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Climate Bill Skirmishes Pt. 1: The Murkowski Amendment June 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Politics.
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4 comments

Energy reform is long overdue for this country and it was on the legislative agenda even before BP sponsored 2010 as “Oil Drilling Risk Awareness Year.”  The House of Representatives passed its climate/energy bill almost a year ago, and the Senate is finally preparing to attempt to follow suit.

The first skirmishes of the climate battle have already been fought in the Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment and a much less publicized incident regarding ocean acidification in the House of Representatives (which will be presented in a second post due to the unexpected length of this one).

Let’s start from the beginning.  As you may know, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases (GHGs) pose enough of a public health risk (via climate change) to be considered “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act.

That ruling imposed a legal obligation upon the EPA to do one of two things:

1)    Either issue an “endangerment finding” that carbon dioxide poses a public health risk – and then regulate GHG emissions, or;

2)    Provide proof that carbon dioxide is harmless.  Such proof does not exist, so the Obama EPA issued its endangerment finding in November 2009.

There were two years between the Supreme Court ruling and the endangerment finding.  Why?  The Bush administration.

Jason Burnett was a former associate deputy administrator of the Bush EPA.  The Supreme Court ruling came in April 2007.  The following December, Burnett emailed the EPA’s conclusion that GHGs are pollutants to a White House office.  When White House officials heard he was sending that email, they called him and ordered him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some email programs).  Burnett refused and resigned.

In June 2008, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in that EPA email, they had simply never opened it.  They just left it in their inbox, unread, with the justification that they didn’t have to act on the email if they hadn’t read it. That actually happened.  And it was enough to delay climate action in the executive branch for years – until Obama’s election.

When Obama’s EPA finally released its endangerment finding last year, the ring wing threw a fit.  Republicans had been enjoying decades of legislative success in blocking climate and energy reform, and here was Obama’s tyrannical executive branch finally putting the nation’s interests first and actually acting against a grave threat.  How dare they?

Congressional Republicans were particularly angry about the endangerment finding because it could supplant congressional authority [not] to legislate on the issue.  So last January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an amendment to reverse the EPA’s endangerment finding.

For a senator with such a proven history of representing the oil industry, it seems like a basic piece of legislation: the endangerment finding gives the EPA the authority and obligation to act, so her amendment seeks simply to overturn the ruling to remove that impetus.  But consider what she was actually attempting to do.

The endangerment finding is a nonpartisan summary of science.  All it says is that a warming climate caused in part by human emissions of GHGs will present a public health and welfare risk.  That’s it.  No policy prescriptions, just scientists warning about a scientific danger.

Obama and Bush have very, very different stances on climate change.  Yet the Obama administration’s endangerment finding is very similar to the one that was produced and then buried by the Bush administration (it was released last October by a Freedom of Information Act request).  The science is settled.  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) correctly described the Murkowski amendment as, “a choice between real science and political science.

The Murkowski “Dirty Air” Amendment sought to grant Congress the authority to determine what is scientifically true in our world.  It is the most inappropriate piece of legislation I have ever seen.  Moreover, it was a reprehensibly transparent demonstration of the level of industry involvement in our legislature – the Murkowski amendment was literally written by lobbyists for the oil industry!

Another post with no good visuals, so here's Murkowski in a different fishy situation.

“Who elected the Environmental Protection Agency?” asked a furious Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).  Answer me this, John: who elected the oil lobbyists who wrote this amendment?  Scientists are qualified to address scientific concerns.  If scientists tell us carbon dioxide is irrefutably a pollutant, that point should be legislatively unimpeachable.  I should never have had to make that point.  The only people overstepping their bounds here are the senators who voted for this amendment.  And they’re doing it to preserve their right to continue shirk their duty to that electorate Barrasso pretends to care so much about.

The measure came up for a vote last week.  It failed, but barely: 53-47.  Every Republican and six Democrats* voted for the amendment.  And more Democrats than that expressed support for this resolution before cowing to party pressure.  Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) even has his own pending version of the proposal that would undermine EPA authority for (at least) two years.

*Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Pryor (D-AR), Nelson (D-NE), Bayh (D-IN), Rockefeller (D-WV).

In reality, the Murkowski amendment was never going to become law.  It had very little chance of getting through the House, and even if it miraculously did, it would have met an Obama veto.  Everybody knew that, including Murkowski.  This was grandstanding.

Most people, even within the administration, don’t want the EPA to have to regulate carbon dioxide.  There is general agreement that Congress should be the body to address an issue as big as climate/energy.  Politically, this EPA action just puts a deadline on Congress…a much-needed deadline, as they have postponed this issue for decades.  It also manufactures a talking point for Glenn Beck et al. about Obama’s plan to take over the country.

Conservatives who oppose progress have concluded that delay and doubt are more successful strategies than full denial.  That’s why Republicans always call for “more research” and tell Democrats they need to “go back to the drawing board” whenever we actually try to tackle an issue.  You saw it for healthcare reform and you will see it again for climate.  It lets them pretend to care about the issue in general and claim to just have problems with the specific way that Democrats are doing it.

But, like healthcare and a host of other issues, climate change is a threat that has already been put off for too long.  We must act now if we are to have any chance of preventing this crisis.  Congress has had ample time to act on this issue.  At some point, enough is enough.  If legislators refuse to take action yet again, it is fully appropriate for the EPA to do so. In fact, they are obligated by law.

The Murkowski amendment was the first round of this year’s climate battle.  And it demonstrates what a tough fight we have ahead.

This was not a bill to regulate GHGs.  The implications were clear, but no specific proposals were included here.  There were no numbers to argue about, no regional winners and losers yet.  This was an argument about whether or not to pass a law at all.  And the actual amendment didn’t even go that far – it was basically just a congressional rejection of climate science.  And it nearly passed.

Oil Execs Testify Before Congress…Technically May 11, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In case you didn’t have the pleasure of watching executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean testify before Congress Tuesday afternoon, I have compiled some highlights and thoughts below.

The testimony in the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources was revealing in how little it revealed.  If we are to learn from and respond to this tragic event, people will have to start changing their tunes.  As of today, they have not.  I mean that in respect to both the oil executives and many of our U.S. senators.  We’ll do the Big Oil execs first, then get into the senators.

First, the Big Oil execs:

If you have watched this kind of congressional testimony before, you know it is the world’s most boring dance.  Senators ask questions, and those testifying carefully choose their words to convey as little as possible – or claim memory loss.  Sometimes a senator will pursue an answer, but rarely does that actually extract the desired truth.

The only questions Big Oil actually answered today were those that Google could just have easily have answered, such as “is your company the largest offshore drilling contractor?”

Corporate legal teams carefully prep their executives to legally dodge the most damning questions.  That preparation, which largely defeats the purpose of these hearings, was on notable display twice this afternoon.

For over a week now, BP has said it is prepared to pay all legitimate claims.” They’ve been talking a big game about how they plan to repay their victims.

Conveniently, BP has yet to define exactly what claims it considers “legitimate.”  They are unlikely to do so until they are taken to court.  In his testimony, when pressed on this question, BP America President Lamar McKay did nothing but repeat that deliberately ambiguous phrase.

When general prodding from several senators went unanswered, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) finally tried to hold BP accountable.  She went down a list of likely claims against BP.  McKay’s response was the same nearly every time: “all legitimate claims.”

“1) Shrimpers who can’t earn their livelihoods?”

“We will pay all legitimate claims.”

“2) Beaches spoiled, tourism ruined?”

“All legitimate claims.”

“3) Children sickened by oil fumes?”

“All legitimate claims.”

Ad nauseam.

To top it off, McKay had the gall to follow up this laughable interaction with a preposterous assurance: “this is not about legal words, it’s about getting it done and getting it done right.”  No, sir, this is PRECISELY about legal words.  Please refrain from lying under oath, Mr. McKay.  It’s frowned upon.

The second most odious exchange of the hearing was when Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman was asked if this type of spill had happened before.  He replied that the only incident he could recall was the Ixtoc spill. To his credit, that spill was the worst of this type, but this answer is incredibly deceitful.

You’re trying to tell me that that Steven Newman, presumably a lifelong oilman, the president and CEO of an offshore drilling company that specializes in deepwater drilling, has to go back 31 years to recall an incident like this one?  I’ve never worked in the oil industry and even I know that THIS TYPE OF SPILL HAPPENED 8 MONTHS AGO (Halliburton is suspected to have caused that one too)!  In fact, even the photographers in that hearing room knew about the Montara spill: Sen. Menendez brought it up earlier in this very hearing!

Note that the response was deliberately and delicately phrased (“the only incident I can recall“) so as to avoid committing perjury.

Even as oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the oil industry and their congressional allies are STILL trying to cast offshore drilling as a safe practice.  This spill was not unconceivable and not unprecedented.  Senators and oil executives repeatedly called this accident “unique.”  The only thing unique about this oil well was that it was in even deeper water and even deeper underground than usual, so all the real risks associated with drilling and the complications of containment and cleanup for spills were MAGNIFIED!

It is also worth mentioning the conduct of the senators present:

The oil executives weren’t the only ones choosing their words carefully.  When I tuned in, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) had the microphone.  She was going to great lengths to avoid saying the words “oil” or “spill.”  She even referred to the Exxon Valdez “incident.”  This type of disingenuous wordplay is normally reserved for company spokespeople.  Sadly, this is par for the Murky course.

Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): It is difficult (although sadly, not THAT difficult) to find a U.S. senator doing LESS for the American people and more for industry special interests.

Murkowski is often derisively labeled as (R-OIL) because of her industry ties.  It is her “dirty air” amendment in the Senate that is attempting to strip the EPA of its authority (and indeed Supreme Court-issued mandate) to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.  It came as little surprise when news broke early this year that the amendment had not been written by the senator’s staff but rather by oil industry lobbyists themselves. She was merely their mouthpiece.  The things money can buy.

In her opening statement, Murkowski, the ranking minority member of the committee, explained why we need domestic oil drilling: “for the sake of our nation’s economy, for the sake of our national security, and this incident not withstanding, for the sake of our world’s environment.”  The economic and national security impacts of domestic offshore drilling have long been shown to be literally negligible, but I am genuinely curious to hear how this congressional oil flack would spin drilling as anything short of toxic for “our world’s environment.”  Too bad Murkowski wasn’t under oath too.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also took the opportunity to extol the virtues of domestic offshore drilling.  I would tell you more about his questioning, but I really don’t think I could.  When he had the microphone, I almost felt sorry for the industry executives; he never really put together a coherent sentence.  The inflection in his voice was raised when he stopped talking, and he clearly expected them to respond, but I didn’t even understand what he expected of them.  How fortunate, then, that the executives were coached not to give actual answers anyways.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was talking tough for her state.  She is in a fierce primary against a much more liberal opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.  But all her barking is election-year antics.  No congressperson receives more money from the oil industry than Landrieu, and she continues to push the lie that offshore drilling is vital to our country – even as oil begins to wash up on Louisiana beaches.  Her priority is making sure BP pays her voters quickly enough that she will be reelected to continue to act against our country’s best interests.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) were on point and champions.  They asked piercing questions and did their best to take the executives to task and get actual answers.  Yet there is only so much one can do within this broken system.

Having watched some testimony before, I know that these proceedings were not that unusual.  To me, this is not a defense of what transpired today but rather more proof that business as usual must change if we to move forward as a country, both in the context of this tragedy and more broadly.  Congress is an inertial body, but a catastrophe of this magnitude demands action.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.