Oil companies have bought influence in Washington and used that influence to make life easier for themselves and harder for their competitors. This may be a controversial statement, but it's not an unfounded one, given the amount of money the oil industry pours into politics and the regularity with which it gets its way in policy debates. It certainly has more basis in reality than the claims of your average political attack ad.
But it's apparently a claim that's too unfounded and controversial to make in an advertisement on ABC. That -- well, that plus a bizarre concern about using an image of the U.S. Capitol -- is why the TV network refused to air this ad, which the We campaign wanted to run during the September 26 episode of 20/20.
The Bush administration just won't quit trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Big rewrites require Congressional approval, so instead they're quietly revising the regulations that implement the act.
In August, the administration proposed letting federal agencies decide for themselves if, say, a new dam or highway would harm any endangered or threatened species, rather than requiring the agencies to take advice from federal wildlife biologists. And, in the wake of the polar bear listing, the proposal also contained provisions to ensure that climate change effects don't have to be considered (hey, it's bad for business).
Now, leaked government documents from PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, show how administration officials are rushing to ensure that enviros won't again succeed in using the Endangered Species Act to help address global warming.
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Did you know that politicians don't pay for their gas? Well, now you do. You'll know even more -- no, you'll be a veritable expert in energy policy -- after you watch this music video, which Joe Romm of climateprogress.org describes as "the first (and hopefully last) song ever inspired by Newt Gingrich."
Wow. Just wow.
Since last spring, Plum Creek Timber Company and the Forest Service have claimed that thousands of miles of old logging roads in western Montana can automatically be turned into driveways for second homes and cabins. Such guaranteed access would make Plum Creek's 1.2 million acres in the state worth much more to buyers. The industry-friendly policy would also be applied to private timberlands across the country, most of which can be reached only by crossing Forest Service land.
But that road agreement, brokered by Ag Undersecretary Mark Rey, was made behind closed doors, without comment from the public or from the counties that would bear the burden of providing services and infrastructure for all those new homes springing up in the woods. And the blanket agreement contradicts Forest Service policy and precedent, which for decades has held that easements granted for timber-hauling do not automatically provide residential access (see our earlier story "Easing into development"). County commissioners and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D, demanded an investigation of the shady deal-brokering. They've also repeatedly requested that the Forest Service supply copies of all of the affected easements, a demand the agency has not met.
Now, the Government Accountability Office has released a letter saying that the deal may well be illegal, despite Rey's assertion that the old easements allow any kind of use. From the Missoulian's story:
... the GAO concluded Rey's plan “may effect a substantial change” in the minimal access Congress intended. And because it would apply to all boilerplate Road and Trails Act easements, and not just Plum Creek easements, “this provision could have a nationwide impact,” the report said.The GAO's report faulted Rey for failing to address "this highly complicated matter in a systematic public way.”
"As I've said from the get-go,” Tester said Friday, “public decisions like this need public input. And I'll make darn sure we get all concerns ironed out.
“This report sounds all sorts of alarms about the way the Forest Service is doing business. It tells me Montana is getting a bum deal on Forest Service's road access plan, and that's exactly why I wanted the GAO to look into it.”
Depending on the response -- or lack thereof -- from Forest Service and Plum Creek, Tester may request a full investigation.
The League of Conservation voters has compiled a whole list of reasons not to vote for John McCain, some of which are nuanced and good. But they didn't see fit to use any of them in their new anti-McCain ad that just started running in Colorado. Their attack is a lot more basic: McCain wants to take your water. The evidence for this claim lies in McCain's ill-thought-out -- and quickly repudiated -- remark to the Pueblo Chieftain that the Colorado Compact, which governs the Colorado River's allocation between the seven states that make up its watershed, "obviously needs to be renegotiated."
"My opponent wants to steal your water" has become a popular line of attack this fall in Colorado, with Bob Schaffer getting into the act by accusing Mark Udall of having a nefarious water-grabbing agenda when he voted to protect the Clean Water Act. Even by the standards of political attacks, it's a pretty asinine accusation. Water issues are incredibly complex -- and are only going to get more so as climate change makes the West drier. They demand nuance and -- yes -- compromise. The last thing we need is for water to become so politically radioactive that politicians refuse to touch it.
The McCain campaign -- by now looking for any dirt they can get their hands on -- has just released a web ad attacking Obama for his ties to Acorn, the progressive community organizing group. The ad tries to link Acorn to the mortgage crisis and accuses it of trying to steal the election by submitting fraudulent voter registrations. On this point, the ad has a Western back story. Acorn's Las Vegas offices were raided last week by state officials who accused the organization of trying to register people who didn't exist or didn't live in Nevada, including some members of the Dallas Cowboys.
But here's where the story gets a little more complex. Acorn actually told state officials about many of the allegedly fraudulent voter registration forms. They were submitted by hired canvassers who had fallen behind on meeting their voter-registration quotas, and apparently got desperate enough to start filling in registration forms themselves. But third-party voter registration drives are required by law to turn in each registration form they receive -- even if that form attempts to register Donald Duck.
Nobody's disputing that some of the registration forms Acorn submitted were fraudulently filled out. What's less clear is whether these fraudulent forms reflect badly on the organization itself, or just on some rogue canvassers. What's abundantly clear is that it would be hard for these fraudulent voter registrations to have any impact on the election. Fraudulent registrations are the easy part of vote fraud. The harder part is having someone go to the polls, claim to be Donald Duck or Terrell Owens, and get shown to a voting booth before some election worker catches on. It seems that the McCain campaign and its talk-show proxies don't think that Nevada's election volunteers are very smart.
We've got a tight U.S. Senate race in Colorado. The incumbent Republican, Wayne Allard, is stepping out after two terms. Competing to replace him are Democrat Mark Udall and Republican Bob Schaffer.
Udall's environmental credentials seem pretty solid, given his voting record in the House, where he has represented Colorado's second congressional district for the past decade. Schaffer represented Colorado's fourth district for three terms from 1997 to 2003, and he supported the Spanish Peaks Wilderness bill.
Go to Schaffer's campaign and you see a picture of the family standing in an aspen grove. We are told there that "the family enjoys skiing, snowboarding, backpacking, and biking in the Colorado Rockies." His campaign commercials have shown wind turbines generating clean electricity.
But then again, the League of Conservation Voters recently named Schaffer to its "Dirty Dozen" list, and after he left Congress, he went to work for an energy company. At his campaign appearances, you sometimes hear chants of "Drill here. Drill now. Pay less."
And that may not be a contradiction. Just think of the abundance of outdoor guidebooks -- to flowers, trees, animal tracks and scat, rocks, etc. -- you find on bookstore shelves, and imagine a new one, something like "Bob Schaffer's Guide to the Colorado Outdoors."
Then envision a couple -- let's call them Bill and Betty -- out for a walk.
"Betty, what's making that noise over there?"
"I don't know. I can't see it because it's behind the mancamp."
"A mancamp? I thought it was just some big trailer houses."
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The burning question in Sevier County, Utah, to build or not to build a new 270-megawatt coal-fired power plant, will be answered by voters in November. Sevier County citizens collected enough signatures to place Proposition 1, which would amend the county's land use ordinance to require a vote before approving any permits for coal-fired plants, on the ballot. However, the measure was bounced off the ballot following a District Court decision in September. But yesterday, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision, giving citizens some direct power over development in their communities.
Earlier this year, Utah's state legislature passed a bill that prohibited the use of ballot initiatives to create or change land-use and zoning ordinances. The Supreme Court's ruling, which has not yet been released, will likely strike the law down as unconstitutional.
According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, 175 absentee ballots have already been mailed to voters -- without Proposition 1. Every vote will count in this rural county (which has fewer than 19,000 residents), where a seven-year-long battle has pitted those hoping for the new jobs promised by Sevier Power Co. against those who fear the negative environmental impacts.
If you've ever tried to fondle a saguaro, you know they feature a pretty effective deterrent against such behavior. But spines, it appears, are now passé.
To combat cactus rustlers -- who can sell the saguaros to landscapers -- the National Park Service is planning to imbed microchips into Arizona's most enticing specimens. Once past the planning stages, officials at Saguaro National Park will begin injecting the cacti with dime-sized chips. Rangers will be equipped with magic microchip wands. Wave one over a marked saguaro -- be it in the back of a truck or in a plant nursery -- and bingo, the wand will pick up that plant's unique code.
Saguaros can live to be more than 200 years old. The microchip manufacturer claims its chips can last about half that time.
It's somehow sad that these wild old symbols of the Southwest will now be searchable in a database. But the price just one swiped saguaro can bring -- over $1,000 -- means that the plant's built-in bristling anti-theft devices are no longer adequate. Another case of codifying the wild in order to save it.
Just days after the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation raised serious concerns about the Bureau of Land Management's plan to open up rock art-rich Nine Mile Canyon to 800 more gas wells, the agency is under the scrutiny of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office for its extensive use of categorical exclusions to permit energy projects in Wyoming and Utah without environmental review, according to the Associated Press.
The practice, authorized by the 2005 Energy Act, has been used thousands of times at field offices in Price and Vernal, Utah; Farmington, N.M.; and Pinedale, Wyo., said GAO officials, citing the bureau's own figures. Agency officials say they were just doing their job, and that they don't set policy.
In Vernal, the BLM field office waived environmental review of oil and gas projects 491 times during the 2007 fiscal year alone, GAO officials told the AP.
With the BLM rushing to open much of Utah's red rock country to motorized recreation and oil and gas development, and permitting 3,700 new wells on Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline in the midst of ozone spikes and precipitous declines of mule deer and sage grouse populations, the scrutiny probably couldn't come at a better time.
But the information is not exactly a revelation: It's no secret that the Bush administration has worked hard to fast track the development of domestic natural gas and oil supplies at the expense of wildlife habitat, air quality, recreation, and cultural resources.
More important is what will be done with these numbers. Given that Democrats and Republicans are pushing for more domestic drilling, with both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain hammering that point in their energy platforms (albeit in different ways), it will be interesting to see if a new administration of either stripe will make any attempt to slow the natural gas rush on the West's public lands.