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George W. and the Fossil Fuel Posse

Alternet Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the revised and updated edition of David Helvarg's 'The War Against the Greens' (Johnson Books, June 2004).

When I wrote the first edition of "The War Against the Greens" in 1994 I predicted that the violent "Wise Use" backlash against environmentalists created by public lands industries like mining and timber might someday be superceded by a more powerful force. I thought the threat of climate change might see the emergence of a reactionary backlash supported by the largest industrial combine in human history, the fossil fuel industry. Still I failed to predict they'd be able to place one of their own in the Oval Office.

Today not only the President, but his father, his vice-president, his Secretary of Commerce and National Security advisor are all petroleum industry alumnae. Condoleezza Rice even had an oil tanker named after her. Chevron changed its name after she was appointed to the White House. The story of the energy industry's dollar-fueled ascent to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one full of drama, both high and low. There is also no lack of Oedipal irony -- not the least of which is that the Wise Use backlash of the 1990s, which helped define George W. Bush's hostile attitude toward the environment, is in large measure the product of Western conservatives' loathing for his father.

"He [Bush Sr.] had big shoes to fill (Reagan's) and the truth is we had no access, so we were pissed," recalls Ron Arnold a founding ideologue of Wise Use and vice-president at the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

"Not greatly enamored of him," is how Grant Gerber, Arnold's early competitor on the anti-enviro right remembers it. Today Gerber is involved in the Elko, Nevada based Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, a Wise Use cowboy posse that illegally reopened a Forest Service road closed to protect an endangered species of bull trout. This bit of Fed-bashing didn't prevent the Bush administration from naming Demar Dahl, president of the Shovel Brigade, to a Department of Interior advisory panel on land use.

Intro To Nature 101

Certainly George W. identifies himself with the rugged cowboy image that Wise Use has learned to cultivate and market. When President Putin of Russia came to visit Bush at his 1,600-acre hobby ranch in Crawford, Texas back in 2001, he was excited about the prospect of riding horses with America's Commander-in-Chief.

But he soon learned that, unlike Ronald Reagan, W. doesn't actually ride horses. He prefers to drive around his ranch in a white Ford F-150 pick-up truck (Putin got to ride shotgun). Bush also enjoys "clearing brush" with a chainsaw. His ranch work, along with Dick Cheney's bird hunting and fly fishing, may be what the President means when he speaks of his "appreciation of America's nature."

If the personal is political, then Midland, Texas, where Bush spent his formative years, could be thought of as his introduction to nature. Midland is a Lone Star Eden much like Yellowstone National Park; if you took away Yellowstone's bears, wolves, trees, mountains, lakes, rivers and geysers. Midland is of course a flat, once dusty (since paved) Texas oil town closer to gushers than geysers.

Although George W., unlike his father, failed to make any money in oil, he did work in the industry in the years before he stopped drinking and found Jesus (and either providentially or through insider trading, made $848,000 dollars selling off his oil stock just before his former company went bankrupt). It was also Texas oil money that helped win him elected office as Governor of Texas and later helped fund his campaign for President of the United States.

Lack of Energy

Within weeks of Bush taking office California began experiencing energy shortages and blackouts, the result of deregulation of its energy market that made the state vulnerable to supply manipulations by Enron and other out-of-state companies. It was only after the feds -- reluctantly -- capped wholesale energy prices that the shortages went away.

Deregulation and long-distance energy-trading of electricity across a dilapidated power grid would also contribute to the massive Northeast power blackout of August 2003. FirstEnergy, the nation's fifth largest utility that set off the cascading power failure had a long history of neglect, including a shut-down of its nuclear power plant and a major air pollution conviction days before the blackout. Still it managed to remain well plugged in to Washington, contributing over $640,000 to the Republican Party in 2000.

In early 2001 Bush claimed the country was facing an energy supply crisis and established a White House taskforce under Vice President Dick Cheney to formulate an oil production plan. The taskforce was filled with Bush "Pioneers" -- industry folks like Enron CEO (and Bush family friend) Ken Lay, who'd raised over $100,000 in individual contributions for Bush's election campaign. FirstEnergy CEO Anthony Alexander was another Pioneer who met with Cheney to discuss energy policy.

Although the Vice President's office denied the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, access to taskforce records, or even a list of who participated, one corporate figure known to be behind the administration's energy plan was Cheney himself. In 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, the oil supply (and now war contracting) company, he'd been a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Department of Energy.

That year Cheney and his colleagues issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and wilderness areas of the West to fossil fuel development, proposals incorporated into the White House plan. The first point of the 25-point Wise Use Agenda also calls for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. This is followed by proposals to log the Tongass National Forest of Alaska (which the Bush administration approved in late 2003), and all other old-growth trees on public lands (with a flip suggestion that replacing "decadent" old trees with carbon-dioxide-absorbing young tree farms will reduce global warming).

The Agenda also calls for gutting the Endangered Species Act, opening wilderness to commercial development and motorized recreation, and giving management of National Parks over to private firms, which the administration is promoting as "outsourcing."

Like Father, Like Son -- Only More

It's worth remembering that when the Wise Use Agenda came out in 1988 it was seen as an extractive industry wish list, one that the first Bush White House would never have openly embraced. However, returning to the Oedipal theme, while the father raised taxes, the son carried out the most extensive tax-cuts in US history; while the father chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the son finished off Saddam's regime and began a war of occupation. While the father was distrusted by the hard right of his party, the son is seen as one of their own; and while the first Bush was rated as having a mixed record on the environment, the same can not be said for his son.

In his 2004 State of the Union address President Bush failed to mention the environment. In his 2003 State of the Union address he called for investing in hydrogen powered cars. After initial reluctance the administration also implemented Clinton-era proposals to reduce arsenic in drinking water and reduce air pollution from diesel trucks and bulldozers. And it ordered GE to clean up PCB contaminants in the Hudson River.

The Washington press corps liked to portray Bush's first EPA administrator, former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, as the administration's token environmentalist. This goes back to her mistaken assumption early on that the President would stick to his 2000 campaign pledge to reduce global warming CO2 emissions.

In fact within two months of taking office the President reneged on that pledge, some of his defenders arguing that he hadn't understood what he was saying. He also withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change signed by over 160 nations.

In the face of firm scientific consensus that human-enhanced climate change constitutes a clear and present danger, the President insisted there was still "an incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change."

In arguing this he quoted discredited statistics from the Greening Earth Society, a front group created by the coal-powered Western Fuels Association that argues the benefits of global warming. He then ordered the prestigious National Academies of Science to review the state of the science. Like dozens of previous assessments their report concluded that human activities were, "causing surface air temperature and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise."

'Clear Skies,' Dirty Air

In 2002 the EPA put out another report identifying how the United States will experience dramatic changes in the coming decades resulting from climate change, including water shortages, extreme weather events, and infestations of disease-bearing insects (mosquito-borne Dengue fever and West Nile virus being two examples).

"I read the report put out by the bureaucracy," Bush then told reporters at a press conference, assuring them he remained skeptical about the whole business. His former spokesman Ari Fleischer later admitted that the president hadn't actually "read" the report, but had been briefed on it.

One of the conclusions of the EPA's "Climate Action Report," is that global warming will contribute to an increase in US air pollution.

Still, by the time Whitman left the EPA in June 2003, pollution enforcement at the agency had dropped 40%. "We were all thrilled when she left," an EPA enforcement attorney told me shortly after her departure. "We were cheering."

Whitman also backed away from clean air standards she had endorsed as Governor of New Jersey, instead touting a White House "Clear Skies" initiative of market trading in airborne pollutants such as nitrous oxide and mercury. If approved by Congress "Clear Skies" would do less to clean up the air than pre-existing programs that the administration has gutted. One of those programs, called "New Source Review" required thousands of older, coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and industrial plants to install new "smoke-stack scrubbers," when they expanded production.

In late 2003 the EPA announced it would no longer be required to install anti-pollution devices. Voluntary action would be sufficient. The EPA next announced it would drop legal investigations of 10 utility companies that (like FirstEnergy) had previously violated the program. Though the air would be dirtier, industry would save billions.

Whitman was replaced by States' Rights champion Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah. Leavitt is a self-described "moderate" who favors the "devolution of federal power" to the states. Leavitt's first major initiative as head of EPA was to propose that mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants, although a known neurotoxin, be removed from the most stringent regulations under the Clean Air Act.

Earlier he and the Bush administration had settled a lawsuit in a sweetheart deal that opened 2.6 million acres of Utah wilderness to mining, oil and gas development. Taking a page from the state of Utah, the Bureau of Land Management later directed its staff to investigate ways to expedite coal, oil and gas development on over 250 million acres of public lands.

Pretext For Pillage

While Christy Whitman proved herself a loyal trooper (going on CBS's David Letterman to praise Bush's "environmental accomplishments," before stepping down), it is Secretary of Interior Gail Norton who remains the President's point-woman in promoting "common-sense solutions to environmental policy," that function as a pretext for pillage.

When George W. Bush stood in front of a giant sequoia in California in May of 2001 and spoke of "a new environmentalism for the 21st century," that would, "protect the claims of nature while also protecting the legal rights of property owners," Gail Norton was by his side nodding approvingly. In August 2003 she was again by his side as he toured the West burnishing his environmental image with talk of "protecting healthy forests" and "caring for National Parks."

A Wise Use veteran, Norton helped Bush through his environmental tutorial as a presidential candidate, providing the intellectual arguments that deregulation, devolution and free-markets are the best way to achieve environmental goals.

Two decades after Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Interior James Watt used these arguments to push for the privatization and industrialization of federal lands, pledging to "mine more, drill more, cut more timber," his agenda was again government policy. "Twenty years later it sounds like they've just dusted off the old work," confirms the now-retired Watt.

Today Gail Norton argues that opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling will provide the equivalent of 80 years of Iraqi oil imports (pre-invasion). She's also pursuing energy development, logging for "forest health" and motorized recreation on public lands, mountain top removal for coal mining in Appalachia, and captive breeding of endangered species in lieu of habitat protection. She's reversed a plan that would have banned snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and promoted a plan to "outsource" National Park jobs to private firms.

"Dick Cheney sits on our board of directors but he's no pen pal...Gail is a friend," says Wise Use leader Ron Arnold.

Still, with the elections looming and his ratings headed in the opposite direction of gasoline prices even George W. needs to appear to care about the environment if he hopes to hang on to "suburban swing-voters" (i.e., women who do care about clean air and water). He recently went to Florida to tout wetlands protection and accuse John Kerry of promoting offshore oil drilling (as does his administration).

Bush political advisor Karl Rove recently claimed that the president is following in the "environmentalist tradition of Teddy Roosevelt." The same Teddy Roosevelt who condemned "the land grabbers and great special interests" of the coal, timber and oil cartels, and insisted that "the rights of the public to the nation's natural resources outweigh all private rights."?

Right.

David Helvarg is a journalist and documentary producer, and the author of "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas."

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