How Big Oil Bought the Interior Department

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For justice to reign, Salazar, Obama, BP and Halliburton need to be brought before something like the International Climate Tribunal proposed at last month’s alternative Climate Summit in Bolivia

by Billy Wharton

Big oil and coal interests seemed to have reached their high point with the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. He was a well-heeled oil man, as firmly committed to the military seizure of the world’s oil spigot, as he was hostile to the kind of science that spoke about anti-business notions such as global warming.

But the influence of big energy was supposed to have faded with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Obama promised a new age of political sanity, where the US would be brought into line with global opinion about pressing issues such as carbon emissions and the transition to clean energy sources.

Then, a humble Coloradan named Ken Salazar, with a cowboy hat that seemed permanently affixed to his head, ambled to the microphone to accept Obama’s nomination to be the new Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, a bird shuddered as the future of its habitat was sealed, when big energy was put back in charge of the one part of government capable of reining it in.

The Early Clashes

Salazar had a long record of clashes with environmental activists when he was the Attorney General for the State of Colorado in the 1990s. One particularly ominous case, given the current BP oil spill and cleanup, involved Salazar botching the Summitville Mine Superfund cleanup. He claimed that the Canadian-based Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp. would be made to pay for the environmental damage caused by their gold mining operation. In the end, Salazar’s inept negotiations and unwillingness to prosecute the company meant that millions of dollars in public funds were expended during the cleanup (Counterpunch, 12/18/2008). Salazar allowed Summitville to cut and run.

However, a good track record on environmental issues was not the new administration’s primary criteria when candidates for Secretary of the DOI were considered. Political expediency was the guiding principle in this Obama appointment. Salazar fit the bill because he was likely to fly through confirmation hearings by with the support of an odd coalition of energy corporations and Republican senators preparing to make war against the new administration and big-name environmental groups.

What ensued was one part political theatre – the backwoods, cowboy hat wearing Senator with rural sensibilities comes to the capital – and one part pure Washington power politics – yet another example of big corporations installing their representative into a position of decision-making power.

The Appointment

Love-fests during confirmation hearings should immediately raise suspicions. Salazar fulfilled all of Obama’s expectations as the hearings proceeded, winning over even the most obstinate Republican critics of the new administration. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) neatly summarized the event as, “a full-fledged bouquet-tossing festival” (Denver Post, 1/15/2009).

Even Jim DeMint, the politically paranoid Republican Senator from South Carolina, took time off from his campaign to “save freedom” from Obama’s “socialist agenda” to praise Salazar. At first, DeMint was convinced that Salazar was the front man for Obama’s grand scheme to “…cut off America’s energy supply,” but he left the hearing convinced that “we’re pretty much on the same page” (LA Times, 1/16/2009).

Big-ticket environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, also joined the festivities, giving Salazar a score of 100% for his record as a Senator.

Outside the hearings, things were less cordial. Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which had overwhelmingly supported the Obama presidential campaign, viewed Salazar as a “disappointing choice.” Salazar claimed that he wanted “to clean up the mess” left by the scandal-ridden, anti-science Bush administration DOI, but the CBD thought otherwise, viewing his record as having, “fought against federal action on global warming, against higher fuel efficiency standards, and for increased oil drilling and oil subsidies” as a serious liability.

However, these were the heady days of Obama-mania. Valid criticisms of Salazar from the left were buried under the “anybody but Bush” and “Change We Can Believe In” hysteria. Surely, the thinking went, the new administration would mark a critical break from the Bush regime and a rational energy policy would be one part of the new consensus developing in the now Democratic Party controlled White House. But when Obama’s Colorado cowboy headed to the DOI, BP had already set up shop in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Contributors

A more critical review of Salazar’s record would have revealed direct links to the oil and coal sector. Since embarking on his career as a public official in 1989, his campaign contribution record is littered with donations from the energy sector including a $4,500 payment from BP (Center for Responsive Politics – CRP). However, Salazar has had two clear monetary benefactors since 1989 – the law firms Sherman & Howard and Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck. The two have contributed $140,138, a figure that easily dwarfs the next largest donation of $57,652 made by

Why would two law firms have such an interest in Salazar? Their client list reveals some answers. Formed in 1892, Sherman & Howard claims to be the oldest law firm in Denver, Colorado. It represents a wide variety of corporations, but the Westmoreland Coal Company (WCC), is of special interest: it is a big coal company that operates five surface coal mines in North Dakota, Montana and Texas and coal fired power plants in North Carolina that generate 230 megawatts of energy.

Not surprisingly, at his confirmation hearing Salazar gushed about an innovative energy program that would move the country away from dependence on foreign oil – “clean” coal. “The challenge,” Salazar told Congress, “is how we create clean coal. I believe that we will move forward with the funding of some of those demonstration projects so we can find ways to burn coal that don’t contribute to climate change” (Reuters, 2/11/2009). Arch Coal CEO Steve Leer praised Salazar’s “balanced approach” and stated that, “we often worked with him on natural resource issues” (Reuters, 2/11/2009). Arch Coal had also paid the price of admission by passing on a $2,000 campaign donation to Salazar in 2006.

Big oil was not to be outdone by big coal. Salazar’s other big Law firm supporter, Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck (BHFS), offers lobbying as well as legal services to their clients. Delta Petroleum Company retained BHFS in 2005 and since then has spent $960,000 to lobby elected officials on the issue of offshore oil drilling (Center for Responsive Politics). Delta also successfully sued to defend their lease claims to drilling sites in Federal waters off the Pacific coast (Amber Resources Company et al. v. United States). These sites had been leased to the company during the first term of the Reagan presidency, but the company had been blocked from oil exploration by the Federal government and the State of California.

In 2005, when it appeared Delta would finally be able to exercise its drilling rights, a lawsuit was filed by the State of California and several environmental groups claiming that Delta had not filed sufficient impact analysis reports. The suit delayed the exploration, and Delta was eventually compensated for its lease claims as they continued to press their right to offshore drilling via BHFS lobbying efforts.

Enter Ken Salazar. In March 2010, with most of the outstanding lawsuits filed by environmental groups during the Bush administration settled, Salazar and Obama announced a radical expansion of offshore drilling projects all along the Eastern seaboard and in Alaska. This maritime equivalent to “Drill, Baby Drill,” was presented by the DOI Secretary as a “middle-ground” compromise between oil companies and conservationists. For Delta Petroleum, it was lobbying money well spent, as their political pressure and campaign generosity opened completely new terrain for exploration.

The Lawsuits

Eventually, Obama-mania wore off and lawsuits began. Some suits sought to force Salazar and the DOI to protect one or another endangered animal. First, it was the rapidly dwindling Colorado River Cutthroat Trout. Then the prairie songbird, the Sprague’s Pipit, which had been endangered by the degradation of grasslands in the middle of the country and was being ignored by the DOI. As lawsuits piled up, environmental groups became accustomed to meeting an Obama administration that displayed remarkably hostility to conservation that was remarkably similar to its predecessor.

Eventually, the legal action targeted the core of the administration’s environmentally hostile energy policy. On November 16, 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust, and Salazar’s former backers at the Sierra Club filed suit to challenge Salazar’s approval of re-starting uranium mining at a closed mine in the Grand Canyon. The challenge failed and the mining proceeded in January 2010. In May 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was forced to act on the issue, ruling that the mine was being operated in violation of the law since its operator, Denison Mines, failed to notify the agency that it had resumed operations (Associated Press, 5/4/2010). The EPA will issue daily fines but needs action from the DOI to shut down the mine.

The Powder River Basin that links Wyoming and Montana was the next setting for a legal challenge to the DOI, which, through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued 21 coal mining leases in the area over the past 20 years. The region now accounts for 42% of all the coal produced in the US and 13% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Under Salazar’s watch, the BLM now plans to add 12 new coal leases in the region.

As the group Wildearth Guardians pointed out in its lawsuit against Salazar, the region is not certified as a “Coal Producing Region,” which means that the coal companies can escape the normal procedures that require environmental impact analysis reports. Their suit remains in the court system while the coal operators continue to mine and pollute the region. Salazar continues to allow them to operate outside of the law (Wildlife Guardians v. Salazar and Abbey, 4/21/2010).

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, a Halliburton worker finished cementing BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling rig to the ocean floor. A mere 20 hours later, the rig exploded, creating one of the largest environmental disasters in history.

The Spill

Much has been made of the massive campaign contributions provided to the Obama campaign by BP. Indeed, the CRP reports that, at more than $70,000, Obama’s take from BP is nearly double the next contributor. Yet, the criminal act of releasing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean is about more than just campaign cash. It reveals how such contributions facilitate the gutting of environmental laws, the skirting of regulations and the continuance of a regulatory regime that empowers multinational corporations over and above the needs of the American people and the environment. Ken Salazar is at the center of this.

In April 2009, the DOI’s Mineral Management Service (MMS) gave BP a “categorical exclusion” from impact studies required by the EPA. BP was not alone: a DOI spokesperson told the Washington Post that the agency routinely grants 250 to 400 waivers per year. Just as he had done for the coal companies in the Powder River Basin, Salazar allowed BP and other offshore drillers to operate outside of the law. Instead of an independent study, the agency accepted BP’s self-assessment that the likelihood of a major spill was “minimal or non-existent” (Washington Post, 5/5/2010). No notice was taken that BP had contracted with Halliburton to cement the rig while the company was under investigation for a faulty cementing job that led to a spill in the Timor Sea in 2009.

In the days prior to the spill, BP was using its ample lobbying muscle to push the MMS to extend its waiver, thereby avoiding a new environmental impact study. This proposal would have undoubtedly been accepted by a DOI that, under Ken Salazar’s direction, had become a rubber stamp for big oil and big coal.

The Fallout

In coming weeks, the Obama administration will undoubtedly search for a fall guy to blame for the BP oil spill. Ken Salazar is a likely and deserving candidate. But as the oil continues to flow and the ecology of the Gulf region suffers irreparable harm, an accounting must be made of the role of the White House itself. BP’s oil spill may be a watershed moment for Obama – an event that so exposes the bankruptcy of an administration that it permanently shatters the confidence of the people it aims to govern.

When corporations rule the world, they do so to ensure their own self-preservation through the accumulation and exploitation of natural resources. People get hurt and ecosystems are destroyed, but this is just the collateral damage.

Two simple concepts may offer an alternative to madness of this system – democracy and justice. For democracy to succeed, new voices outside of mainstream politics must make themselves heard at the protest marches and at the ballot boxes – not just in lawsuits.

For justice to reign, Salazar, Obama, BP and Halliburton need to be brought before something like the International Climate Tribunal proposed at last month’s alternative Climate Summit in Bolivia. Only then, will a full accounting be made of the damage that decades of capitalist production has done and a new road toward ecological harmony be mapped out.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and editor of Socialist WebZine. An earlier version of this article was published in Counterpunch.

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