  • Transparency: Government institutions must be open and provide the public with information on the decision-making processes.
  • Participation: People need to be empowered to participate in the decision-making process.

In communities with “buy local” programs, local businesses grow three times as fast as in other communities and report a 75-percent increase in customer traffic. The average food in the United States is likely to have traveled 2,000 miles before being eaten. Two programs to change that:

  • Our Harvest: Developed from a 2009 agreement between the United Steelworkers and the Mondragon Co-op, this provides local foods and good jobs in union co-operatives.
  • CropMobster: Local farmers, producers and food purveyors with excess food to sell or donate have an instant-alert service with communities in need. In the participating dozen counties, including the greater San Francisco Bay area, over 4,000 participants and hundreds of farmers and small food businesses have saved over 300,000 pounds of food in one year.

Ongoing disasters show the high risk in maintaining enough drinking water: the West Virginia chemical spill, the North Carolina coal slurry spills, and the fracking and broken pipelines in a number of states, to name a few.

After one small chemical company destroyed usable water for over 16 percent of the people in the state, however, the majority of the West Virginia’s residents now say they would vote for a candidate who wants stronger environmental regulations and has no ties to the coal industry even if the state loses jobs. Seventy percent of those responding to the poll are afraid that more disasters will occur without stronger protections.

People are working on alternatives to the bipartisan push, led by President Obama, to support big oil, gas, coal, and nuclear energy without cutting back to a carbon-free, nuclear-free economy. In South Dakota, over 80 landowners have dedicated almost 20,000 acres to building the largest wind farm in the state that can increase South Dakota’s wind energy output by 50 percent. More people are employed by solar energy companies than by oil and coal combined.

The push for a raise in the minimum wage is already being echoed by some corporations. In addition, the growing movement for worker-owned cooperatives allows employees to share the wealth traditionally sent on to huge corporations that pay their CEOs exorbitant salaries and conceal their earnings in tax-free shelters. WinCo now operates 93 employee-owned stores in seven states with almost 15,000 employees who have a health plan with dental and vision as well as a pension plan. Its low prices make WinCo a growing competitor for Walmart with its bad wages, healthcare, and employee policies.

Other businesses are redefining corporate charters, adding the purpose of providing public benefits rather than profits to investors. Twenty states plus the District of Columbia allow companies to legally register as benefit corporations; 16 more states are considering legislation to allow this practice. Delaware, home to half the U.S. corporations and two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, has a B Corp. law to protect these companies from lawsuits by shareholders for not maximizing profit. The law also gives shareholders the right to sue the corporation for failing to optimize its social mission.

More changes can be found at PopularResistance.org and ItsOurEconomy.us

With its philosophy that people should not be enslaved to big banks, StrikeDebt is organizing a nationwide debt resistance. One project is to buy debts for pennies on the dollar and then abolish the debt rather than collect it. Thus far, they have raised $701,317 that has erased $14,734,569.87 of debt.

The project, known as the Rolling Jubilee, comes from Jewish, Christian, and Islam traditions. A jubilee is an event in which all debts are canceled and everyone in bondage is set free. Iceland held a jubilee—although not in that name—when the country canceled a percentage of mortgage debt in 2008 rather than bailing out the banks. As StrikeDebt wrote, it’s a “bailout of the 99% by the 99%.”

Also on the StrikeDebt website is a manual for those in debt with extremely concrete and specific suggestions on solutions.

Recently the alternative media on the internet and its readership forced more transparency surrounding the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that would have given huge corporations even more power. The “fast track” method that would have passed TPP quickly and in secretly has now stalled, and participants are forced to reveal some of their machinations.

Human rights, local community involvement, transparency, equity, living wages—these are important parts of a democratic society.

February 24, 2014

SCOTUS Refuses Gun Cases; Irresponsible ‘Good Guys’

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, allowing wealthy people to buy political legislators and judges. Almost a year ago, the court ruled in favor of the LGBT community but against voters’ rights. Today, they rejected two petitions from the NRA about gun rights, showing that they are waiting out the Second Amendment issue—at least for now. The NRA is not happy.

SCOTUS has issued only one ruling on the Second Amendment since its decision almost six years ago that the U.S. Constitution gives individuals the right to have a gun. After the court expanded the Second Amendment beyond federal laws to state and local gun control laws a few years ago, they have stayed silent. That’s what happened today.

Both the petitions that SCOTUS refused had to do with young people from 18 to 20 years old. In one of them, the NRA tried to legalize the sale of handguns to these youth, and the other case challenged Texas laws barring the same people from obtaining license for open carry outside their homes. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals banned members of that age bracket to Second Amendment protections because SCOTUS ruled that only “responsible” people have gun rights.

A third case that SCOTUS refused was against a 1968 law banning all interstate gun sales except by federally-licensed gun dealers. Lane v. Holder tried to get SCOTUS to determine if gun buyers have a legal right to challenge this law. The NRA is still not happy.

 SCOTUS did hear a case last month about the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban which prevents people convicted of DV from owning or possessing a gun. In U.S. v. Castleman, the argument is whether the law applies to Castleman because his conviction does not state whether he used physical force against the victim. Most local jurisdictions resolve misdemeanor domestic violence cases under assault and battery statutes and do not indicate whether physical force was used. The court decision will be issued by early this summer.

In the United States, three women are killed every day by domestic violence. If abusers were re-armed, this number would most likely increase. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other high-income countries, and victims of domestic violence who live in homes with guns have an eight-fold increase in homicide risk.

Facebook is one place where teens are buying guns because of lax background check laws. A 15-year-old student in Kentucky who bought a 9mm automatic pistol from an Ohio man last October took the gun to his homecoming football game because he wanted to be “cool.” Frederick Stiltner was indicted last week for the crime, but Facebook has not stopped advertising gun sales.

Another reason for mandating universal background checks comes from this recent study in Missouri. In 2007, the state repealed the requirement for background checks except for federally-licensed dealers, permitting private sales through unlicensed sellers without any checks. Since that time, an average of 60 more people have been killed by firearms every year. This 23-percent increase occurs at a time when the overall murder rate in the United States is down by 5 percent. Neighboring states didn’t have any spike in murders during these years, but both Illinois and Kansas experienced increases in confiscated guns from criminals who had come from Missouri. Forty percent of Missouri’s guns are recovered in a crime within two years of the original sale.

Starting in 2010, a project called Trace the Guns identified state laws and the rate of illegal guns going in and out of these states. It’s no surprise that states with the fewest gun laws  and states not requiring background checks ranked higher for the number of crime guns originating from those states. At this time, only 15 states require background checks for gun purchases from unlicensed sellers.

These are a sampling of actions by “responsible” gun owners this month:

 

  • In Arkansas, 48-year-old Willie Noble shot and killed a 15-year-old girl who was egging her friend’s car for a prank in retaliation against one done by the man’s teenage son.
  • In Florida, Marcus Leon Thompson, an off duty corrections officer, was responsible for nine injured people in a café, Shooters Waterfront, when his gun accidentally went off as he reached into his pocket for money and a valet ticket.
  • In California, 34-year-old Brent Posada shot himself with a high-powered air rifle and then told police that a black man had shot him.
  • In North Carolina, Justin Carper’s three-year-old son shot and injured his 17-month-old sister with Carper’s 9mm handgun. Carper writes a column on parenting advice for a local newspaper. A study found that handguns are responsible for more hospitalizations and in-hospital deaths than any other type of weapon.
  • In Michigan, a man shot and killed himself when he was teaching his girlfriend gun safety. He had three pistols and put them to his head, one by one. The gun went off with the third gun.

 

In January, 62-year-old Rodney Bruce Black shot and killed his new neighbor and the neighbor’s brother in West Virginia. The afternoon that they were killed, the two men were inspecting property that one of the men had just purchased. Police took a “large amount” of weapons and ammo from Black’s home.

In Indiana, Police Chief David Counceller, 60, shot himself in the leg with his own Glock handgun as he was looking at weapons in a gun store. Previously he had shot himself in the hand while he was on duty. The town mayor tried to justify Counceller’s accident last month by saying, “Apparently the Glocks don’t have the trigger safety that they should have.”

The people above would fit into NRA Wayne Pierre’s definition of a “good guy with a gun,” those people who wants to protect the U.S. citizens. One “good guy” is 37-year-old Marlo Ellis who was armed with a pistol in the Dollar Store in Orville (AL). When another 37-year-old, Kevin McLaughlin, came into the store and used his gun to force Ellis and a cashier towards a break room, Ellis shot and killed McLaughlin. There was no mention of robbery, just an angry argument.

The “good guy” who did the killing is facing charges of rape in the second degree and enticing a child for immoral purposes. According to court documents, Ellis picked up a girl at school and drove her to his home where he had sex with her. The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department said that they were waiting for forensics and that “there had been [past] allegations against Ellis similar to what he was charged with in this case.” Over three years ago, Ellis had been sentenced for another criminal offense. McLaughlin had no criminal record. Some pro-gun websites claimed that McLaughlin was “hunting for people to shoot.”

Alabama law may prevent law enforcement from revoking Ellis’ concealed handgun permit even with his criminal history and recent indictment for rape. Many people in the United States would agree with a statement made in 1934 by then-NRA president Karl T. Frederick: “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns.  I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

The anti-regulation people claim that there are many cases of armed citizens protecting other people. The question is how many of their cases are similar to this one. This is one of the people who Wayne Pierre calls a “good guy.”

February 22, 2014

Discrimination, Fracking, Christie, Net Neutrality, Economy

The past few days have brought more information on the following topics:

Arizona’s Discrimination Bill: In its attempt to give everyone in the state the right to discriminate against LGBT people, the legislature has passed a law that would permit discrimination for everyone. The bill, awaiting Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature by this coming Tuesday, would prevent the government from enforcing any anti-discrimination law if the refusing party claims religious reasons.

These are some ramifications in addition to those listed in yesterday’s Nels New Day:

 

  • Employers could pay men more than women—for religious reasons.
  • Legally accrued interest on liens or other amounts owed to private individuals or entities could be refused—for religious reasons.
  • Corporations could refuse to hire people from another religion—for religious reasons.

 

Four businesses, each with the potential of hiring over 1,000 people, have already said that they will not come to Arizona if the bill goes into law. That will happen if Brewer signs it or fails to veto it by this coming Tuesday. Hundreds of people protested in both Phoenix and Tucson yesterday against the measure. 

arizona protest

To the millions of people in the United States who think that fracking is just fine:

Fracking: Rex Tillerson, CEO of fracking company Exxon, wants to frack near everyone else’s property but not his own. He is part of a lawsuit to stop a 160-foot water tower next to his Texas home. The tower would supply water to a nearby fracking site. Plaintiffs—including Tillerson—argue that the proposed project would have too much noise and traffic. The CEO’s lawyer said that Tillerson is worried about his property being devalued. Acting as Exxon CEO, Tillerson has objected to opponents of fracking when he said in 2012:  “This type of dysfunctional regulation is holding back the American economic recovery, growth, and global competitiveness.” The company in charge of the water tower, Cross Timbers Water Supply Corporation, claims to be exempt from zoning laws because it’s a public utility. It’s a massive case of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard).

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: Once again, the GOP governor under fire has lost federal money for his state, this time $7.67 million after he reversed his opinion about setting up a state health insurance exchange. The state applied and received the grant two years ago. A year later, Christie announced that they would accept a federal insurance marketplace. Last Thursday was the deadline for the state to submit an acceptable plan for using the grant money, including marketing or expanding outreach. The state missed the deadline, keeping 95,000 New Jersey residents uninsured. Conservatives criticized him Christie for accepting the Medicaid expansion; perhaps this hopes to appease them for a future presidential run.

Net Neutrality:  One of the few GOP women in Congress, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) wants people in the United States to pay more for internet access and allow Big Business to run a monopoly. Yesterday she introduced a bill to prevent the FCC from rewriting the agency’s rules for equal access across the nation. If she stops the FCC, internet providers can block or slow access to specific websites to increase their earnings. Ironically, it’s called the Internet Freedom Act, and Blackburn proclaims that it will “return the keys to the free market.” As usual, she describes these rules as “job-killing regulations” that “restrict our Internet freedom.”

U.S. Economy:  Most of the markers for an improving economy show that the country is improving: growth in the housing market and number of jobs; drop in energy costs; and record high corporate profits and stock market. At the same time, unemployment is too high, and wages are too low, causing the huge decrease in the middle-class share of wealth. Student loan debt is at a record high, and consumer confidence is low.

These two charts show why.

Chart 1: Availability of investment money should be making the U.S. grow faster than China. Businesses are getting more and more money with lower taxes, less regulation, tax-funded price supports, loss of unions, and free new technology.

Chart 1

 

Chart 2: Businesses are using their money to repurchase their own stocks to increase management salaries and hoard their cash and bond holdings. People buy products, and businesses stash it away while complaining that they don’t have the money to hire more people.

Chart 2 

Higher tax rates during the terms of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton increased investment. During the terms of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, investments dropped as taxes were cut.

Therefore this week the GOP wants to allow religious discrimination to everyone for everything, let “special people” avoid the problems of fracking, refuse health care to poor people, charge people more for unequal access to the internet, and allow Big Business to hoard money and kill jobs.

 

February 21, 2014

Boycotts Focus on Arizona – Again

constitution-burning-485x322Couples in at least 25 states are suing for marriage equality in their home states, federal courts are overturning discriminatory constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and a number of states are refusing to protect state anti-LGBT laws. Yet Arizona has decided to pass Senate Bill 1062 which allows anyone for any reason to refuse service to anyone if they claim they are doing so because of religious beliefs.

Last week, the bill passed the Senate with a party-line vote of 17-13. A day later, the House approved the bill with a 33-27 vote with three Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition. Democratic House Minority Leader Chad Campbell of Phoenix responded to the legislation by saying, “I’m not sure if Russia is any less progressive than Arizona now against gay rights.” He concluded, “There’s only one type of equality, and that’s equal.”

In the House, 33 members ignored Rep. Ruben Gallego when he reminded them that state is trying to attract the Super Bowl and companies like Apple and Google. “God forbid someone should come to the Super Bowl and come to a restaurant that is not going to allow them in,” he warned. “We’re saying it’s open season on gays; it’s OK to put this sign up,” he said, holding a large “No Gays Allowed” sign. The majority of the House also opposed Gallego’s bid to require businesses that refuse service to post notices at their front doors.

Like the rest of the United States, Arizona has a history of discrimination that leads to world-wide notice and boycotts. In early 1987, newly-elected Gov. Evan Mecham’s first official act was to rescind an executive order creating a Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Arizona. Originally, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) supported Mecham in his action. Among other boycotts and protests to the loss of the state holiday, the NFL took the 1993 Super Bowl away from the Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and moved it to Pasadena. Mecham was the first Arizona governor to be impeached and left office within 15 months after his conviction. In 2010, the enactment of SB 1070, a measure dealing with illegal immigration, led to boycotts and the state paying millions of dollars in lawsuits.

On the House floor, Rep. Victoria Steele talked about how Pilgrims who came to America subjugated and slaughtered the Indians in the name of religion. She also read pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem posted at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Also urging Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the bill is the ACLU of Arizona:

“Once again Arizona’s Legislature is on the wrong side of history. Four years ago, after the passage of SB 1070, we were ridiculed for legalizing discrimination against brown people. The targets today are gay and lesbian Arizonans. They own homes, run businesses and pay taxes just like everyone else but under the guise of religious freedom they are now being vilified by Arizona lawmakers. This bill is not about God or faith. There are already laws on the books in Arizona protecting religious freedom. What today’s bill does is allow private individuals and businesses to use religion to discriminate, sending a message that Arizona is intolerant and unwelcoming.”

Rep. Mark Cardenas talked about the economic impact the legislation will have, and framed the debate as Arizona suffered when it refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day. Problems go far beyond the loss of tourism. The Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC) has directed the chair of its board to send a letter to Brewer, urging her to veto the bill. This organization works with the Arizona Commerce Authority for business expansion or relocation to the state. The letter declares that such a law would “further the agenda to tarnish the business-friendly reputation we have all worked so tirelessly to build.”

Barry Broome, GPEC president and CEO, said the group has already heard from four companies that said they will look elsewhere if Senate Bill 1062 becomes law. Proposed legislation in Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Idaho was blocked after the business community objected.

Before Brewer signs the bill, she might want to consider other ramifications. Such a law could permit Sharia law in Arizona because the there is no sanctioned state religion. As the state Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar pointed out, the bill is so broad that it can permit discrimination “based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability.” The bill expands  “the definition of person to include any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.”

If the bill becomes law, anyone who does anything in the name of religion—including physical assault—will be protected. Homeowner’s associations can keep people of color from moving into their neighborhoods; minorities can be evicted from their homes if “religion” is invoked. Even cities could ban a person or group of people, if they wish. People citing religious freedom could stone unmarried, pregnant women with impunity.

pizza

Meanwhile, a Tucson pizzeria, is taking action. Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria has a window sign with that business’s discrimination—against Arizona legislators who voted for SB 1062. Owner Anthony Rocco DiGrazia said on Facebook, “The response has been overwhelming and almost all positive from across the globe. I just want to serve dinner and own and work in a place I’m proud of. Opening the door to government-sanctioned discrimination, regardless of why, is a huge step in the wrong direction. Thanks for all the support.”

pizza 2Some media outlets have questioned whether Brewer will sign the bill because she vetoed a similar one last year. Her reason for doing that was not an objection against the bill’s content; it was a vendetta against the legislators for refusing her Medicaid expansion proposal. This year, she has no such issues. We’ll know by next week: if she either signs the bill or takes no action with five days, it will become law.

 

February 20, 2014

Flush the TPP

When President Obama took office, dewy-eyed progressives believed that he might change the United States for the better. We supported his dreams and hoped of a better life. Some of his struggles during the past 5+ years have come from the racial prejudice against the black half of him. Another issue, however, is his conservative nature. As he channels presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, Democrats have started losing faith in him.

The latest opposition he faces is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that is being negotiated in secret and that the president wants “fast-tracked” before anyone finds out what it contains. Michael Froman, the U.S. top trade official, is the latest person to push the TPP onto leaders of labor, environmental, consumer, and online progressive groups.

The first cautionary fact about the TPP is that Congressional GOP leaders and big business support the Asian trade pact. The liberal faction, is unified against the trade agreement. There’s a good reason that corporations like TPP: they wrote it.

“Fast-track” means speeded-up congressional action by barring amendments, something that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is ready to do. The GOP likes lower-priced imported goods and services, but progressives worry about the loss of U.S. manufacturing and service jobs. Free-trade agreements of the past, such as NAFTA, have destroyed living wages for workers in the U.S.

While supporters claim that the TPP eliminates tariffs and boosts economic growth, the agreement, like NAFTA, allows corporations—including those in the U.S.—to circumvent any regulations and laws. Courts and Congress have no control over corporate activities. Leaked documents show that an international tribunal would have the power to overrule individual country’s legal standards and impose economic penalties on them. Corporations can go to these tribunals to sue governments for compensation claiming that regulations such as tobacco, prescription drug and environment protections undermine their business interests.

Globalization is happening, according to Froman, and it will be shaped by U.S. values or by others. The values shaping the TPP are the corporate values, the same ones that have bought politicians across the country so that huge, wealthy companies can get only bigger and richer. Froman claimed that TPP would “put labor and environmental standards at the core of trade agreements and make those standards enforceable like any commercial commitment.” Yet he is unwilling to release any concrete information that would show how this happens. Only a very few, primarily corporate executives and lobbyists, have been privy to the TPP proposals.

Although Froman tried to shut down the opposition by saying that organized labor had more access to documents and briefings, one participant called that claim “just downright silly.” The person said, “We don’t have access to the text.”

Recently, Froman offered liberal nonprofit groups access to further briefings and documents in a Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee, information already available to hundreds of corporations. Business groups have long opposed the inclusion of nonprofit organizations because it might decrease their corporate interests. Almost four years ago, Fanwood Chemical Inc. president Jim DeLisi said:

“Exports are created by business, investments are created by business, and good, high-paying jobs are created by businesses. The key point of this whole system is to be sure that the [government] negotiators understand the needs of businesses.”

One meeting participant who requested anonymity said this regarding the Huffington Post article:

“You missed my favorite Froman quote that night when he told us that based on our logic that we should all go home and just throw away our computers and get rid of automation.”

Activist and author Noam Chomsky is very clear about his opposition to the TPP:

“It’s designed to carry forward the neoliberal project to maximize profit and domination, and to set the working people in the world in competition with one another so as to lower wages to increase insecurity.”

His objection stems from the fact that the TPP contains issues outside trade, imposing new intellectual property standards abroad and boosting corporate political power. The end result of the TPP is actually undermining freedom of trade; instead it supports investor rights.

This month tens of millions of members from 550 groups signed a letter asking legislators to vote against “fast-track” authority for the negotiation between the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim nations. Another 50 groups launched StopFastTrack.com to kill the agreement that they call “NAFTA on steroids.” This story, however, may be the most uncovered one in the United States. Until last week, there was almost nothing about the TPP on broadcast or cable news shows. Now the mainstream press is reporting on President Obama talking in vague terms about how this agreement will be good for the nation.

Transcripts of six months evening news shows ending on January 31, 2014, shows not one mention of the TPP on ABC, CBS, or NBC. On PBS Newshour, one guest argued that “the TPP would improve relations with Asian nations.” [visual]

tpp_coverage 1 During the same time, only The Ed Show routinely covered the TPP on evening cable news shows. CNN mentioned it once in the six months, and the Fox network totally ignored the trade agreement. [visual]

cabletppcoverage 2

Despite the lack of information until recently, enough voters know about the TPP to oppose it. Although Boehner and other congressional GOP leaders support the agreement, a majority of conservative voters are against fast-tracking the agreement by more than two to one. The poll results match earlier surveys showing a negative view of trade agreements. One of the main reasons for opposition to the TPP is that it will drive down wages for people in the U.S. while benefiting big corporations.

Leaders involved in negotiating and promoting the TPP have gotten big bonuses from big business for their government participation. Stefan Selig, a Bank of America investment banker nominated to become the undersecretary for international trade at the Department of Commerce, received more than $9 million in bonus pay as he was nominated to join the administration in November. The bonus pay came in addition to the $5.1 million in incentive pay awarded to Selig last year.

Froman received over $4 million as part of multiple exit payments when he left CitiGroup to join the Obama administration. Froman told Senate Finance Committee members last summer that he donated approximately 75 percent of the $2.25 million bonus he received for his work in 2008 to charity. CitiGroup also gave Froman a $2 million payment in connection to his holdings in two investment funds, which was awarded “in recognition of [Froman’s] service to Citi in various capacities since 1999.”

CitiGroup pays extra retirement pay for employees who take a “full time high level position with the U.S. government or regulatory body.” That bank isn’t alone: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, the Blackstone Group, Fannie Mae, Northern Trust and Northrop Grumman are among other firms offering financial rewards for government service after retirement.

https://openmedia.ca/blog/canadian-mps-push-transparency-trans-pacific-partnership  Negotiations for the TPP are scheduled in Singapore next week, and senior legislators from seven countries are asking for transparency in the agreement. Decision-makers from Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, and Peru are demanding that the draft text is openly published before any agreement is signed.

This is a 180-degree turn from the beginning of negotiations. Five years ago, negotiators agreed that the text would not be released until negotiations were completed and any documents other than the text would be concealed until four years after the agreement is signed or after the last round of negotiations if the agreement is not finished.

The GOP members of Congress have declared that they are through for the year after they raised the debt ceiling. They will take their $174,000 salary for their less than four months of work this year with their only achievement having promised to pay the country’s already-accrued debts. If that means they don’t pass the TPP, it might be worth the almost $100 million that taxpayers are paying them for causing gridlock.

February 19, 2014

Fracking = Earthquakes?

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 9:53 PM
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Imagine living in a state that has 103 earthquakes in one weekend. That was the case in Oklahoma last weekend. Yesterday, Oklahoma had 39 earthquakes over 2.5 in magnitude with many others below that. Each year saw between 0 and 11 earthquakes of at least 2.0 in Oklahoma between 1990 and 2008; that number grew to 49 in 2009 and 180 in 2010. Yesterday there were more than three dozen in just a day. A chart of five years shows the exponential growth, with 780 earthquakes in under two months this year. And that was before the 39 yesterday.

maddow_earthquakes_ spiike

What’s the difference during the past few years? Even doubters are beginning to believe that fracking–underground explosions to free oil and gas–and the resulting waste-water disposal may be the cause. They might want to note that the growing number of earthquakes near the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport stopped a few years ago when the facility shut down fracking wells on the airport property.

These are fracking experiences across the nation:

  • Arkansas: two couples are suing two companies for causing earthquakes that damaged their homes by fracking. The complaint states that “Arkansas experienced almost as many earthquakes in years following disposal well activity than it did in the previous twenty years collectively.”
  • California: The federal government approved three new fracking jobs off the state’s shores despite concerns from state coastal regulators who can stop fracking in federal waters at least three miles offshore if the work threatens water quality closer to shore. U.S. government permits treat fracking like oil drilling.
  • Florida: This may be the latest state to have whole-sale fracking: a company has applied for a permit to frack in the middle of the Florida panthers’ Everglades habitat. The EPA will hold a hearing on the permit on March 11. Collier Resources Company owns mineral rights in 800,000 acres in the wilderness. In addition to southwest Florida, fracking companies are looking at the northwest part of the state. Although two bills before the legislature would require companies to divulge what chemicals are being used, the measures do not ask for disclosure of the amount or concentration of the chemical.
  • Kansas:  Gov. Sam Brownback has assigned a committee to study the possibility that fracking is the cause of a recent increase of earthquakes in the state. Kansas was one of five states least likely to experience earthquake damage until the state experienced a spate of tremors last fall, culminating in a 3.8 quake on December 16, 2014 near the Kansas-Oklahoma border. 
  • North Dakota:  Last week, an oil well leaked fluid and spewed oil. No one knows what chemicals are in the water because fracking companies are not required to release this information.  There is no report about whether the well is under control almost a week later.
  • Ohio: After state lawmakers approved fracking and drilling in state parks, Gov. John Kasich and state regulators began to make plans for this extraction. Allies include Halliburton, the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance.  Update on 2/20/14: Kasich has stated that he doesn’t support fracking in state parks after all. Series of events in Ohio:

*Kasich opened up state parks and forests to fracking.

* Kasich’s team met to discuss a marketing plan to promote fracking on public lands.

* Kasich’s spokesperson said the governor’s office didn’t know about the plan.

* Kasich’s spokesperson concedes the governor’s office did know about the plan.
* Kasich announces he’s not for fracking in state parks and forests after all.
 Democrats have called for an investigation into Kasich’s actions.
  • Pennsylvania: On February 11, a Chevron natural gas well exploded in Greene County, killing one person and injuring another. Chevron’s fracking well exploded, killing one person and injuring another. A massive blaze caused by the explosion spread to another well and burned for over a week, sending smoke and noxious fumes across the community. Referring to the disaster as an “incident,” Chevron gave each householder a gift certificate for a large pizza, hoping that this mollify them. Certificates expire in less than three months.

The fracking companies wield great power. Since October 21, one Pennsylvania opponent, 63-year-old Vera Scroggins, is legally barred from 312.5 square miles that Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation owns or leases. That means she cannot go to the county hospital, animal shelter, recycling center, shops, and lake shore. Cabot was not required to identify or map lands of its drilling leases. Her peaceful and legal protests included taking Yoko Ono to frack sites to elevate public concerns about fracking.

  • Texas: Although the EPA dropped an inquiry last year into a claim of contaminated water in Parker County, the agency relied on tests done by the driller. Independent research from Texas Duke University has discovered high levels of methane in the county’s wells, exceeding the federal minimum safety level.

In the Barnett Shale area, the small town of Azle is fighting back against the fracking and waste-water disposal that has resulted in cracked foundations, sinkholes, and reduced property values after over 30 earthquakes have hit the area in the past three months. Dissatisfied with response from the state, a busload of residents went to Austin to a meeting of the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator.

U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Dr. William Ellsworth tried to claim correlation but not causation. He noted last summer than that rate of quakes of 3.0 and over in the central and eastern U.S. had multiplied to about 100 a year during 2010 to 2013 and coincided with the increase in fracking. A shutdown of disposal wells has ended the earthquakes.

Most of the current fracking in the U.S. occurs in areas suffering the greatest from drought, usually Colorado and Texas. Water use for almost 40,000 wells from January 2011 to March 2013 was 97 billion gallons of water. California has called on Gov. Jerry Brown to suspend fracking during the state’s record-breaking drought.

More than property values are at risk because of fracking proximity. A study released in early February shows that children born within a 10-mile radius of fracking sites have a greater chance of having congenital heart defects (CHD). The research studied 124,842 rural Colorado births from 1996 to 2009. In Colorado, 26 percent of the over 47,000 oil and gas wells are within 150 to 1000 feet of a home or other building for human occupancy. Researchers reported that their analysis was restrict to rural towns of under 50,000 with less potential for other pollution sources such as traffic, congestion, and industry.

According to the study:

“Studies in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Oklahoma have demonstrated that natural gas development (NGD) results in emission of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from either the well itself or from associated drilling processes or related infrastructure, i.e., drilling muds, hydraulic fracturing fluids, tanks containing waste water and liquid hydrocarbons, diesel engines, compressor stations, dehydrators and pipelines.

“Some of these pollutants [e.g., toluene, xylenes, and benzene] are suspected teratogens or mutagens and are known to cross the placenta, raising the possibility of fetal exposure to these and other pollutants resulting from NGD. Currently, there are few studies on the effects of air pollution or NGD on birth outcomes.”

In Pennsylvania, a study shows that proximity to fracking wells has a correlation with lower birth weight. Water pollution does not seem to be related; researchers are wondering about the air pollution of fracking as a potential cause. Over 15 million people in the United States live within one mile of a fracking well.

There is at least one recent victory. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-2 in December that the zoning provisions of Act 13 are unconstitutional. The 2012 act amended an existing Oil and Gas Act by destroying local zoning control over fracking and other oil and gas drilling. Companies could frack 24 hours a day anywhere they wanted.

Thanks to the court decision, state municipalities can use the same land use authority over fracking that they do for all other industrial activities. The beauty of the decision is that the court wrote that people have the “right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” It keeps the state legislature from imposing new zoning laws surrounding fracking. Other states have a number of home rule cases similar to this; Pennsylvania has set a precedent.

Vera Scroggins is appealing her banishment from her community. Maybe she will win too.

February 18, 2014

Stop Cable Monopolies; Keep Net-Neutrality

Once upon a time, having television transmission meant having three networks—sometimes four—that appeared on a small screen because of two pieces of metal, or “rabbit ears,” sticking up from the TV. Some people got the image through an artistic metal sculpture on the roof. No matter what, it was free for viewers. In 1976, however, Ted Turner figured out how to make money through his own network, and since then, the number of these has geometrically expanded. Now almost everyone with television pays cable providers for networks chosen by these providers.

Although the United States outlaws corporate monopolies and mergers that block competition, cable providers have that monopoly. Almost all rural areas have no choice of provider; people who want television take whatever is offered.

The largest provider and majority owner of NBC and MSNBC, is Comcast. It’s also the largest media company in the world. In 2013, it took in $64.67 billion, generating $13.6 billion in operating income and $7.1 billion in net profits. Comcast is about to get much larger by buying the second biggest provider, Time Warner Cable, for $45 billion. Millions of people in the United States buy access to the World Wide Web through these two companies, about to become just one.

As Thom Hartmann commented, regarding the proposed merger and last month’s court decision striking down net-neutrality rules, “American consumers could get screwed.”

To keep companies like Comcast and Time Warner from slowing or charging for access to specific websites, the FCC tried to establish “net-neutrality” rules. Without these rules, basic internet service could be $29.95 per month, but accessing any websites would cost more by “packaging” websites just like cable providers do with TV channels.

cost net neutrality

A merger of Comcast and Time Warner would negatively impact service and cost for not only television and the internet but also telephones. The corporations’ bandwidth is already better than the phone company DSL lines except where other providers have installed fiber lines, a process that has come to a halt. Om Malik, founder of the GigaOm technology news company, wrote that cable consolidation in this century “is all about broadband,” which has high profit margins and doesn’t have to deal with Hollywood.

The primary advantage of a monopoly is to “drive up costs and reduce choices for consumers,” which is what Jodie Griffin, senior staff attorney of consumer rights group Public Knowledge, said Comcast will most likely do. She added that the power of the new company would make it a “gatekeeper” capable of “throttling competition.”

When Comcast took over NBC Universal in 2011, it promised a commitment to net neutrality, at least until the end of 2017. Yet it began to slow the speed of Universal’s competitor Netflix below speeds on other internet service providers. Comcast also refused to put Bloomberg Television with its own finance channel CNBC in its cable lineup.

Competition is supposed to bring prices down. The bundling “triple-play” plan of telephone, internet, and telephone starts at $30 dollars per month in Switzerland. Unlimited broadband in Britain starts at $25 per month. For televisions built since 2008, a digital television service called Freeview that provides more than sixty television channels, about thirty radio channels, and about a dozen streaming Internet channels is just that—free to view.

A few facts about Comcast which is the “worst company” list with Time Warner:

  • Comcast overpromises while it underdelivers, yet CEO Brian Roberts blames the customers for complaining.
  • Business media like the fact that Comcast is a monopoly. Forbes praised the company for succeeding “by providing less customer service.”
  • Comcast’s predatory pricing will most likely become worse. The company’s monthly costs is already four times more than companies in Europe before it announced a $1.50 “broadcast TV fee” this year. Because Comcast owns NBC, the company can charge double for its content, such as the coverage of the Olympics. The fee will provide viewers more commercials, especially during reruns of old TV series.
  • Comcast has a well-known contempt for customers. For example, the company has earned additional billions because it disables fast-forwarding through commercials and refuses Netflix access to the best-quality video streaming.
  • Comcast is planning “capped broadband,” charging people by how much data goes into their homes. This allows them to raise prices in “uncompetitive” rural media markets.
  • Comcast blames its users for predatory pricing by saying that “most people” don’t use that much data. The company claims that sneaking in usage caps is the “fairest” way to ensure that data hogs don’t use up all the internet.
  • Comcast falsely claims that people in the United States don’t want faster broadband. The far cheaper European monthly packages, for example France’s cost of between 20 to 40 percent cost of that in the United States, are ten times faster download and 20 times faster upload than broadband in the U.S. East Asia is also far superior to that in the U.S.
  • Comcast also claims that its customers don’t want alternatives, saying that Google’s $30 per month offer of one-gigabit per second connection on a fiber-optic line isn’t necessary. Comcast caps data which stops the speed boost that Google could offer.

The proposed merger and net neutrality means that all data—internet, television, and phone—going into the home is controlled by one company that has a history of playing favorites. The Federal Communications and the Department of Justice will make the decision, and the cable industry has far more clout than We the People. After the FCC approved Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, Comcast hired FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have also vacationed at Comcast CEO Roberts’ Martha Vineyard home.

We need to keep protesting the illegal merger in an attempt to keep the huge corporations from enriching the few at the expense of the many. Tim Fernholz is optimistic—at least this time around:

“Consider that Comcast won’t have to pay a break-up fee to Time Warner if the deal fails. It’s unusual for a deal of this magnitude to lack such insurance, which the orchestrators say is a sign of confidence. But a simpler explanation may be that they fear the deal will fail, and don’t want to be on the hook for the loss.”

We need to stop both the mergers of the monopolies and the end to net-neutrality.

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