Scapegoating Birnbaum, Saving Salazar

Last week Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar threw an old friend of mine, Liz Birnbaum, from Obama’s creaky Hope-Express.  For ten months she was the head of the Mineral Management Service.  Not exactly a lifetime you say?

Well, according to Salazar, who has been on the job 16 months, that should have been enough time to clean up a dysfunctional agency that has been in the news repeatedly over recent years because of its habit of sleeping with the oil industry, both figuratively and physically–the same industry it was established to baby sit after being spun off from the Bureau of Land Management, the mother agency which was also criticized for being unable to fully protect the public from the all-powerful oil drilling fraternity.

Despite what is reported in the press, and megaphoned by the headline seeking, platitude prone Salazar, MMS is not uniquely dysfunctional among Interior agencies, for none of the other regulatory agencies within Interior have ever received awards for protecting the public interest either.  The BLM is notorious throughout the west for being owned by the ranching industry. The Bureau of Reclamation has always been the captive of the water buffaloes, as a library of books like Cadillac Desert and Rivers of Empire demonstrate.  Plus, I’d lay good money that more than one bureaucrat from the upper reaches of these agencies has spent less than an innocent evening with those they were supposed to be giving the bad news to, and that they’ve done it recently and repeatedly.

Good reasons abound.   All three constitute a daisy chain of aligned interests: the agencies get congressional funding for being compliant, the congressmen and senators get campaign money from the regulated for being friendly, and the regulated get pretty much what they want as long as they don’t overreach.  The overreaching at MMS during the Bush administration was one of those moments, and it provided a precious opportunity for Salazar, with his hometown newspaper, The Denver Post, acting as front man, to come out west, cowboy hat on pate, bolo tie on neck, cowboy boots on feet, and oversized belt buckle over navel to announce to a great and hushed audience that he was the “new sheriff in town.”   Salazar’s Wyatt Earp moment played well on the editorial page of The Denver Post, which has always said that Salazar is just right for Colorado, while other more discerning voices have muttered nervously that he seemed better suited for the role of Grand Marshal at Cheyenne Frontier Days.  The Post’s never varying assessment is code, meaning that Salazar is just right for The Denver Post and its shameless Chamber of Commerce boosterism.  He still is.

Unfortunately for the nation, and Salazar, the largest environmental disaster in the country’s history took place on his watch.  Still, Deepwater is not his fault, but neither is it Birnbaum’s, nor Obama’s.  The tragedy is that Obama has not moved forcefully to permanently close down deep-ocean drilling as too risky, with too many potentially disastrous unknowns to be even remotely necessary or economic.  (A word of warning to environmental types who argue that had environmental documentation been faithfully carried out on every well head, this tragedy could have been averted.  Take off your bespattered blinders!  NEPA, the law requiring environmental consideration in federal decision making, has rarely stopped big projects and has never stopped one when really big money, accompanied by the irresistible drum beat of more, more, more, has been called upon to drown out the voices of the people and common sense.  NEPA would have to be strengthened mightily for it to stop Washington from making campaign decisions rather than common-good decisions. )

The greater tragedy is that the oil spill has killed people and a huge swath of the Gulf’s environment, ruined countless lives through lost jobs and incomes, and will continue to wash its aftermath over people and the environment for decades to come.

The greatest tragedy of all is that similar disasters will inevitably reoccur if we don’t change.  The chances of reasoned change seem remote and certainly not something to believe in.

As for Salazar, he has shown himself to be just another contemptible politician by making Birnbaum the scapegoat for Deepwater. The desperation in his wager is shown by the fact that he presented a new organizational chart for MMS the day after meeting with Obama for two hours about Deepwater.  His intention, announced at a press conference the next morning, where he also announced Birnbaum’s resignation, is to divide the MMS into three agencies.  This comes pretty close to management by press conference. It is palpably idiotic, being nothing more than the midnight spawn of a desperate politician.  The result surely will be more dysfunction, more hierarchy and grade creep, and less transparency, for the left hand will seldom know what the other two hands are doing.  Moreover, the MMS does not make energy policy, the real culprit in this drama.  Washington does, or should.

Illustrative of how much Salazar has depended on carefully managed press for his climb up the greasy pole–Disraeli’s term to describe the comedy of political aspiration–an organization calling itself Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development took out a half page ad in The Denver Post just two days after Salazar had accepted Birnbaum’s resignation and announced his new controls over MMS.  This is the minimum time it would take to get something to the paper in the form of a quasi press release.

In the ad, Salazar is shown facing a sepia toned Teddy Roosevelt.  Salazar is in living color, quaffed in the cowboy hat and bolo tie, which he has left on the bedroom floor since the Deep-Water disaster, probably on advice from the White House.  The bold headline declares Teddy and Ken to be “Two of a Kind.”  The print is necessarily skimpy, inversely proportional to the outrageousness of the claim perhaps. Here is most of it.

“No one has a better opportunity to continue Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy than Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  His common-sense oil and gas leasing reforms will help conserve our public land and places where families have hunted and fished for generations.

Secretary Salazar, thanks for protecting our outdoor heritage for our children and grandchildren.  We think T.R. would be proud. “

Holy Toledo, can canonization or the White House be far behind?  I couldn’t find out much about the sponsors of this ad.  Their web page doesn’t disclose who is on their board of directors.  They appear to be primarily a front organization for corporations in the recreation industry.  But Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation are also listed as admirers.  The sheer chutzpah of the claim makes it Colbert Report material.  The timing makes it clear that friends of the “new sheriff in town” are pulling out all the stops to keep their man atop the greasy pole.

So what of the real Salazar, the presumed environmentalist selected by Obama to head the Department controlling much of the nation’s land and water resources?   How does he stack up?  How does he compare to the summarily cashiered Birnbaum?  Not very well I’d say.

I know Birnbaum to be intelligent, sane, and honest.   Her bone fides include editor of the Harvard Environmental Law Review and legal counsel for American Rivers.  American Rivers had listed the Animas River in Colorado as among the world’s most endangered rivers because of the Animas-La Plata (ALP) project.  She co-authored a paper while working for the House Natural Resources Committee entitled “Taking from the Taxpayers,” which highlighted the outrageous subsidies tied to federal natural resource development, chief among them is western water development.

Salazar, on the other hand, has been a lifelong champion of federal farm and water programs.  When he ran for the senate, he often said he was going to be the senator for farm and ranch interests even though Colorado is among the most urbanized states in the union.  Colorado may be naturally splendorous, but it takes a hell of a lot of handouts at both the federal and state level to keep the big boys in pickups.  His brother, Congressman John Salazar, received $175,000 in farm subsidies for running the family ranch, this in addition to his upfront congressional salary of $174,000, plus benefits. He stopped taking them in 2007.  He was elected to Congress in 2004.  Other family members have been blessed with smaller farm subsidy checks floating in from the Treasury as well.

In Colorado, Ken Salazar has been an outspoken, lifelong supporter of ALP, the project American Rivers saw as threatening a river.  He supported it while Colorado Governor Roy Romer’s chief legal advisor and head of the Department of Natural Resources, then as Colorado Attorney General, then as U.S. Senator, and now as head of Interior.  He even used ALP to help propel himself into the senate seat through the spectacle of publicly kissing the ring of the lawyer who was the project godfather, of course with an adoring and uncritical press in tow.  On that occasion he declared with great humility that everything he knew about western water law he learned at the knee of the godfather.  I’m not kidding.

As for ALP, it is a shocker of a water project, even by western pork barrel standards.  It has no uses, just some laughable nonbinding scenarios for uses published in the project’s final EIS, of which 5 were written as due diligence smoke screens for this monument to mindless federal pork.  The construction costs of the project are over $600 million already, with hundreds of million more needed to move even a small portion of the water to any conceivable point of use since, at present, only a reservoir perched on a hillside exists with a complement of energy guzzling pumps needed to lift the water 500 feet from the river to the reservoir.  Billions more in interest payments will ultimately be added to the fiscal insanity since the public pays for all but a sliver of the costs.

The reservoir is fittingly named for Salazar’s predecessor in the senate, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.  He resigned from the Senate while under felony investigation for influence peddling, thus opening the way for Salazar’s relentless climb.

As for project funding and repayment, it was such a dog that Congress had to suspend federal law regarding the cost sharing obligations of project beneficiaries; otherwise, it was DOA.  The project backers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay.  The public wasn’t asked, but they got the bill. At the forefront of these decisions and other indelicacies too numerous to mention was David Hayes, then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt’s ALP chief negotiator, now, Ken Salazar’s Deputy at Interior and second in command.  He also led the selection committee for political appointees to Interior for Obama’s transition team.  The water world over which Salazar is the titular head gets ever smaller, for another principal in the ALP negotiations, Michael Connor, is now head of the Bureau of Reclamation.  He too is a lawyer.

The latest in the sorry saga of ALP is that the state of Colorado passed a bill this last session to dedicate $12 million this fiscal year and in each of two years hence to buy water from ALP.  The state has no use for the water, but somebody’s got to buy a little of the stuff stored in Nighthorse just to maintain the appearance of rectitude; thus the state has been bamboozled into buying the water on speculation, and never mind that speculative buying and storing of water is expressly forbidden under state law.  Claiming dire poverty, the state legislature earlier in the session had cut $260 million from education funding.  It will have to cut more next year.

Bruce Whitehead, the legislator who spearheaded the legislative effort and leader of the bamboozling, is a former water district engineer who testified in court in support of the project.  He is now a manager of one of the water organizations created to disperse ALP pork.  The head of the state agency through which the money will flow, and collaborator-in-chief in the bamboozling, had been employed by the BOR.  She, Jennifer Gimbel, is another lawyer and reputedly an acolyte of former Secretary of Interior Gale Norton through whom she found employment at BOR.

Whoa, is this change we can believe in or what?

Salazar was also heavily involved in Colorado’s largest modern environmental catastrophe, Summitville Mine.  It seems that the Governor during this period, Roy Romer, had taken the mine’s equipment in lieu of a bond.  Normally a surety bond is required by state law to protect against damages resulting from environmental accidents or mismanagement.  But Romer claimed jobs were needed and took the alternate bonding route.  The mine, a cyanide leach operation to recover gold, leaked cyanide and heavy metals into an adjoining stream, destroying, according to press reports, all life in 18 miles of mountain stream and threatening farming and ranching operations even further downstream. The mining equipment proved useless in recovering costs.

What advisory role Salazar may have played early on in this environmental disaster is unknown and shall probably forever remain so, but he was Romer’s legal adviser, then head of the state Department of Natural Resourses, and then Attorney General during this period.  What is known is that Salazar announced to the press, with typical fanfare, when he became AG that he would personally take over negotiations with the mining company to recover costs for the state.  He professed he was unafraid of billionaire mine owner Robert Friedman, known as Toxic Bob to his detractors.

In the end, EPA assumed management of Summitville as a Super Fund site, mitigating Romer’s dunderheaded deal making.  Hundreds of million in costs were thus transferred from 3 million Coloradoans to 300 million Americans, saving Romer and Salazar considerable embarrassment and explaining.  Oh, and Toxic Bob is still a billionaire, having managed to effectively pay none of the cleanup or damage costs.

So, Salazar’s environmental record is colored, a blushing red at best.   Should he be fired for Deepwater?  Of course not.  He isn’t directly responsible.  But a good case can be made that in firing Birnbaum for Deepwater, he has shown himself to be a career chasing scoundrel.  His environmental record in Colorado is supportive of this assessment.  In my book that is more than enough.  Maybe Rahm Emmanuel can make a few phone calls and get him a gig as permanent Grand Marshal at Cheyenne Frontier Days.  He’s already got the hat.

Admission:  I was chair of a small grassroots organization that went to court over ALP.  We sought the court’s aid in answering two questions project backers and Interior refused to answer.  We wanted to know what the 120,000 acre feet of public water to be stored in Nighthorse Reservoir was to be used for, since beneficial use is the essential test in state law for granting a water right.  We also asked why the 1970 Supreme Court decision telling the Ute Indians they were barred from making further claims against the United States was not controlling in ALP—the project backers had morphed ALP into a quasi Indian project as every other option to them was closed down or rejected.

We were held hostage in water court for 6 years while Interior continued to build the project.  We never got an answer to our questions from a judge, Gregory Lyman, who after all those years was still trying to figure out what consumptive use meant, a fundamental measurement of water use.  Our appeal to the state Supremes was rejected out of hand by rubber-stamping the opinion rendered by Lyman, the man who seemed flummoxed by basic water engineering terminology.  But we did get one thing.  We were hit with substantial court costs, which project backers knew we could not pay, thus ending our pursuit of the truth about ALP.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at:





PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. Doe is a co-sponsor of a public trust initiative that would turn the tables on the permitting process by making those seeking to use public resources, air, land, and water, to first demonstrate that the proposed use would not irreparably harm those resources–the reverse of the present permitting process. He can be reached