FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Salazar’s Folly

In a move that is likely to go down as one of the largest energy policy blunders of the Obama years, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday announced that his office was opening the door for 2.35 billion tons of new coal mining operations in Wyoming’s stretch of the Powder River Basin.

It’s all about the money, of course and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ken Salazar pressed the green light for more dirty energy development instead of funding renewables.

The Powder River Basin (PBR), like most coal producing regions in the county, is not certified as such. Meaning, mining operations in the area do not entirely fall under the rubric of the Federal Coal Leasing Amendments Act of 1976 (FCLAA). As such, taxpayers are being hoodwinked into believing leasing our public lands to Big Coal is good for the government’s piggy bank.

It’s not. Here’s the story. During the 1970s there was a public lands coal-leasing moratorium put in place for the United States because of wild mining speculation and lack of transparency.  The moratorium ended in 1980, and then acting Interior Secretary James Watt began selling coal leases all over the Powder River Basin.  Then, in the late 1980s, PBR was decertified as a coal-producing region; therefore leases on public lands would no longer have to follow the guidelines offered up in FCLAA.

It was a brilliant maneuver conjured up by the legal minds paid for by Big Coal and backed by their allies in Congress. To this day the government has been selling off public land at below market value, which in the end bolsters coal’s competitiveness with cleaner energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal.

Many environmentalists had hoped an Obama administration would plug these loopholes and not allow coal companies to exploit the public trust. But all hope vanished on the day President Obama named Ken Salazar as his Interior Secretary.

By almost any standard, it was difficult to imagine a more uninspired or uninspiring choice for the job than professional middle-of-the-roader Ken Salazar, the conservative Democrat from Colorado. This pal of Alberto Gonzalez was a meek politician. He never demonstrated the stomach for confronting the corporate bullies that exploited the West: the coal, timber and oil companies who feastered on Interior Department handouts for decades. Even as attorney general of Colorado, Salazar built a record of timidity when it came to going after renegade mining companies.

Nevertheless, the editorial pages of Western papers hailed Salazar’s nomination. The common theme was that Salazar would be “an honest broker.” But broker of what? Mining claims and oil leases, no doubt.

So of course Carl Pope, CEO of the Sierra Club, who fine-tuned this kind of rhetorical airbrushing during the many traumas of the Clinton years wrote to Club backers that Salazar was a “leading voice in calling for the development of the West’s vast solar, wind, and geothermal resources. He will make sure that we create the good-paying green jobs that will fuel our economic recovery without harming the public lands he will be charged with protecting.”

Who knew that strip-mining for coal, an industry Salazar resolutely promoted during his public career, was a green job? Hold on tight, here we go once more down the rabbit hole.

In the exhaust-stream, not far beyond Mr. Pope, came an organization (you can’t call them a group, since they don’t really have any members) called the Campaign for American Wilderness, lavishly endowed by the centrist Pew Charitable Trusts, to fete Salazar. According to Mike Matz, the Campaign’s executive director, Salazar “has been a strong proponent of protecting federal lands as wilderness … As a farmer, a rancher, and a conservationist, Sen. Salazar understands the importance of balancing traditional uses of our public lands with the need to protect them. His knowledge of land management issues in the West, coupled with his ability to work with diverse groups and coalitions to find common ground, will serve him well at the Department of the Interior.”

Whenever seasoned greens see the word “common ground” invoked as a solution for thorny land use issues in the Interior West it sets off an early warning alarm. “Common ground” is another flex-phrase like, “win-win” solution that indicates greens will be handed a few low-calorie crumbs while business will proceed to gorge as usual.

In Salazar’s case, these morsels were a few measly wilderness areas inside non-contentious areas, such as Rocky Mountain National Park. Designating a wilderness inside a national park is about as risky as placing the National Mall off-limits to oil drilling.

But Salazar’s green gifts never came without a cost. In the calculus of common ground politics, trade-offs come with the territory.

For example, Salazar, under intense pressure from Coloradoans, issued a tepid remonstrance against the Bush administration’s maniacal plan to open up the Roan Plateau in western Colorado to oil drilling. But he voted to authorize oil drilling off the coast of Florida, voted against increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil when the company was shattering records for quarterly profits.

On the very day that Salazar’s nomination was leaked to the press, the Inspector General for the Interior Department released a devastating report on the demolition of the Endangered Species Act under the Bush administration, largely at the hands of the disgraced Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife. The IG report, written by Earl Devaney, detailed how MacDonald personally interfered with 13 different endangered species rulings, bullying agency scientists and rewriting biological opinions. “MacDonald injected herself personally and profoundly in a number of ESA decisions,” Devaney wrote in a letter to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. “We determined that MacDonald’s management style was abrupt and abrasive, if not abusive, and that her conduct demoralized and frustrated her staff as well as her subordinate managers.”

What McDonald did covertly, Salazar seems to be attempting openly in the name of, yes, common ground. While Lisa Jackson and the EPA have dealt a few hefty blows to the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal in Appalachia, in steps Salazar to hand out billions of dollars worth of public lands in Wyoming to coal companies well below market value. But common ground has long been a theme of Salazar’s political maneuvers.

Take the case of the white-tailed prairie dog, one of the declining species that MacDonald went to nefarious lengths to keep from enjoying the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Prairie dogs are viewed as pests by ranchers and their populations have been remorselessly targeted for elimination on rangelands across the Interior West.

Ken Salazar, former rancher, once threatened to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the similarly imperiled black-tailed prairie dog off the endangered species list. The senator also fiercely opposed efforts to inscribe stronger protections for endangered species in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Progressives and green-minded voters made no demands of Obama during the election and sat silently as he backed off-shore oil drilling, pledged to build new nuclear plants and sang the virtues of the oxymoron known as clean-coal technology.

Looking back, it is easy to see the writing on the wall. The battered S&P Coal index rose by three percent on the day Obama introduced the coal-friendly Salazar as his nominee. Their investment in Salazar is now paying off dearly, at the public’s expense.

Joshua Frank is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter@brickburner

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail