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In May 2008, the major law firm Hunton & Williams launched the Water Policy Institute (WPI), a think tank-esque, industry-supported consortium formed “to address water supply, quality and use issues,” according to its website.
After the initial flurry of press releases, WPI appeared to languish. Then, ten months after its formation, WPI issued its first white paper. “Water Wars: Conflicts Over Shared Waters” focuses on two river basins in the Southeastern United States. The paper urges the states involved — Georgia, Florida and Alabama — to put aside litigation and work with federal mediators to reach an agreement on water allocation. It also supports further study of seasonal water use, ecological issues and efficiency measures.
The white paper’s conclusions seem reasonable, even obvious. So much so that it’s unclear why Hunton & Williams felt the need to recruit major public relations and corporate powerhouses when forming WPI — and what they, and the law firm, get out of the effort.
What is clear is that WPI, Hunton & Williams and their corporate allies have a long history of siding with (or being) polluters and attempting to undermine water quality safeguards. It seems reasonable, therefore, to worry that whatever WPI is up to, it’s likely to do more harm than good.
WPI’s usual suspects
The Water Policy Institute’s chair is former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman. After leaving the EPA, Whitman founded her own public relations firm. The Whitman Strategy Group’s clients include FMC Corporation, a chemical and pesticide manufacturer; the oil company Chevron’s Environmental Management Company; and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry lobby group. Since 2006, Whitman has co-chaired the NEI-funded and Hill & Knowlton-managed Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a pro-nuclear front group.
“I have, for many years now, believed that water is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world in the 21st century,” Whitman stated, in a speech at WPI’s inaugural meeting. Since first being elected to public office 25 years ago, she said, “I have been wrestling with water issues.” WPI “will help policymakers in every sector better understand — and more effectively communicate and advance — the need for action,” she added.
There are also financial incentives for Whitman’s involvement with WPI. Whitman “is now helping to bring clients to the law firm of Hunton & Williams as chairwoman of its new Water Policy Institute,” reported Congressional Quarterly in June 2008. “Whitman’s firm will get an undisclosed fee for its work.”
In addition to Whitman’s political star power, WPI presumably benefits from the connections and resources of its founding corporate members: BP, GE Water and the Central Arizona Project. As a multinational oil, gas and fuels company, BP’s interests in water issues are significant. For example, the company is invested in Alberta’s tar sands, where oil development requires — and pollutes — large volumes of water. Last year, BP was party to a $423 million settlement compensating U.S. public water systems for contamination from the gas additive MTBE.
GE Water describes itself as “a leading global supplier of water treatment, wastewater treatment and process systems solutions.” In an August 2006 press release, the company enthused, “Globally, the water market is $365 billion and offers a high growth potential.” Its products range from water treatment chemicals, filters and membranes; to industrial water management systems; to “mobile water” emergency back-ups. GE Water boasts “the world’s largest base of desalination systems,” which use an energy-intensive process to produce fresh water from seawater or salty water. GE Water is also involved with Canada’s tar sands, as part of a $15 million effort “to improve water usage” during oil extraction.
The Central Arizona Project is a “336-mile long system of aqueducts, tunnels, pumping plants and pipelines” that directs Colorado River water to three Arizona counties. The “quasi-governmental entity” that runs the project has hired the Hunton & Williams firm to weigh in on several water-related legal cases. Due to growing population, drought and climate change, the Central Arizona Project is likely to face increased competition for water resources. It’s also nervous about possible carbon tax or cap-and-trade policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as it relies on the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station for its substantial power needs.
Hunton for Robb
The Water Policy Institute’s home, Hunton & Williams, isn’t the most environmentally-friendly law firm. In a landmark 2007 case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the firm argued that the EPA shouldn’t be allowed to regulate carbon dioxide. By the time the court ruled against them, Hunton & Williams “had built up a team of energy lobbyists who could … work to minimize the potential damage to their clients through legislation,” reported The Hill.
Hunton & Williams’ lobbying clients include the oil giant ConocoPhillips, the electric industry’s Edison Electric Institute, infamous polluter Koch Industries and the powerful National Association of Manufacturers lobby group. Also on the list is “Americans for Affordable Climate Policy,” a front group formed by coal interests to ensure that any cap-and-trade system gives free emissions credits to industry. Hunton & Williams’ non-lobbying clients include Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris), military contractor General Dynamics, drugmaker Pfizer and Texas energy company Luminant (formerly known as TXU).
On water issues, Hunton & Williams lobbies for the Waters Advocacy Coalition, another industry front group whose members include the National Mining Association, the anti-regulatory and industry-funded Western Business Roundtable, the pesticide industry group CropLife America and the American Forest & Paper Association, which represents the “forest products industry.”
WPI’s director is Kathy Robb, a Hunton & Williams partner focused on resources, regulatory and environmental law. In a 2005 filing with the U.S. Supreme Court, Robb argued that hydroelectric dam operators shouldn’t be regulated under the Clean Water Act. In 2005 and 2006, Robb filed briefs on behalf of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which operates the Central Arizona Project. The briefs supported a canal lining project that environmentalists and local groups feared would dry up wetlands and harm rural communities. Robb’s clients include “developers, electric utilities, investors, chemical manufacturers, and paper mills,” according to Hunton & Williams’ website.
Robb has said that WPI is interested in issues of water “scarcity and pricing and … how you can encourage people to conserve,” “recycling and reclamation,” “the interconnection between energy and water,” and “the intersection increasingly of water quality and water quantity issues.” How do those laudable goals square with Robb’s legal work to restrict the application of the Clean Water Act, with the interests of WPI’s corporate members, or with Hunton & Williams’ clients?
I called Robb’s office to request an interview. Her assistant quickly identified a time, several days later, when I could speak with her. Then, just before the interview was supposed to take place, the assistant called back to cancel it. I repeatedly contacted the office to reschedule. At one point, a nervous-sounding woman asked me where the interview would appear and what questions I would ask Robb. More than two weeks, several phone calls and emails later, it seems safe to conclude that Kathy Robb doesn’t want to talk with me.
Life, death and water policy
Kathy Robb’s silence doesn’t bode well for WPI. Serious policy groups realize that, in order to have any credibility, they must either scrupulously avoid or fully disclose potential conflicts of interest. If WPI has any such policies, they’re not public. WPI’s website doesn’t even include a list of its members.
In 2003, former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali stated, “Water will be more important than oil this century.” Today, an estimated one billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water. In 2025, the UN predicts that 1.8 billion people will live in areas with “absolute water scarcity.” According to a June 2008 technical paper for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is “very high confidence” that “adverse effects of climate change on freshwater systems [will] aggravate the impacts of other stresses, such as population growth, changing economic activity, land-use change and urbanisation.”
These are serious, complex and urgent issues. The last thing we need is another corporate front group muddying the waters.