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How Big Oil Bought the Interior Department

The Salazar Quotient

by BILLY WHARTON

Big oil and coal interests seemed to have reached their high point with the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. He was a well-heeled oil man, as firmly committed to the military seizure of the world’s oil spigot, as he was hostile to the kind of science that spoke about anti-business notions such as global warming. However, the time of big energy was supposed to have faded with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Obama hailed the beginning of a new age of political sanity, where the US would be brought into line with global opinion about pressing issues such as carbon emissions and the transition to clean energy sources. Then, a humble Coloradan, with a cowboy hat that seemed permanently affixed to his head, named Ken Salazar ambled to the microphone to accept Obama’s nomination to be the new Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, a bird shuttered as the future of its habitat was being sealed by putting big energy back in charge of the one part of government capable of reining it in.

The Early Clashes

Salazar had a long record of clashes with environmental activists while serving as the Attorney General for the State of Colorado in the 1990s. One case with particularly ominous tones, given the current BP-oil spill cleanup, involved Salazar botching the Summitville Mine Superfund cleanup. The then Attorney General claimed that the Canadian-based Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp. would be made to pay for all of the environmental damage caused by their gold mining operation. In the end, Salazar’s inept negotiations and unwillingness to legally prosecute the company meant that millions of dollars in public funds were expended during the cleanup (Counterpunch, 12/18/2008). Salazar allowed Summitville to cut and run.

However, a good track record on environmental issues was not the new administration’s primary criteria as suitable candidates for Secretary of the DOI were considered. Political expediency was the guiding principle in this Obama appointment. Salazar fit the bill. He was likely to fly through confirmation hearings by bringing together an odd coalition of energy corporations and Republican senators preparing to make war against the new administration and big-name environmental groups. What ensued was one part political theatre – the backwoods, cowboy hat wearing Senator with rural sensibilities comes to the capital – and one part pure Washington power politics – yet another example of big corporations installing their representative into a position of decision-making power.

The Appointment

Love-fests during confirmation hearings should immediately raise suspicions. Salazar fulfilled all of Obama’s expectations as the hearings proceeded, winning over even the most obstinate Republican critics of the new administration. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) neatly summarized the event as, "a full-fledged bouquet-tossing festival" (Denver Post, 1/15/2009). Even Jim DeMint, the politically paranoid Republican Senator from South Carolina, took time off from his campaign to “save freedom” from Obama’s “socialist agenda” to praise Salazar. At first, DeMint was convinced that Salazar was the front man for Obama’s grand scheme to “…cut off America’s energy supply,” but he left the hearing convinced that “we’re pretty much on the same page" (LA Times, 1/16/2009). Big-ticket environmental groups, such as the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, also joined the festivities, giving Salazar a score of 100% for his record as a Senator.

Outside of the hearings, things were less cordial. Environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), who had overwhelmingly supported the Obama presidential campaign, viewed Salazar as a “disappointing choice.” Salazar claimed that he wanted “to clean up the mess” left by the scandal-ridden, anti-science Bush administration DOI, but the CBD thought otherwise, viewing his record of having, “…fought against federal action on global warming, against higher fuel efficiency standards, and for increased oil drilling and oil subsidies” as a serious liability.

However, these were the heady days of Obama-mania. Valid criticisms of Salazar from the left were subsumed under the pomp and circumstance of the “anybody but Bush” and “Change We Can Believe In” hysteria. Surely, the thinking went, the new administration would mark a critical break from the Bush regime and a rational energy policy would be one part of the new consensus developing in the now Democratic Party controlled White House. However, as Obama’s Colorado cowboy headed to the DOI, BP had already set up shop in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Contributors

A more critical review of Salazar’s record would have revealed direct links to the oil and coal sector. Since embarking on his career as a public official in 1989, his campaign contribution record is littered with funds from the energy sector including a $4,500 payment from BP (Center for Responsive Politics – CRP). However, Salazar has had two clear monetary benefactors since 1989 – the law firms Sherman & Howard and Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck (BHFS). The two have contributed $140,138, a figure that easily dwarfs the next largest donation of $57,652 made by Moveon.org.

Why would two law firms have such an interest in Salazar? A quick look at their client list reveals some answers. Formed in 1892, Sherman & Howard claims to be the oldest law firm in Denver, Colorado. They represent a wide variety of corporations, but the Westmoreland Coal Company (WCC), is of special interest to Salazar’s position at the DOI. WCC is a big coal company that operates five surface coal mines in North Dakota, Montana and Texas and coal fired power plants in North Carolina that generate 230 megawatts of energy.

It’s no surprise that, at his confirmation hearing, Salazar gushed about an innovative energy source that would move the country away from dependence on foreign oil – “clean” coal. "The challenge,” Salazar told Congress, “is how we create clean coal. I believe that we will move forward with the funding of some of those demonstration projects so we can find ways to burn coal that don’t contribute to climate change" (Reuters, 2/11/2009). Arch Coal CEO Steve Leer praised Salazar’s “balanced approach” and stated that, “we often worked with him on natural resource issues” (Reuters, 2/11/2009). Arch Coal had also paid the price of admission by passing on a $2,000 campaign donation to Salazar in 2006.

Big oil was not to be outdone by big coal. BHFS offers lobbying as well as legal services to their clients. Delta Petroleum Company contracted BHFS in 2005 and has, since then, spent $960,000 to lobby elected officials on the issue of offshore oil drilling (Center for Responsive Politics). Delta also successfully sued to defend their lease claims to drilling sites in Federal waters off the Pacific coast (Amber Resources Company et al. v. United States). These sites had been leased to the company during the first term of the Reagan presidency, but the company had been blocked from oil exploration by the Federal government and the State of California. When, in 2005, it appeared Delta would finally be able to exercise its drilling rights, a lawsuit was filed by the State of California and several environmental groups claiming that Delta had not filed sufficient impact analysis reports. The suit delayed the exploration, and Delta was eventually compensated for its lease claims as they continued to press their right to offshore drilling via BHFS lobbying efforts.

Enter Ken Salazar. With most of the remaining lawsuits filed by environmental groups during the Bush administration now settled, in March 2010, Salazar and Obama announced a radical expansion of offshore drilling projects all along the Eastern seaboard and in Alaska. This maritime equivalent to “Drill, Baby Drill,” was presented by the DOI Secretary as a “middle-ground” compromise between oil companies and conservationists. For Delta Petroleum, it was lobbying money well spent, as a completely new terrain for exploration was opened because of their political pressure and campaign generosity.

The Lawsuits

Eventually, the malaise of Obama-mania wore off. Then, the lawsuits began. Some of the initial lawsuits suits sought to force Salazar and the DOI to protect one or another endangered animal. First, it was the rapidly dwindling Colorado River Cutthroat Trout. Then the prairie songbird, the Sprague’s Pipit, who had been endangered by the degradation of grasslands in the middle of the country and was being disregarded by the DOI. As the lawsuits piled up, environmental groups became accustomed to meeting an Obama administration displaying remarkably similar amounts of hostility to conservation as its predecessor with opposition.

Eventually, the legal action began to target the core of the administration’s environmentally hostile energy policy. On November 16, 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust, and Salazar’s former backers at the Sierra Club filed suit to challenge Salazar’s approval of re-starting uranium mining at a closed mine in the Grand Canyon. The challenge failed and the mining of uranium proceeded in January 2010. Eventually, in May 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was forced to act on the issue and ruled that the mine was being operated in violation of the law since its operator, Denison Mines, failed to notify the agency that it had resumed operations (Associated Press, 5/4/2010). The EPA will issue daily fines but needs action from the DOI to shut down the mine.

The Powder River Basin that links Wyoming and Montana became the next setting for a legal challenge to the DOI. The region had become a hunting ground for coal companies seeking to grab one of the 21 leases offered by the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the past 20 years. Because of this, the region now accounts for 42% of all the coal produced in the US and 13% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Under Salazar’s watch, the BLM now plans to extend 12 new coal leases in the region. However, as the group Wildearth Guardians pointed out in its lawsuit against Salazar, the region is not certified as a “Coal Producing Region,” which means that the coal companies can escape the normal procedures that require environmental impact analysis reports. The lawsuit remains in the court system while the coal operators continue to mine and pollute the region. Salazar continues to allow them to operate outside of the law (Wildlife Guardians v. Salazar and Abbey, 4/21/2010).

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, a Halliburton worker puts on the final additions on the job of cementing BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling rig to the ocean floor. A mere 20 hours remain before the rig explodes, creating one of the largest environmental disasters in history.

The Spill

Much has been made of the massive campaign contributions provided to the Obama campaign by BP. Indeed, the CRP reports that at more than $70,000, Obama’s campaign take from BP nearly doubles the next highest recipient. Yet, the criminal act of releasing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean is about more than just following the campaign cash. It is, instead, about how such contributions help to facilitate the gutting of environmental laws, the skirting of regulations and the continuance of a regulatory regime that empowers multinational corporations over and above the needs of the American people and the environment. Ken Salazar is at the center of this.

In April 2009, the DOI’s Mineral Management Service (MMS) provided BP with a “categorical exclusion” from impact studies mandated by the EPA. BP was not alone. A DOI spokesperson told the Washington Post that the agency routinely grants 250 to 400 waivers per year. Much like he had the coal companies in the Powder River Basin, Salazar allowed BP and other offshore drillers to operate outside of the law. Instead of an independent study, the agency relied on BP’s self-assessment, which was heavily colored by the company’s desire to continue production, that the likelihood of a major spill was “minimal or non-existent” (Washington Post, 5/5/2010). In addition, no notice was taken that BP had contracted Halliburton to cement the rig while the company was under investigation for a faulty cementing job that led to a spill in the Timor Sea in 2009.

In the days prior to the spill, BP was using its ample lobbying muscle to push the MMS to extend its waiver, thereby avoiding a new environmental impact study. This proposal would have undoubtedly been accepted by a DOI that, under Ken Salazar’s direction, had been reduced to rubber stamp for big oil and big coal.

The Fallout

In the coming weeks, the Obama administration will, undoubtedly, search for a fall guy to lay off the blame for the BP oil spill. Ken Salazar is a likely and deserving candidate for such a role. Yet, as the oil continues to flow and the ecology of the Gulf region suffers irreparable harm, an accounting must be taken of the process set into motion by the White House itself. BP’s oil spill may be a watershed moment for Obama – an event that so exposes the bankruptcy of an administration that it permanently severs the confidence of the people it aims to govern.

When corporations rule the world, they do so to ensure their own self-preservation through the accumulation and exploitation of natural resources. People get hurt and ecosystems are destroyed, but this is just the collateral damage of the business model. Two simple concepts may offer an alternative to madness of this system – democracy and justice. For democracy to be exercised, new voices, those outside of mainstream politics must make themselves heard at the protest marches and at the ballot boxes – not just in lawsuits. For justice to reign, Salazar, Obama, BP and Halliburton need to be brought before something like the International Climate Tribunal proposed at last month’s alternative Climate Summit in Bolivia. Only then, will a full accounting be made of the damage that decades of capitalist production has done and a new road toward ecological harmony be mapped out.

BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine.

 

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