The Forty Year War on the Environment


In The New York Times, Jeb Bush offers a rare glimpse of what we have been missing since the former governor of Florida– and putative lynchpin of the Karl Rove/ Grover Norquist wing of the GOP– left office. Jeb! derides President Obama blaming his brother’s administration for the nation’s ills. “It’s kind of like a kid coming to school saying, ‘The dog ate my homework… “It’s childish. This is what children do until they mature. They don’t accept responsibility.”

There’s the famous Bush paternalism that must connect up with positive opinion polls. It summons memories of brain dead Terry Schiavo and the Jeb Bush take-no-prisoners approach to executive management in government that so many good folks apparently yearn for when times are tough. And indeed times are tough. The shitstorm of two terms of the Bush White House and of states meekly following the flood of special interest, insider dealing continues. The best Jeb Bush can do is call a struggling empire, children.

In the Bush universe, we should stand up and apologize to BP for objecting to its destruction of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s what GOP leader Joe Barton did the other day. He apologized to BP for President Obama pushing the corporate polluter to establish an escrow account on behalf of wrecked economies from the Gulf oil catastrophe. In relation to its annual profits, the present value of the escrow account is like a ding on a car door that can be fixed in fifteen minutes with a suction cup.

In his first 18 months, President Obama could have made restoration of federal regulatory authority for polluters a key part of his agenda. But remember, he needed Republicans in Congress. He needed the Republicans who were so anxious to please private industry and shareholders that they turned the Bureau of Land Management into a chop shop for the oil and gas industries. Remember the Minerals Management Service, inside the Department of Interior run by Republican ideologues, whose personal responsibility was to cocaine-fueled sex parties as the Family (right wing Republicans in Congress, associated by religion and ‘values’) was to marital infidelity. Who knew? Plenty of people knew these weren’t just words when a triumphant Karl Rove said, "”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." (“Without a Doubt”, New York Times, October 17, 2004)

To get a better sense of the disaster Jeb! represents, we now have "Gasland"; a fine documentary now airing on the cable channel HBO made by a child of the 1960’s Woodstock generation. Filmmaker Josh Fox didn’t have the backdrop of the Gulf tar slicks coating Gulf economies to fuel his curiousity: just the impending pollution of his backyard stream through a process widely used by the natural gas industry in the United States called hydrofracturing. This uncontrolled industrial process requires deep well drilling and the injection of a toxic soup of pressurized liquids to break apart deep underground layers of rock, releasing natural gas. The process also fractures aquifers, contaminating wells to the point that tap water lights on fire, and is destroying public health and the environment. Public health as in cancer and death. The environment, as in drinking water and all the creatures that use water.

Jeb! knows all about underground aquifers. The Florida governor gave thumbs up to a process of disposing scarcely treated municipal wastewater in Florida, through underground injection "control" wells, that I investigated on behalf of Sierra Club and reported, in 2003, resulted in more than a billion gallons per day of sewage injected into underground aquifers on the premise it was safe, there, and would never move. But move it did, in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere. And because this manipulation of aquifers was desired as a way to promote cheap growth of cities and suburbs, Florida pressed the EPA to re-write the Safe Drinking Water provisions that prohibited the movement of injected water underground. My efforts to dig deeper were blocked by Florida DEP attorneys standing in the way of agency bureaucrats responsible for administrating the underground injection "control" well program. That’s Jeb! "accepting responsibility". But it is really no different than Pennsylvania, where film maker Fox notes the staffing of the Department of Environmental Protection was recently reduced by 350.

In view of this experience, learning in "Gasland" that the 2005 Energy Bill by a compliant GOP Congress and Bush/Cheney contained provisions to exempt the natural gas industry from water quality protections of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act comes as no surprise. Nor do the consequences: an American landscape fit to shareholders of Halliburton and oil and gas companies. In the light of such toxic politics, the Gulf oil catastrophe traces straight back to the willingness of American voters to allow elected officials to neuter and eviscerate regulatory authority and environmental protections. In Florida, it happened with the 2003 Everglades Forever Act, struck down in 2008 by a federal court that ripped the State of Florida under Jeb! for permitting Big Sugar to continue polluting the Everglades indefinitely into the future.

There is no doubt that President Obama misjudged and, in key respects, continues to misjudge the risks to the US economy and environment. But how could any president retrace the steps and fix regulatory failures in only eighteen months? These were not just triggered in a fury over eight years of Bush administrations in Washington, and in Florida too. Those eight years finished the hit job on federal authority that rolled out during the Reagan Revolution. Barack Obama’s policies and spokespersons may be facing off with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on Sunday morning talk shows, but who he is really squaring off against are the corporate funders of the Wise Use Movement and the Sagebrush Rebellion: money from Big Oil and Gas seeking profits on public lands that started forty years ago.

Certainly the press has played an enormous and depressing role by failing to train investigative journalism on the facts. That is the plaintive note in "Gasland", when on the steps of Congress a demonstration by citizens against hydrofracturing and natural gas exploitation of communities does not turn out a single reporter.

Aquifer destruction in the United States (soon, coming to Europe), releasing uncontrolled blowouts a mile beneath the sea, wrecking drinking water wells, plowing pollution back underground, one gets the sense that the United States, the can-do nation, is being dissolved by solvents and aromatic compounds into something utterly new and different, something low interest rates can’t change or improve, paving the way to a future no father would wish on his children. No father, including Jeb Bush.

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net





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