In Tuesday’s Election, Environmentalists Paid to Play

The Missoulian’s Mike Dennison provides analysis of the U.S. Senate race in Montana between republican Dennis Rehberg and incumbent democrat Senator Jon Tester. This race was expected to go the republican’s way only to see Tester reelected with a comfortable 16,600 vote margin. Dennison gives us some idea of who helped to push Tester over the top:

As for the ground game, which identifies and registers sympathetic voters and then gets them to the polls, Montana Democrats and their allies had a good one.

The League of Conservation Voters, one of the nation’s most prominent environmental groups, spent $1.45 million on Tester’s behalf, including door-to-door canvassers, mailers and phone calls to get out the vote.

It’s hard to beat the democrats’ ground game. The LCV was all over Montana, knocking on doors and working the phone banks in behalf of Tester and other democratic candidates. And it looks like Montana wasn’t the only place where national environmental groups played a big role. Here’s today’s Washington Post:

The environmental community scored a string of successes Tuesday in New Mexico, Montana, Texas and other states, winning seven of eight targeted Senate races and at least three targeted House races. Although plenty of outside groups poured money into these contests, even some representatives of the fossil-fuel industry said that environmentalists had invested their resources wisely in 2012.

“There is evidence that the environmentalists have become a more mature political force,” said Scott H. Segal, who lobbies for utility companies at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

“Environmentalist spending was up considerably this cycle, and they seemed to resist the frequent trap of supporting third-party or crank candidates in ways that would have siphoned off votes from mainstream Democrats,” Segal said.

The League of Conservation Voters spent more than $14 million this year, more than it had in the past three election cycles combined, and groups including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee, Environment America and Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund also devoted money and volunteers to key contests.

The environmental community went all in for this election. How will all this support be repayed?

Some environmentalists say the election provides a mandate for aggressive action on climate change, although oil and gas industry officials warned against over-interpreting the results because the economy ranked as the dominant issue this year.

The environmental community, having done its job to get democrats elected across the country, will expect action from the Obama Administration on a range of environmental issues, including rules to control mercury and greenhouse gas emissions, reign in oil and gas drilling on public lands, and tackle the fracking issue. Of course, I’ve recommended a number of items the President could add to his environmental agenda. It could be an interesting four years for the environment.

Gibson Guitars: Environmentally Out-of-Tune

In a wretched display of government’s sometimes overzealous and tone-deaf enforcement of environmental laws, the good people at the Department of Justice have finally succeeded in bullying Gibson Guitars into paying large fines to make a nasty environmental case go away. But while the DoJ celebrates, the fact is this case is anything but a win for environmental protection. Like the EPA official who wanted to ‘crucify’ oil companies, once again the environmental enforcers in our bureaucracies are the worst enemies of our environmental laws.

The story begins in 2008, but first, a quick trip in time: In 1900, Congress enacted the Lacey Act, the nation’s first law to protect wildlife. The Lacey Act made it a federal crime to transport illegally taken game (wildlife) across state and international boundaries. The law was absolutely needed to criminalize illegal hunting and poaching of game animals in the U.S. and elsewhere. For reference, today it’s the Lacey Act that will get you arrested for importing elephant ivory and the like. It’s a good law.

In 2008, Congress amended the Lacey Act to include the illegal transportation and importation of protected plants and plant products. The amendment was partly a response to deforestation and the domestic importation of wood and wood products protected by environmental laws in other countries. At the time, it seemed like a good amendment to the Lacey Act.

But the government had to flex its muscles. In a show of force designed more to appease environmental groups and domestic wood companies than to protect the environment, armed federal agents (armed? they must really hate Stairway to Heaven) raided the Gibson Guitar company, not once but twice, to seize guitars and wood alleged to have been illegally imported. This started a nasty fight between Gibson Guitar and the feds, with a lot of people jumping in to take sides in the fight.

For many months, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz strongly defended his company against the government’s case. That was until August 6, when Gibson Guitar settled the case brought by the DoJ for at least $350,000. Gibson still doesn’t admit guilt, and still has plenty of allies arguing its case.

Think what you will of the case – just google ‘Gibson Guitar Lacey Act’ and you can read every side of the issue – the problem remains that the idiots at DoJ managed to give everyone involved a black eye: Gibson Guitar, the DoJ, Congress, and the Lacey Act. Some members of Congress and outside groups are now mobilizing to amend the law, and frankly, the way the government has enforced it in this case, maybe they have a point. It all along seemed to me that the case hung on a technicality, and any domestic law that seeks to enforce the text of foreign laws – written in a foreign language and in a foreign context – is something of which we should be very wary.

I’m not arguing for a free pass for those who break environmental laws. I am going to advocate to you and any others who will listen that the government needs to proceed with some sense of caution on these big showcase environmental cases. In this case we have a new amendment to an old law that, knowing Congress like I do, was poorly written and difficult to implement without trapping people like Gibson Guitar. It seems that, as a first test of this new law, DoJ could have taken a more tactful approach rather than go in with guns blazing and press secretaries firing away. But at times our government has the self-control of a child; the result is a huge mess for a very successful American guitar company (that will likely be shipping some jobs overseas to comply with the DoJ’s Lacey Act interpretation), and a lot of people like me who, after 112 years of success, are beginning to question the Lacey Act. This is what we call a fail, DoJ.

The Park Service Gets Suckerpunched by Congress

Here’s a really great example in High Country News about politics, the National Environmental Policy Act, and environmental protection. It seems those suckers in the National Park Service have spent several years writing a NEPA plan to reduce the noise levels from aircraft overflights on the grounds that these sightseeing overflights disrupt the natural quiet at Grand Canyon National Park, only to have congress pull the rug out from under them at the last second. You can read the gruesome details in the HCN article.

I’m very familiar with the Grand Canyon overflights issue, and when it comes to my national parks I am a purist, so my natural inclination is to utter some profanity about the bastards in congress. But really, interference in big issues like this – and the Grand Canyon overflights is a big issue in the parks world – occurs with some frequency. And who can say it shouldn’t? Who can say that the NPS is right and congress is wrong? The NPS is just as political as congress; it’s run by political appointees and is part of the executive branch of government. We have established no law that states authoritatively what the noise level above a national park shall be.  

There is no environmental law without politics. Here’s what I said about NEPA when reporting on the Cape Wind project:

As I’ve written here before, NEPA is a procedural tool, not an outcome tool. It doesn’t guarantee the best environmental outcomes. NEPA doesn’t even guarantee good environmental outcomes. It’s a paperwork hurdle. And with a federal project as politically charged as this expensive and massive green energy wind farm, we should expect nothing less than political pressure to get over that hurdle, just like the political pressure applied to use NEPA to kill the Keystone Pipeline Project.

Look, government is politics. Every decision is an act of compromise between competing interests: the sightseeing public, the park lovers, the aircraft operators, the local chamber of commerce, and on and on. Consider national parks: nearly every one is the result of a political compromise. We must accept this, because we couldn’t bear the alternative, which is authoritarianism. Democracy will always be messy.

From my perspective, we lost one here today. My preference is to experience my parks in a state of natural quiet. But I’m not the only one who gets a say. So I accept the outcome and soldier on and work toward a better result next time.

PS: Know that I hold a much different view if this were an environmental pollution issues. Yes, noise can be said to pollute as a matter of personal preference. Such preference decisions will always be subject to the politics I speak of above. What I’m not quite so open to is political compromise on issues of environmental harm, such as air and water pollution, endangered species protection and so on. Of course politics plays a role in these decisions as well, but I believe that the room for compromise must be much narrower than it is even today, such that we may debate the means but not the ends of reducing pollution and other environmental harms.

The Opportunity Costs of our Endless Environmental Debates

This is what I was talking about in my post below when I wrote that we need to consider the priorities, the really promising priorities, that are being neglected as we continue to waste time and money bickering about environmental debates to which we know the answers (yes, we know the answers). Here’s the clincher from the Discovery blog post I link to above:

There is no way you could’ve predicted beforehand that investing in NASA would have led to the creation of this specific innovation in life-saving technology. But it’s a rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.

Let’s stop investing in the lawsuits, the endless environmental studies written for the benefit of the litigants (not the owls, I promise you), the salaries of NEPA planners, and all of the bureaucratic dead weight. Far more important endeavours await us. And let me add this; many of those who are spinning their wheels working for the Forest Service and National Park Service and environmental organizations have far more to contribute to society – they are, after all, smart people – than to waste their lives in a cubicle filling out paperwork on the latest timber harvest that’s held up in court. We’ve built a system of rules and constructed an empire around that system so that we can follow the rules. It’s time to end the nightmare and invest in the future.

Subsidies for Big Oil

One of the many websites a check every day is the Environmental News Service (ENS). Today they carried this story about a move in Congress to end tax breaks for fossil fuel company investments. The story begins this way:

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, and Congressmen Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, today introduced a legislation to end billions of dollars in subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industries.

The Sanders-Ellison End Polluter Welfare bill abolishes federal policies making Americans taxpayers pay for fossil fuel company investments. Under current law, more than $110 billion in federal subsidies would go to the oil, coal and gas industries in the coming decade.

$110 billion is a lot of money, no doubt. But I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s not true: The U.S. Treasury does not subsidize oil companies; oil companies, like all other companies in the United States, are allowed to take certain cost-of-doing-business deductions under the tax code. Here’s a bit from a Washington Post fact check on the issue:

Technically speaking, the government has allowed only tax deductions to help oil companies recover the cost of doing business — this is standard in virtually all industries. No money from the U.S. Treasury goes to the oil industry, so it’s a stretch to describe the tax breaks as literal handouts like Solyndra received…Admittedly, we’re talking about a semantics issue here. But we can’t understand why the DNC and Obama continue to use the word “subsidies” in such a questionable way, especially when the term “tax breaks” is more accurate and indisputably true.

A couple things about the ENS story: first, I strongly believe in calling things what they are. Words have meaning; do not use the wrong word, or change the meaning of the word, to give your argument more power. You will lose. Second, one thing that drives me nuts about ENS and similar sites is that they don’t engage in any analytical reporting. They easily could have explored the Sanders-Ellison bill in a little depth, reporting both sides of the issue. They then could have taken an editorial stand, one way or the other, regarding the debate. But they didn’t and they never do. The research is left up to the reader. Be aware. And third, in the end it only makes a small difference if you are willing to study the issues that affect and interest you and make an informed decision. Each of us has a responsibility to be an informed voter.

For my part, I could be very interested in addressing the tax deductions received by big business, including big oil. However, the moment I sense that the facts are being withheld or muddled, I begin to challenge both the motivation and the wisdom of what I am reading or being told. That is not the way to win an argument.