4/30/2012 5:10:21 PM
The idea of a general
strike has a lot of resonance in the Occupy Movement. Last November, thousands
of activists converged on Frank Ogawa Plaza
in Oakland for a localized strike that
eventually shut down the Port
of Oakland. For many, it was
the most iconic moment of the movement thus far. When occupiers again shut the
Port down on December 12 in a coordinated West Coast action, the idea of a May
Day strike was born. Since then, Occupy groups in more than 100 cities have
signed on, and each with a unique set of tactics and goals. So far, those
tactics have been surprisingly diverse, from anti-foreclosure occupations to
marches and sit-ins, to strikes.
So what exactly is gonna
go down today? It’s hard to say. Though Occupy groups in more than 100
cities have all signed on to the May Day strike, each one has a different set
of goals and tactics. Some plans have been disparate and freewheeling, and some
much more coordinated.
As in the fall, the two
most dramatic focal points will likely be New
York City and the Bay Area. In New York, plans are nothing if not
ambitious. Occupiers have scheduled dozens
of simultaneous picket lines in Manhattan
and Brooklyn, many led by local unions like
the Teamsters and the UAW. Activists also plan to occupy Manhattan’s Bryant
Park throughout the day, and hold working groups, assemblies, and rallies
throughout the city—some legally permitted, some not. Aptly named teach-ins
like “How to Keep Your Cool and Occupy: Understanding Aggression” will also
take place. Amid so many diverse actions, the eyes of a lot of media outlets and
police will be on a march from Brooklyn to Union Square, and
then on to Wall Street beginning at 10:30 ET.
Likewise, activists in the
Bay Area have quite a lot planned. And unlike the November 2 strike, this time
around, organized labor is playing a big part. Although bridge workers in San Francisco have scrapped their proposal to shut down
the Golden Gate Bridge, they have no plans to return to
work. Having seen negotiations with management fall apart, they plan to shutdown
buses and ferries in the city as part of a larger strike. Some say blocking
the bridge is altogether off the table, reports Truth Out. Likewise, unions that stopped short of endorsing the
November 2 strike are calling on workers to participate. More than 4,000
members of the California Nurses Association will walk out. SEIU workers plan
to occupy city hall. On the East Bay, longshoremen will shut down the Port of Oakland for the third time in six
Francisco, Occupy events will also include rallies at Delores Park
in the Mission, and beginning nearby, a “Bike
Cavalry” critical mass ride to the Golden
On the East Bay,
rallies are planned throughout Oakland,
culminating in a March
for Dignity and Resistance, from the Fruitvale BART station in East Oakland
to Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Elsewhere, actions may be
less visible on national media outlets, but no less significant. In Chicago, immigrants plan to play a major
role, mirroring 2006’s extraordinary Day Without Immigrants, which also
occurred on May Day. In Los Angeles, occupiers
have organized a series of four bike and car caravans to the financial
district from places as far flung as Santa
Monica and South Central. Eventually, they hope to
make downtown inaccessible. Occupy DC organizers are planning a daylong festival with
teach-ins and performances to highlight the history of American labor.
Many of these actions have
happened before, at various times throughout Occupy’s brief history. It’s hard
to know how big tomorrow’s events will be, and yet, as Nathan Schneider of Yes! Magazine argues, there’s a good
chance it’ll be something
entirely new. Last October, demonstrators in over 900 cities around the
world participated in actions in support of Occupy. But even then, Occupy was
less than a month old, and activists hadn’t had the benefit of months
of training and planning—or such extensive support from organized labor. What
sets today apart is a level of coordination and planning that Occupy hasn’t
If, like us, you’re away
from the coasts and other Occupy hubs but still want to follow the action,
check back at Utne.com for the latest rumors, links, and second-hand
Image by Brian
Sims, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wall Street, Truth
Oakland, Chicago Spring,
Occupy May 1st, Occupy DC, Yes!,
4/19/2012 2:09:20 PM
It’s been awhile since Obama’s proposal for universal health
care was replaced by a compromise known as the Affordable Care Act. Despite
detractors from the right and left, Obamacare’s sell–that the Act would give
millions of uninsured Americans coverage–appeased many. But now, as we wait to
hear the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable
Care Act, some have begun to whisper of a second chance for a single-payer
If the Supreme Court declares the Affordable Care Act’s
individual mandate unconstitutional, single-payer
will almost certainly be back on the table, writes Yes! Magazine’s Sarah van Gelder (citing Labor Secretary Robert
Reich and columnist Rick
Ungar of Forbes Magazine). Van Gelder argues that single-payer
is what Americans want. “In poll after poll, a majority of Americans have
expressed support for single-payer health care or national health insurance.”
This may be the chance to get it, but proponents will have
to make their voices heard. “[I]t would be a long and difficult process,” reasons Arnold Relman in The American Prospect, “that would be
bitterly opposed by the private insurance industry and its friends […]
Nevertheless, there are reasons I believe this transformation has at least a
chance of becoming reality.” With an informed, engaged public and strong
support from doctors, Relman writes, single-payer advocates stand a fighting
chance to win the attention of legislators and outweigh the influence of lobbyists.
The stakes may be higher than ever, since a single-payer
system would save Americans $570 billion, reports economist Gerald Friedman
in Dollars & Sense. Though a
single-payer system "would raise some costs by providing access to care for
those currently uninsured or under-insured, it would save much larger sums by
eliminating insurance middlemen and radically simplifying payment to doctors
and hospitals. While providing superior health care, a single-payer system
would save as much as $570 billion now wasted on administrative overhead and
monopoly profits.” In the midst of a recession, with great need to invest in
renewable energy sources, education, sustainable transportation, and local food
systems, Americans may have a chance to do more with their money than line the pockets of
insurance company shareholders.
Image by Keith Ellison, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/19/2012 9:54:35 AM
Money in politics is a murky subject. The line between an official campaign and a Super PAC is blurry at best, and the "revolving door" between lobbies, bureaucrats and elected officials seems to grow wider with every election. Voters are overwhelmingly opposed to corporate influence in elections and decisions like Citizens United, and yet, there is a good deal of evidence that such big spending really does work.
Take state elections. A website
called Follow The Money has produced
a number of fascinating
graphics that chart the role of money in recent state-level contests. The site
is run by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and provides a
nice companion to Open Secrets,
which focuses more on federal races. Now, most of the 2012 data aren’t
available yet, but many of the maps and charts go back as far as 1996, and
paint a pretty clear picture of how significant big money can be.
One measure, called PULSE,
charts campaign contributions in state elections using a couple of
box-and-whisker plots—one for winners, one for losers. The 2008 results from my
home state of Minnesota
are above, showing all state offices that were up for reelection. Each dot is an individual candidate, with red for GOP, blue for Democrats, and green for third parties (the
yellow centers indicate incumbents). As you can see, the winners as a group
spent much more money trying to, well, win. This group is also full of outliers
who spent a lot more than the winners’ average, while the losers’ outliers tend
to go in the opposite direction.
In Minnesota at least, money seems to determine
a lot. But what’s interesting is that these are actually really good numbers
compared to other states. In California,
which has much less competitive races in terms of campaign contributions, the
charts looks very different:
Winners here spent
hundreds of thousands more, rather than just tens of thousands, and in 2008, only
one incumbent lost. And unlike in Minnesota,
both winners and losers skewed much more to the higher numbers in their
outliers, even though winners spent much more on average.
What future elections will
look like is hard to say, but it probably depends on what campaign finance law
looks like. The continued rise of Super PACs will undoubtedly have a big impact
across the country, but local elections are still generally cleaner than federal.
As Follow the Money notes, public financing has a big impact on these numbers.
which introduced public financing in 2000, the median gap between winners and
losers dropped by a factor of more than three, compared with the 1996 cycle.
Right now, only a handful
of states and local governments have similar measures—including Maine, Connecticut, and Portland, Oregon—but
more could be on the way. Reform advocates like MoveOn.org and Demos are
seeking to establish
public financing in New York State, while West Virginia has already launched a similar
program for this year’s contest. Nationally, the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill
introduced last year into the House and Senate, would allow members of Congress
to take public campaign cash.
And in Montana, where no public financing system
exists, legislators have nevertheless challenged the Citizens United decision by barring corporate donations. Earlier
this year, after the state’s high court struck down a challenge to the new law,
the Supreme Court suspended the decision, possibly pending further
consideration. According to the Brennan
Center for Justice, the law’s best chance is another high court showdown,
where reformers could have another
crack at the landmark 2010 decision.
How all of that shakes out
exactly is anyone’s guess, though odds are the Roberts Court will be hard to sway. That
being said, with such
a large number of people opposed to the decision, local and state election
law may become a greater battleground. In places like Arizona
and Portland, 2012
doesn’t have to be the year of the Super PAC.
Images by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: Open Secrets, Public Campaign Action Fund, National Institute on Money in State Politics, Brennan Center for Justice.
4/16/2012 2:23:53 PM
Last week, Fannie Mae (via MarketWatch) reported that Americans were warming
up to the idea of homeownership for the first time in years. After a
behemoth of a housing crisis, 73 percent of Americans now believe that it’s a
good time to buy a home. If the housing market is ready for a turnaround,
prices will only go up, and Americans seem ready to embrace a return to
There’s just one problem:
there’s a good chance it won’t matter. Aside from the fact that polls like this
can be very misleading (last April, Gallup came up
similar numbers), the housing market faces a demographic problem that isn’t
likely to go away any time soon.
Since 2006, exurbs and
outer-ring suburbs have been losing residents as families move into large
cities in greater and greater numbers. This is first time in decades that many
suburban counties have seen a loss in
population, reports Urbanland.
Part of this has been the housing crisis. Exurbs dotted with subprime developments
have been hemorrhaging residents for years, but this won’t go on forever. A
greater problem, says John K. McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, comes as boomers retire. Baby boomers created
the strongest demand for housing in American history, but their offspring are
not likely to do the same. Generation X is far too small to make a similar
impact, and Millennials (the echo boom) so far don’t seem all that interested
in homeownership, or suburban living. This means that, even if the housing
market gets going again, there’s no chance for demand to reach pre-recession
The larger issue is that
suburbanization as a social and cultural process is designed for a bygone era.
The postwar years were a deeply unequal period of American history, and suburbanization
reflected that, especially in terms of race. Redlining—segregating
neighborhoods based on race—was federal policy through most of the postwar
boom, and segregation remains
a serious problem in many areas. But the 1950s and 1960s was also a time
when the environmental impact of development was not really a consideration. With
and more people and local
governments interested in transit, cycling, and walkability, car-dependent
suburbs seem increasingly out of place.
But what’s really
interesting about this trend is that it’s not the result of any actual federal
policy. Since the end of World War II, federal dollars planned, created, and
maintained suburbia, through public highways, home mortgage insurance, tax
deductions for homeowners, and other incentives. As John D. Fairfield points
out in 2010’s fascinating The Public and
Its Possibilities, in the years following World War II, federal money made
suburban homeownership actually cheaper than renting in large cities—at least
for the white middle class.
And since then, the
fundamentals haven’t changed all that much. The FHA still subsidizes suburban
homeownership (albeit more equally), and federal highways and infrastructure still
make suburban life possible. Obama has signaled that he’d like to rethink
some of these policies, including getting rid of Fannie and Freddie and reducing
mortgage subsidies for new buyers, but actual changes are not likely soon. In
the meantime, we may see even more people defy government incentives to settle
away from urban centers—young people, especially. If these trends continue,
cities could look very different over the next generation. Homeownership may
remain an American Dream, but suburbs may not.
Society Pages, Treehugger,
Atlantic, the Public and Its Possibilities, Huffington.
4/5/2012 3:45:38 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
“fivedollaragallongas,” the energy watchword for the next few months is:
“subsidies.” Last week, for instance, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez proposed ending some of the billions of dollars in handouts
enjoyed by the fossil-fuel industry with a “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act.”
It was, in truth, nothing to write home about -- a curiously skimpy bill that
only targeted oil companies, and just the five richest of them at that. Left
out were coal and natural gas, and you won’t be surprised to learn that even
then it didn’t pass.
President Obama is now calling for an end to oil subsidies at every stop on his
early presidential-campaign-plus-fundraising blitz -- even at those stops where
he’s also promising to “drill everywhere.” And later this month Vermont Senator
Bernie Sanders will introduce a much more comprehensive bill that tackles
all fossil fuels and their purveyors (and has no chance whatsoever of passing this
Whether or not
the bill passes, those subsidies are worth focusing on. After all, we’re talking
at least $10 billion in freebies and, depending on what you count, possibly as
much as $40 billion annually in freebie cash for an energy industry already
making historic profits. If attacking them is a convenient way for the White
House to deflect public anger over rising gas prices, it is also a perfect fit
for the new worldview the Occupy movement has been teaching Americans. (Not to
mention, if you think about it, the Tea Party focus on deficits.) So count on
one thing: we’ll be hearing a lot more about them this year.
But there’s a problem: the very word “subsidies” makes American eyes glaze
over. It sounds so boring, like something that has everything to do with
finance and taxes and accounting, and nothing to do with you. Which is just the
reaction that the energy giants are relying on: that it’s a subject profitable
enough for them and dull enough for us that no one will really bother to
challenge their perks, many of which date back decades.
By some estimates, getting rid of all the planet’s fossil-fuel
subsidies could get us halfway to ending the threat of climate change. Many of
those subsidies, however, take the form of cheap, subsidized gas in
petro-states, often with impoverished populations -- as in Nigeria, where popular protests forced the government to back down on a
decision to cut such subsidies earlier this year. In the U.S., though,
they’re simply straightforward presents to rich companies, gifts from the 99%
to the 1%.
attention is to be paid, we have to figure out a language in which to talk
about them that will make it clear just how loony our policy is.
Start this way: you subsidize something you want to encourage, something
that might not happen if you didn’t support it financially. Think of something
we heavily subsidize -- education. We build schools, and give government loans
and grants to college kids; for those of us who are parents, tuition will often
be the last big subsidy we give the children we’ve raised. The theory is: young
people don’t know enough yet. We need to give them a hand when it comes to
further learning, so they’ll be a help to society in the future. From that
analogy, here are five rules of the road that should be applied to the
subsidize those who already have plenty of cash on hand. No one would propose a
government program of low-interest loans to send the richest kids in the
country to college. (It’s true that schools may let them in more easily on the
theory that their dads will build gymnasiums, but that’s a different story.) We
assume that the wealthy will pay full freight. Similarly, we should assume that
the fossil-fuel business, the most profitable industry on Earth, should pay its
way, too. What possible reason is there for giving Exxon the odd billion in
extra breaks? Year after year the company sets record for money-making -- last
year it managed to rake in a mere $41 billion in profit, just
failing to break its own 2008 all-time mark of $45 billion.
subsidize people forever. If students need government loans to help them get
bachelor’s degrees, that’s sound policy. But if they want loans to get their
11th BA, they should pay themselves. We learned how to burn coal 300 years ago.
A subsidized fossil-fuel industry is the equivalent of a 19-year-old repeating
third grade yet again.
you’ll subsidize something for a sensible reason and it won’t work out. The
government gave some of our money to a solar power company called Solyndra. Though
it was small potatoes compared to what we hand over to the fossil-fuel
industry, it still stung when they lost it. But since we’re in the process of
figuring out how to perfect solar power and drive down its cost, it makes sense
to subsidize it. Think of it as the equivalent of giving a high-school senior a
scholarship to go to college. Most of the time that works out. But since I live
in a college town, I can tell you that 20% of kids spend four years drinking:
they’re human Solyndras. It’s not exactly a satisfying thing to see happen, but
we don’t shut down the college as a result.
subsidize something you want less of. At this point, the greatest human
challenge is to get off of fossil fuels. If we don’t do it soon, the
climatologists tell us, our prospects as a civilization are grim indeed. So
lending a significant helping hand to companies intent on driving us towards
disaster is perverse. It’s like giving a fellowship to a graduate student who
wants to pursue a thesis on “Strategies for Stimulating Donut Consumption Among
5. Don’t give
subsidies to people who have given you cash. Most of the men and women who vote
in Congress each year to continue subsidies have taken
campaign donations from big energy companies. In essence, they’ve been
given small gifts by outfits to whom they then return large presents, using our money, not theirs. It’s a
good strategy, if you’re an energy company -- or maybe even a congressional
representative eager to fund a reelection campaign. Oil Change International estimates that fossil-fuel companies get $59 back for every
dollar they spend on donations and lobbying, a return on investment that makes
Bernie Madoff look shabby. It’s no different from sending a college financial
aid officer a hundred-dollar bill in the expectation that he’ll give your
daughter a scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars. Bribery is what it
is. And there’s no chance it will yield the best energy policy or the best
These five rules
seem simple and straightforward to me, even if they don’t get at the biggest
subsidy we give the fossil-fuel business: the right -- alone among industries
-- to pour their waste into the atmosphere for free. And then there’s the small
matter of the money we sink into the military might we must employ to guard the various places
they suck oil from.
rid of these direct payoffs would, however, be a start, a blow struck for, if
nothing else, the idea that we’re not just being played for suckers and saps.
This is the richest industry on Earth, a planet they’re helping wreck, and
we’re paying them a bonus to do it.
In most schools
outside of K Street,
that’s an answer that would get a failing grade and we’d start calling
subsidies by another name. Handouts, maybe. Freebies. Baksheesh. Payola. Or to
use the president's formulation, "all of the above."
McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of
the global climate campaign
, and the author, most
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Image by Ben Lunsford, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/2/2012 2:10:39 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
The “curse” of
oil wealth is a well-known phenomenon in Third World
petro-states where millions of lives are wasted in poverty and the environment
is ravaged, while tiny elites rake in the energy dollars and corruption rules
the land. Recently, North America has been repeatedly hailed as the planet’s twenty-first-century “new
Saudi Arabia” for “tough energy” -- deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands,
and fracked oil and natural gas. But here’s a question no one considers: Will
the oil curse become as familiar on this continent in the wake of a new
American energy rush as it is in Africa and
elsewhere? Will North America, that is, become not just the next boom continent
for energy bonanzas, but a new energy Third World?
Once upon a
time, the giant U.S. oil
companies -- Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco -- got their start in North
America, launching an oil boom that lasted a century and made the U.S. the
planet’s dominant energy producer. But most of those companies have long since
turned elsewhere for new sources of oil.
Eager to escape ever-stronger environmental restrictions and dying oil
fields at home, the energy giants were naturally drawn to the economically and
environmentally wide-open producing areas of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin
America -- the Third World -- where oil deposits were plentiful, governments
compliant, and environmental regulations few or nonexistent.
Here, then, is
the energy surprise of the twenty-first century: with operating conditions
growing increasingly difficult in the global South, the major firms are now
flocking back to North America. To exploit
previously neglected reserves on this continent, however, Big Oil will have to
overcome a host of regulatory and environmental obstacles. It will, in other
words, have to use its version of deep-pocket persuasion to convert the United States into the functional equivalent of
a Third World petro-state.
observers are already noting the first telltale signs of the oil industry’s
“Third-Worldification” of the United
States. Wilderness areas from which the oil
companies were once barred are being opened to energy exploitation and other
restraints on invasive drilling operations are being dismantled. Expectations
are that, in the wake of the 2012 election season, environmental regulations
will be rolled back even further and other protected areas made available for
development. In the process, as has so often been the case with Third World petro-states, the rights and wellbeing of
local citizens will be trampled underfoot.
to the Third World of Energy
Up until 1950,
the United States was the
world’s leading oil producer, the Saudi Arabia of its day. In that
year, the U.S.
produced approximately 270 million metric tons of oil, or about 55% of the
world’s entire output. But with a postwar recovery then in full swing, the
world needed a lot more energy while America’s most accessible oil
fields -- though still capable of growth -- were approaching their maximum
sustainable production levels. Net U.S. crude oil output reached a peak of about 9.2 million barrels per day in 1970 and then
went into decline (until very recently).
the giant oil firms, which had already developed significant footholds in Indonesia, Iran,
Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, to
scour the global South in search of new reserves to exploit -- a saga told with
great gusto in Daniel Yergin’s epic history of the oil industry, The Prize. Particular attention was
devoted to the Persian Gulf region, where in 1948 a consortium of American
companies -- Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco -- discovered the world’s
largest oil field, Ghawar, in Saudi
Arabia. By 1975, Third World countries were producing 58% of the world’s oil supply, while the U.S. share had
dropped to 18%.
concerns also drove this search for new reserves in the global South. On
January 28, 1969, a blowout
at Platform A of a Union Oil Company offshore field in California’s Santa Barbara Channel produced
a massive oil leak that covered much of the area and laid waste to local
wildlife. Coming at a time of growing environmental consciousness, the spill
provoked an outpouring of public outrage, helping to inspire the establishment
of Earth Day, first observed one year later. Equally important, it helped spur
passage of various legislative restraints on drilling activities, including the
National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water
Act of 1972, and the Safe
Drinking Water Act of 1974. In addition, Congress banned new drilling in
waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico
also expanded areas designated as wilderness or wildlife preserves, protecting
them from resource extraction. In 1952, for example, President Eisenhower
established the Arctic
National Wildlife Range and, in 1980, this remote area of northeastern Alaska was redesignated
by Congress as the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ever since the discovery of oil in the
adjacent Prudhoe Bay area, energy firms have
been clamoring for the right to drill in ANWR, only to be blocked by one or
another president or house of Congress.
For the most
part, production in Third World countries
posed no such complications. The Nigerian government, for example, has long
welcomed foreign investment in its onshore and offshore oil fields, while
showing little concern over the despoliation of its southern coastline, where
oil company operations have produced a massive environmental disaster. As Adam
Nossiter of the New York Timesdescribed the resulting situation, “The Niger Delta, where
the [petroleum] wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on
the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year
for 50 years by some estimates.”
As vividly laid
out by Peter Maass in Crude World, a similar pattern is evident in many
other Third World petro-states where anything goes as compliant government
officials -- often the recipients of hefty bribes or other oil-company favors
-- regularly look the other way. The companies, in turn, don’t trouble
themselves over the human rights abuses perpetrated by their foreign government
“partners” -- many of them dictators, warlords, or feudal potentates.
But times change. The Third World
increasingly isn’t what it used to be. Many countries in the global South are
becoming more protective of their environments, ever more inclined to take ever
larger cuts of the oil wealth of their own countries, and ever more inclined to
punish foreign companies that abuse their laws. In February 2011, for example,
a judge in the Ecuadorean Amazon town of Lago
Agrio ordered Chevron to pay $9 billion in damages for
environmental harm caused to the region in the 1970s by Texaco (which the
company later acquired). Although the Ecuadorians are unlikely to collect a
single dollar from Chevron, the case is indicative of the tougher regulatory
climate now facing these companies in the developing world. More recently, in a
case resulting from an oil spill at an offshore field, a judge in Brazil has seized the passports of 17 employees of Chevron and U.S.
drilling-rig operator Transocean, preventing them from leaving the country.
production is on the decline in some developing countries like Indonesia and Gabon, while others have
nationalized their oil fields or narrowed the space in which private
international firms can operate. During Hugo Chávez’s presidency, for example,
Venezuela has forced all foreign firms to award a majority stake in their
operations to the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Similarly, the Brazilian
government, under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, instituted a rule
that all drilling operations in the new “pre-salt” fields in the Atlantic Ocean
-- widely believed to be the biggest oil discovery of the twenty-first century
-- be managed by the state-controlled firm, Petróleo de Brasil
Our Way to a Toxic Planet
in the Third World have forced the major U.S. and European firms -- BP,
Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total of France --
to look elsewhere for new sources of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately for
them, there aren’t many places left in the world that possess promising
hydrocarbon reserves and also welcome investment by private energy giants.
That’s why some of the most attractive new energy markets now lie in Canada and the United States, or in the waters off
their shores. As a result, both are experiencing a remarkable uptick in fresh
investment from the major international firms.
still possess substantial oil and gas deposits, but not of the “easy” variety
(deposits close to the surface, close to shore, or easily accessible for
extraction). All that remains are “tough” energy reserves (deep underground,
far offshore, hard to extract and process). To exploit these, the energy
companies must deploy aggressive technologies likely to cause extensive damage
to the environment and in many cases human health as well. They must also find
ways to gain government approval to enter environmentally protected areas now
The formula for
making Canada and the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first
century is grim but relatively simple: environmental protections will have to
be eviscerated and those who stand in the way of intensified drilling, from
landowners to local environmental protection groups, bulldozed out of the way.
Put another way, North America will have to be
extraction of shale oil and gas, widely considered the most crucial aspect of
Big Oil’s current push back into the North American market. Shale formations in
Canada and the U.S. are
believed to house massive quantities of oil and natural gas, and their accelerated
extraction is already helping reduce the region’s reliance on imported
sources, however, can only be extracted through a process known as hydraulic
fracturing (“hydro-fracking,” or just plain “fracking”) that uses powerful jets
of water in massive quantities to shatter underground shale formations,
creating fissures through which the hydrocarbons can escape. In addition, to
widen these fissures and ease the escape of the oil and gas they hold, the
fracking water has to be mixed with a variety of often poisonous solvents and
acids. This technique produces massive quantities of toxic
wastewater, which can neither be returned to the environment without
endangering drinking water supplies nor easily stored and decontaminated.
expansion of hydro-fracking would be problematic under the best of
circumstances, which these aren’t. Many of the richest sources of shale oil and
gas, for instance, are located in populated areas of Texas,
Pennsylvania, and New York. In fact, one of the most promising
sites, the Marcellus formation, abuts New York
City’s upstate watershed area. Under such
circumstances, concern over the safety of drinking water should be paramount,
and federal legislation, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, should
theoretically give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to
oversee (and potentially ban) any procedures that endanger water supplies.
companies seeking to increase profits by maximizing the utilization of
hydro-fracking banded together, put pressure on Congress, and managed to get
itself exempted from the 1974 law’s provisions. In 2005, under heavy lobbying
from then Vice President Dick Cheney -- formerly the CEO of oil services
contractor Halliburton -- Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which prohibited the EPA from
regulating hydro-fracking via the Safe Drinking Water Act, thereby eliminating
a significant impediment to wider use of the technique.
there has been a virtual stampede to the shale regions by the major oil
companies, which have in many cases devoured smaller firms that pioneered the
development of hydro-fracking. (In 2009, for example, ExxonMobil paid $31 billion to acquire XTO Energy, one of the leading
producers of shale gas.) As the extraction of shale oil and gas has
accelerated, the industry has faced other problems. To successfully exploit
promising shale formations, for instance, energy firms must insert many wells,
since each fracking operation can only extend several hundred feet in any
direction, requiring the establishment of noisy, polluting, and potentially hazardous drilling
operations in well-populated rural and suburban areas.
has been welcomed by some of these communities as a source of added income,
many have vigorously opposed the invasion, seeing it as an assault on
neighborhood peace, health, and safety. In an effort to protect their quality
of life, some Pennsylvania communities, for example, have adopted zoning laws
that ban fracking in their midst. Viewing this as yet another intolerable
obstacle, the industry has put intense pressure on friendly members of the state legislature to
adopt a law depriving most local jurisdictions of the right to exclude fracking
operations. “We have been sold out to the gas industry, plain and simple,” said Todd Miller, a town commissioner in South Fayette
Township who opposed the
If the energy
industry has its way in North America, there
will be many more Todd Millers complaining about the way their lives and worlds
have been “sold out” to the energy barons. Similar battles are already being fought elsewhere in North America, as energy firms seek to overcome
resistance to expanded drilling in areas once protected from such activity.
In Alaska, for example, the
industry is fighting in the courts and in Congress to allow drilling in coastal
areas, despite opposition from Native American communities which
worry that vulnerable marine animals and their traditional way of life will be
put at risk. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in the Chukchi Sea,
an area important to several such communities.
And this is
just the beginning. To gain access to additional stores of oil and gas, the
industry is seeking to eliminate virtually all environmental restraints imposed
since the 1960s and open vast tracts of coastal and wilderness areas, including
ANWR, to intensive drilling. It also seeks the construction of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to transport
synthetic crude oil made from Canadian tar sands -- a particularly “dirty” and
environmentally devastating form of energy which has attracted substantial U.S. investment -- to Texas
for further processing. According to Jack Gerard, president of the American
Petroleum Institute (API), the preferred U.S. energy strategy “would include
greater access to areas that are currently off limits, a regulatory and
permitting process that supported reasonable timelines for development, and
immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.”
these objectives, the API, which claims to represent more than 490 oil and
natural gas companies, has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to sway the 2012 elections,
dubbed “Vote 4 Energy.” While describing itself as nonpartisan, the
API-financed campaign seeks to discredit and marginalize any candidate,
including President Obama, who opposes even the mildest version of its
two paths that we can take” on energy policy, the Vote 4 Energy Web site
proclaims. “One path leads to more jobs, higher government revenues and greater
energy security -- which can be achieved by increasing oil and natural gas
development right here at home. The other path would put jobs, revenues and our
energy security at risk.” This message will be broadcast with increasing
frequency as Election Day nears.
the energy industry, we are at a fork in the road and can either choose a path
leading to greater energy independence or to ever more perilous energy
insecurity. But there is another way to characterize that “choice”: on one
path, the United States will increasingly come to resemble a Third World
petro-state, with compliant government leaders, an increasingly money-ridden
and corrupt political system, and negligible environmental and health
safeguards; on the other, which would also involve far greater investment in
the development of renewable alternative energies, it would remain a First
World nation with strong health and environmental regulations and robust
characterize our energy predicament in the coming decades and what path we
ultimately select will in large measure determine the fate of this nation.
Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College,
, and the author of
The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s
just published by Metropolitan Books. To listen to
Timothy MacBain’s Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book
and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click
, or download it to your iPod
. Klare can be followed on Facebook.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Michael T. Klare
Image by Robert Croft, licensed under Creative Commons.
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