Aside from periodic anxious noises about oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, the first Bush II administration has been a time of greater silence about environmental politics than any era since the modern green movements began to make their presence felt in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that the matter has been forgotten by the Bush gang itself, which has proceeded to rewrite or simply abolish long-standing regulations--most often, though not exclusively, on behalf of its many friends in the timber and oil industries.
Last week I phoned up my old colleague, the environmental writer Jeffrey St. Clair at Counterpunch (www.counterpunch.org), to get a bill of particulars on the Bush crew's activities. St. Clair's new book, Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me (Common Courage Press, $19.95), collects over a decade's worth of his essays and reportage about the environment and U.S. environmental politics.
City Pages: Since 9/11 there's been a virtual blackout in environmental coverage in mass media--I remember a TV photo op for one of Bush's clear-cutting initiatives a few months back. And that's about it. What's the Bush gang been up to under cover of darkness?
Jeffrey St. Clair: It's not just the media observing a blackout. The environmental groups themselves chose to stand down after 9/11. They said they didn't want to be seen as unpatriotic in challenging the Bush administration over the environment. The Bush administration was not under the same kind of self-restraint, however. They used 9/11 as a pretext to eviscerate the Constitution, and they used it to go full-bore after many of their long-sought environmental prizes. Across every sector of environmental policy, they have moved to undo a 35-year legacy of environmental laws that started under one of their idols, Nixon.
To a certain extent, they were helped in this by eight years of Clinton, who opened many of the doors for them. They're also greatly helped by the stand-down of the environmental groups and the actions of many Democrats in Congress. And the administration has gone for it with the utmost zeal: "voluntary compliance" with environmental regulations, meaning no enforcement; privatization of public land; evisceration of the federal environmental protection agencies; suppression of dissent and of whistleblowers within those agencies; oil and gas drilling in areas other than ANWR, which serves to distract a lot of people.
They wanted to roll back clean air rules and clean water rules, they wanted to gut what remained of the Endangered Species Act, and they have largely done so. In the West, the great prizes were in the privatizing of federal land as quickly as possible, and they've done that through what are known as "land exchanges." If you're a big timber corporation and you've logged off all the old growth on your land, you can leave behind the stumps and the eroding mountainsides and trade that parcel for some prime old-growth timber still owned by the government. So the timber companies get the irreplaceable old-growth forests and the public gets the stumps.
And it's on a massive scale. What they have called the Healthy Forest Initiative really means that you log it as fast as you can without compliance toward any environmental laws. There have been two issues that the environmental movement has chosen to stand up and fight on. One is the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and the other is this forest initiative. The enviros got $10 million from various foundations to fight this Healthy Forest Initiative, and they just got the shit kicked out of them on Capitol Hill. They were betrayed by a troika of western Democrats who the environmental movement has long supported: Dianne Feinstein, Max Baucus, and our Ron "The Weenie" Wyden here in Oregon. These three are the Zell Millers of the West.
CP: Besides the situations you've just described, which stories come to mind as the most underreported major environmental stories of our day?
St. Clair: The oil war on the home front is the great untold national story. The press has been fixated on what's happening with ANWR. They've totally ignored two great prizes of the oil industry. The first is the Rocky Mountain Front, on the east side of the Rockies from Montana through Wyoming, and the section of the Great Plains that stretches east from the Front all the way to eastern Montana.
The second is in Alaska. While the great fight is brewing over ANWR, there is also the matter of the National Petroleum Reserve about a hundred miles away. It's 24 million acres in size, and was set aside in the 1920s, I believe, for use only in international emergencies. They didn't get into its reserves for WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the energy crisis of the '70s--those events weren't sufficient to crack these reserves. But Clinton opened the door and they began letting leases in the eastern section. But even then, there were restrictions on where they could go drilling. Now Bush has opened up the much more extensive western region of the reserve. This area has every environmental virtue of ANWR two or three times over. And the oil is under the most ecologically valuable land in the entire area. And there's a lot of coal there as well. So, with this administration, it's not impossible that you would see strip mining on the Arctic plain. And you will search the press in vain for coverage of it.
There's an oil rush on now. Actually it's oil and gas and this awful coal-bed methane, which forms just the most vile kind of groundwater pollution. It's an almost untold story, but you're looking at perhaps the most extensive natural gas drilling that's ever been done in the world, for example, right here in the U.S. in the Powder River Basin in northern Wyoming. They're about set to get started drilling, and it's all been done with an exemption from environmental review, and it's spearheaded by Steven Griles, the deputy Interior secretary, who is a former lobbyist for the very firms that are now holding these leases for oil and gas. It's a huge bonanza. It makes the Teapot Dome Scandal look like a minor stock trade in comparison. The environmental consequences of this are much more severe than in Teapot Dome.
The sad thing is, that area has been a battleground at least since the Watt era. And the drillers had largely been fought off by a unique coalition of tribes, environmentalists, and old-time ranchers. Now these are three groups that have rarely been able to sit in the same room with each other. But they came together and beat the oil companies for many years, and would have beaten them again had there been an opportunity for a fair fight. But the game was fixed.
It's that level of obscene corruption that distinguishes the Bush administration from the ones that preceded it. As an unrepentant Nader supporter who has long said there's not a dime's worth of difference generally between the Reagan and Clinton and Bush administrations, I still hold basically to that line. I think the difference with this Bush administration compared to previous Republican administrations, though, is that there's no effort to camouflage what they're doing. There's no effort to deploy any kind of green rhetoric. They are what they are, greedy bastards who want everything they can get as fast as they can get it, and they don't disguise it. It's kind of a refreshing honesty in government. [Laughs]
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