Nel's New Day

May 22, 2015

California’s Oil Spill, Drought–A Predictor

As California suffers from the fifth year of the worst drought in 1200 years, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency after a faulty oil pipeline spilled a minimum of 105,000 gallons of the crude on a pristine beach north of Santa Barbara. The black sludge was pouring through the pipeline at 84,000 gallons an hour before the 24-inch pipeline diverted the oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours.

The disaster, barely a week after the Obama Administration gave conditional approval for drilling the Arctic Ocean, caused closure of local fisheries and local beaches as well as killing wildlife before moving out into the ocean. There, the oil badly damages vulnerable creatures such as mussels, barnacles and other shellfish that cannot leave the area because they are connected to the seafloor and rocks. The oil seeking into the sediment, reefs, and beaches will smother organisms in a formerly pristine eco-system and can never be cleaned out.

The owner has been issued 176 safety and maintenance infractions for the Plains All American Pipeline in the past nine years, more than three times the national average. County officials require that all pipelines have an automatic shutdown valve, but a 1988 court ruling allowed the pipeline’s former owners to not use one because it could trigger false alarms. The company’s infractions of pump failure, equipment malfunction, pipeline corrosion, and operator error has spilled more than 864,300 gallons of hazardous liquid and caused over $32 million in property damage. Corrosion was determined the cause in roughly 90 of those accidents, and failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 80 times.

Offshore oil production is prohibited in California waters since 1969, but the state waters end at three nautical miles offshore. Beyond that boundary, oil drilling is extensive as shown by the green boxes on the map.

ExxonMobileLasFlores-638x477 With almost 18,000 miles of pipe networks in several states, the Plains reported $43 billion in revenue last year and $878 million in profit last year. Of the over 1,700 pipeline operators, only four companies reported more infractions than Plains Pipeline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued Plains in 2010 over a series of 10 oil spills in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Accused of spilling 273,420 gallons of crude oil, some of it into rivers. the company firm agreed to $3.25 million in fines and $41 million to upgrade its pipelines. Last year, a Plains pipeline sprayed about 10,000 gallons of oil over businesses in Atwater Village, an L.A. neighborhood.

Because the pipeline lacked any automatic shutdown valve, the disaster wasn’t discovered until a woman walking on the beach reported the smell of oil. No one knew how long the pipeline had been leaking, and the pipeline wasn’t shut down for another three hours. Santa Barbara is the site of the third-worst U.S. oil spills in January 1969 that led to then-President Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. He established the Environmental Protection Agency the next year and oversaw the passage of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It was the 1969 oil disaster that led to Earth Day.

citizens cleaningAlthough most photos of the cleanup show workers in protective gear, people living nearby started the process because of the delay in sending anyone to clean up the beach.  Photos of the damage are available here. Warning: they will literally sicken you.

Last year, Louisiana GOP Reps. Vance McAllister and John Fleming recommended repairing oil pipelines with plastic garbage sacks and duct tape. In a House Subcommittee hearing, McAllister, who had worked in the oil industry, described the repair as “innovative.” He praised the person for using “Glad, not those crappy off-brand garbage bags.”  McAllister was not long for the House of Representatives because he was caught having an affair with a staffer, the wife of his friend. Fleming is still in the House, most recently voting to prevent abortions for fetuses who will not have a planet in adulthood.

While oil destroys life near Santa Barbara, other part of the fossil fuel industry is taking and contaminating the little water left in the drought-ridden state of California. Although the water-intensive fracking process doesn’t use as much water as agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state’s supply, the highly-toxic wastewater from fracking may be leaching into the state’s aquifers and destroying the little drinking water remaining.

Chevron is making money off this wastewater by selling the toxic fluid back to farmers, putting industrial solvents and other chemicals into the crops. California now has a law mandating water testing for fracking chemicals, but the corporations have oversight. Independent testing of recycled irrigation water has uncovered large quantities of acetone and methylene chloride, both toxic to humans. Spilling these chemicals into the water would shut down gas stations, but corporations have no penalties. Chemicals in the water also permanently damages the soil. Rain water would filter out the salts, but the drought may get worse.

With two emergency situations—the drought and now the oil spill—California is facing a third. The increased number of fires thus far this year will only grow by June, and August will see even more severe conflagrations. Rains before April were short and limited, and the rains stop in April. Dry plants such as chaparral and eucalyptus literally explode, and the state suppression of fires has made conditions worse from the buildup of tinder. Heavy population in the state forces California to fight fires rather than let them burn their natural course.

The one GOP presidential candidate in the current race, Carly Fiorina, blames the environmentalists for the drought for “failing to create any new canals or waterways in decades.” Conservatives refuse to recognize the consequences of climate change, the loss of underground aquifers, and the destructive results of the greedy oil industry corporations.

Anyone who thinks that the problems of water and oil are only California issues are wrong. Forty million people depend on the Colorado River for drinking water. Untold millions more will see the price of food increase as water for agriculture disappears in an area that provides two-thirds of the U.S. winter vegetable production. Climate change has meant less snowmelt in the Rockies, and a 14-year drought in the Southwest cut down on the Colorado River’s flow. Reservoirs are at less than half their capacities. Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it was created in the 1930s, down from near capacity in 2000. Lake Powell is in the same condition. Between 2004 and 2013, people tapped underground water equivalent to 1.5 full Lake Meads. In just nine years, an essentially nonrenewable resource was badly depleted.

In the early 21st century, at last 14 percent of the people in the United States are food insecure. With the current conservative philosophy promoting income inequality, that percentage will only increase. And with the conservative indifference regarding water use, this century will see the same number of people being water insecure, going to bed thirsty as well as hungry. California is simply the canary in the coal mine.

May 11, 2015

GOP: Disregard Infrastructure, Sell off Public Lands

America is the most exceptional country in the world! And the richest! That’s the bragging point from the far right. That’s true if you consider that our “exceptional” infrastructure is 16th in the world. “Crumbling” is the term most often used to describe the bridges and highways over a half century old, an out-moded transit system, etc. For years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s infrastructure a D+ or worse. Every time the issue comes up, the GOP claim that they can’t afford to pay for necessary repairs—sort of like a cheapskate home-owner who won’t replace a leaky roof or disintegrating foundation.

With only 20 days before the Highway Trust Fund is set to expire, no congressional vote has been set up to extend the law and let the DOT distribute what little funds it has left to states. Congress is used to short-term fixes: it has passed 32 extensions within the past six years. That’s an average of over five each year which eliminates planning for any big projects. The sensible approach to raising the requisite $478 billion over ten years would be an increase in the gas tax that has stayed the same for 23 years, but the majority of legislators have signed the “no tax” pledge from Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.

When Republicans were more pragmatic, they liked infrastructure spending because the economy loved jobs for fixing dams, bridges, and roads. These were jobs that couldn’t be outsourced to another country and brought millions of federal funds to create good-paying jobs with visible results. Now, however, the GOP wants to shrink the economy because a good economy would make President Obama look good. For over six years, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has led the charge to make the president look bad, no matter how his efforts damage the United States.

This week is “Infrastructure Week,” according to a coalition of labor, business and transportation advocacy organizations. Last week, the GOP in both congressional chambers agreed to a budget resolution intended to cut transportation funding by 20 percent. After the GOP voted down a budget of $820 billion over ten years, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a $1-trillion plan that would create 13 million jobs. Even that sum doesn’t take care of the problem: the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion more than what the country currently spends is need to repair the nation’s infrastructure by 2020. Instead of taking the plan out of committee, Sanders offered the $478-billion plan which was voted down by a unanimous veto of Republicans. President Obama is so desperate to six the infrastructure that he supports a plan to let corporations escape paying some taxes by bringing their $2 trillion stashed overseas backed at a highly reduced tax rate.

Comparing the United States to other countries shows how the nation ignores its infrastructure. While the U.S. spends less than 2 percent of its GDP in this area, other countries provide far more—for example Europe, 5 percent; China, 9 percent, and Canada, 10 percent.

There are a variety of reasons that the wealthy—which includes most of congressional legislators—are unwilling to invest in U.S. infrastructure and its job creation.

Narcissism: Paul Piff and his colleagues have several studies showing that the wealthy believe they are entitled to have a position of status over everyone else, a belief that has grown during the past 30 years as “upper-class” people tend to behave more unethically than average citizens. The greater the concentration of wealth, the less a society invests in infrastructure. Between 1968 and 2011, the U.S. investment in infrastructure dropped by 60 percent.

Rejection of Poor: As the wealthy fail to see how their actions affect people, they build up a resentment of the poor and imagine  abuses that these so-called “lazy” people inflict on the rich. Legislators also destroy job development, for example, the $447-billion jobs bill in 2011 that would have added about two million jobs. Congress filibustered Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) “Prevention of Outsourcing Act,” at the same time that one million jobs were being sent offshore, and they temporarily blocked the “Small Business Jobs Act.” While campaigning last fall, McConnell was asked how he would bring jobs to Kentucky. He said, “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.” The safety net for the poor costs $370 billion; the tax avoidance of the wealthy costs $2.2 trillion. These are the people who are getting government handouts without working for them.

The Wait for the Free Market: Conservative analyst Michael Barone said, “Markets work. But sometimes they take time.” Thirty-five years later, people are still waiting. Starting in 1984, the Treasury Department decided that most tax cuts lose revenue; more recent studies find no connection between tax rates and economic growth. Evidence shows that cutting taxes on the rich fails to stimulate job creation; the wealthy just stash their money out of the country. Raising taxes on the rich does increase jobs as shown by Kansas and Minnesota. Tax cuts in Kansas destroy the state whereas tax increases on the wealthy in Minnesota have led to higher wages, low unemployment, and rapid business growth.

Instead of increasing taxes on the wealthy or stopping outsourcing and tax havens offshore, GOP members of Congress hope to make money by selling off the country’s resources. During the recent debate about the 2016 federal budget, legislators voted on a number of symbolic (fortunately non-binding) amendments. Amendment 838, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), would “establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land.” This translates into funding state efforts to take over, sell, and transfer federal land to private interests. Murkowski said the plan would “improve our conservation systems.”  It passed by 51 to 49 votes with three GOP senators–Lamar Alexander (TN), Kelly Ayotte (NH), and Corey Gardner (CO)—defecting to the Democrat side.

Both conservatives and progressives oppose the plan as conservative groups such as the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers joined environmentalists in criticizing the vote.  Although the measure does not apply to “any land that is located within a national park, within a national preserve or a national monument,” the resolution allows the sale of national forests, national memorials, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. The nonprofit League of Conservation Voters (LCV) explained:

“It would allow states to take control of some of our most cherished places and sell them off to private interests for oil and gas drilling, logging, mining, and other development. Industrial-scale oil and gas development could destroy the pristine nature of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain forever, damaging natural habitats and harming the wildlife that calls the area home. An oil spill in this region would not only directly harm polar bears, but would also contaminate their habitat. Even without an oil spill, some level of pollution and habitat fragmentation from oil and gas activities is inevitable with expanded development.”

Last February, Murkowski, with her co-GOP senator, also introduced the Authorizing Alaska Production Act (S. 494) to open up the refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas development. Four among her top five 2013-14 campaign contributors are in the oil and gas industry: ConocoPhillips; PG&E Corp.; Edison Chouest Offshore, a marine transport firm supporting U.S. Gulf’s deepwater oil and gas industry; and Van Ness Feldman, a leading energy law firm whose clients include American Electric Power, Puget Sound Energy, and Houston natural gas energy company Kinder Morgan. Her 2014 LCV national environmental scorecard is a perfect zero.

The resolution may violate the Property Clause, Article IV, § 3, cl. 2 of the Constitution: “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” States can’t sell federal lands no matter what Congress rules.

Ronald Reagan’s executive order, issued a year after he became president, tried the same move as Murkowski when it established the Property Review Board to review federally managed public lands for potential disposal. Six years later, Reagan said:

“The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.”

rooseveltOver a century ago, Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, set aside more federal land, national parks, and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined. He established the U.S. Forest Service and placed 230,000,000 acres under public protection. In 2008, he said:

“The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation…. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”

Teddy would be disappointed in the GOP of today.

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