Weekly Mulch: When will America be free from BP?

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

On July 4th, Americans are supposed to celebrate their independence. We may no longer have to worry about a greedy, distant monarch. But our country is still held in thrall to powerful interests that prize profit over individuals and their freedom—the energy industry comes to mind. As Jason Mark puts it at AlterNet:

“We’re in an abusive relationship and unable to leave our abuser. The plight of the people in Louisiana proves the point. Louisianans have been punched in the face by the hand that feeds them, and yet their biggest worry is that the oil and gas industry is going to walk out the door and leave them.”

Where’s the love?

It’s clear that BP, for instance, isn’t playing carefully with our country or its resources. At Mother Jones, David Corn relates the latest example of the company’s callousness. Its recovery plan had no stipulations about handling even a small storm like the one that stopped clean-up this week. It did, however, include plans to save sea life that hasn’t lived in the Gulf for millions of years. As Corn put it, the company was “prepared for walruses, not prepared for hurricanes.”

The biggest problem, of course, is that BP wasn’t prepared to handle a blow-out to begin with. The leak has gone on for so long that governmental officials are now taking unprecedented measures to protect the wildlife most vulnerable to its effects. Beth Buczynski reports at Care2 that official are going to dig up about 700 sea turtle nests on Alabama and Florida beaches that are at risk from the oil.

“Once the eggs have hatched, the young turtles will be released in darkness on Florida’s Atlantic beaches into oil-free water,” she writes. “Translocation of nests on this scale has never been attempted before.”

Halliburton

No matter how badly these companies treat us, it seems we can’t get rid of them. Take Halliburton. The company has latched its talons into the country and will not let go. It is second only to BP in shouldering responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon spill. As Jason Mark reports for the Earth Island Journal, just before the oil spill, Halliburton took over Boots & Coots, a company that deals with oil-well blowouts; that company now has a contract with BP to help with the relief well.

“Halliburton is essentially making money from causing the accident and then helping to repair it,” Mark writes. “Halliburton’s many-fingered tentacles is just the latest illustration of how powerful the company is.”

Wimpy Washington

Washington isn’t strong enough to fight back against that sort of corporate  power. Over the past year, energy interests have whittled down the climate change legislation to a tepid half-step. Right now it looks most likely that a bill that passes will regulate only the utilities sector.

“We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further,” Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told Politico this week after a White House meeting on the bill.

“If you’re looking for the sorry state of American energy politics distilled into one line, there it is,” writes Jonathan Hiskes at Grist. “Kerry fights harder for clean energy than just about any national politician.”

Still, if anything passes the Senate, Washington will celebrate. As Aaron Wiener explains at the Washington Independent, “For all the disappointment among environmentalists over the repeated compromises Democrats have made on climate legislation to win over moderates, some argue that a utilities-only cap would achieve most of the goals of an economy-wide carbon pricing scheme. The question now is whether Democratic leaders in the Senate can muster 60 votes for even a weakened bill to overcome a Republican filibuster.”

Our friends abroad

On an international level, our governing bodies might be doing a better job, but not by much. Inter Press Service reports that the countries at the meeting promised to scale back taxpayer subsidies of fossil fuels. Even that promise is limited, however. “Countries agree to phase out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” but each country decides what those are,” IPS reports. “Some countries like Japan, Australia, Italy and others have already said they don’t have any.”

And at Earth Island Journal, Ron Johnson heard a different story.

Johnson spoke to Kim Carstensen, who leads the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate Initiative, who compared this meeting’s report to that of the last G20 summit and found that climate issues had dropped off the radar. “There were eight references to clean energy in the final report from Pittsburgh (the last G20 Summit) and they have been completely vacuum cleaned,” he said. “That is kind of scary.”

Fight back

In situations like this, it takes massive pressure from outside to move the political apparatus forward. At AlterNet, Heetan Kalan has some ideas about how to progress—reach beyond the environmental community; enlist “doctors, nurses, public health officials and patients speaking out about the connection between consumers of coal energy and their immediate health concerns.” Kalan writes:

“After all, climate change is not solely an environmental problem — it is a human/planetary problem. If we are going to rely on a small base of environmentalists to carry us through this crisis, we are in trouble. Our spokespeople on this issue have to come from a wide spectrum of citizens and leaders.”

Certainly, they have to come from somewhere, and as Steve Benen writes at The Washington Monthly, whoever is speaking on this issue now, they’re not speaking loud enough.

“Lawmakers aren’t facing much in the way of public pressure,” he writes. “The polls look encouraging, suggesting the public is inclined to back the Democratic proposals, but that support hasn’t translated into aggressive advocacy — phone calls to lawmakers’ offices, letter-writing campaigns, district meetings, sizable rallies, etc….If engaged constituents want more, Congress will have to feel considerably more heat than they are now.”

In other words, if America wants to be free of coal, oil, gas, and the energy industry, we’re going to have to fight for it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

No more bailouts for factory farms

If your widget factory produces too many widgets, you will be stuck with extra inventory, affecting your bottom line.

In contrast, if your factory farm contributes to excess production of pork, high-level elected officials will ask the federal government to bail you out.

I learned from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement today that last week nine governors, including Iowa's Chet Culver,

requested $50 million of taxpayer money from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy over-produced pork off the market.  This follows similar requests made by the National Pork Producers Council in early May and Iowa Secretary of Ag Bill Northey in June.

The hog factory industry, though, has received two recent taxpayer-funded bailouts from USDA -- one for $25 million in March 2009 and the other for $50 million in April 2008 -- to buy over-produced pork off the market. [...]

Ag economists have warned for months that the pork industry must stabilize prices by trimming the fat and reducing the herd size.  But the pork industry has ignored basic economic rules and continues to increase supply as demand goes down.  This is the result of continuous government subsidies and bailouts to the factory farm industry.

"Corporate ag receives government subsidies and guaranteed loans that promote the expansion of factory farms on the front end," said CCI member Lori Nelson of Bayard.  "And then, when they produce too much pork, they ask the government -- that's us -- to bail them out with huge amounts of taxpayer dollars. The factory farm industry is a house of cards that would crumble as soon as you take away taxpayers propping them up."

The governors of Nebraska, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Illinois and Oklahoma joined Culver in signing the appeal for federal aid. According to DTN/The Progressive Farmer, "Representatives from the Iowa and the National Pork Producers Councils, Tyson Fresh Foods, Hormel Foods and Paragon Economics support the letter's three proposals for aid."

I've posted the full text of Iowa CCI's press release at Bleeding Heartland. There's no reason to exempt corporate agriculture from basic laws of supply and demand. Taxpayers already pay too much to subsidize factory hog farms, not to mention the hidden environmental costs of air and water pollution.

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For your "elections have consequences" file

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack took a step toward undoing bad Bush administration policy on Thursday:

No logging or road project on tens of millions of forested acres will proceed without personal approval by the Agriculture Department's secretary for at least a year while the Obama administration decides how to handle a controversial Clinton-era roadless rule, officials said today.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is signing a directive giving himself sole power to make decisions for one year on building roads and harvesting timber on nearly all of the areas covered by the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The directive can be renewed for an additional year, the department said. It covers roadless areas in Alaska but will not apply to those in Idaho, which wrote its own roadless area plan.

"This interim directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long-term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed," Vilsack said in a statement.

Environmental-minded Democrats and non-profit organizations welcomed the news. The Washington Post and New York Times have more detail on what Vilsack's directive means.

Many people don't realize that the U.S. Forest Service is under the USDA's jurisdiction. (This brief history explains that the original purpose of the service was "to provide quality water and timber for the Nation's benefit.") Vilsack had little prior experience in this area, because Iowa is not one of the 44 states containing a national forest and has has only a few state forests. (Click here for more information about where the 142 U.S. national forests are located.) It's good to see him move away from the Bush approach to managing our forests.

The Obama administration's environmental record is not perfect, but Vilsack's directive is a significant step toward protecting some of our country's most pristine natural areas.

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Is Obama putting a Monsanto exec in charge of food safety?

I received an action alert today from Food Democracy Now. Excerpt:

There's a possibility that former Monsanto executive Michael Taylor and irradiation proponent Dr. Michael Osterholm will be named to top food safety spots in the new Administration. [...]
 1. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, whose career literally fits the definition of the revolving door between government, lobbying and corporate interests. Before serving on the Obama ag transition team, Taylor made a name for himself rotating in and out of law firms, Monsanto, the USDA and FDA. While at the FDA he helped write the rules to allow rBGH into the American food system and our children's milk.

Now we've learned that Taylor may be in line to run an office in the White House on food safety!

2.  On Monday, Secretary Vilsack is set to announcethe appointment of Dr. Michael Osterholm, a food safety expert, to lead the Food Safety agency at the USDA. According to Food  & Water Watch, Osterholm has been "a zealot in promoting th[e] controversial technology (of irradiation) as the panacea to contaminated food."

Irradiation allows food processors to nuke disease from contaminated food at the end of the production line, while ignoring the root problems that create unsafe food.

For Osterholm, the recent peanut butter fiasco apparently was just another example of how irradiation could save the day. "Clearly it's a problem where the raw peanut butter or paste is consumed and not cooked," Osterholm said.

Food Democracy Now wants people to e-mail Vilsack immediately, asking him to block these appointments. The action alert included a sample e-mail, which I've posted after the jump, but it's always better to write this kind of letter in your own words.

You may recall that in November, the Organic Consumers Association came out strongly against Vilsack for secretary of agriculture, largely because of his connections to Monsanto and other biotech companies. But it's worth noting that President Obama put Michael Taylor on his transition team before he chose Vilsack to run the USDA. If Taylor does end up running a White House food safety office, don't pin that mistake on Vilsack.

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To stimulate economy, increase food stamp participation rates

Jill Richardson's post at La Vida Locavore on extremely low food stamp participation rates in San Diego got me thinking about how much room there is to improve enrollment in this program.

Bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I'd like to see 100 percent of people who qualify for food stamps get them, just for the sake of reducing hunger in our communities.

But let's leave ethical concerns aside for now. Economic researchers, most recently Moody's Economy.com, have calculated that expanding the food-stamp program produces more economic stimulus than any other kind of government spending, and much more than any form of tax cuts.  Every additional dollar spent on food stamps translates into $1.73 circulating in the economy.

This page on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website contains links to many studies comparing the state participation rates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the official name for the food stamp program). All of the recent annual reports are pdf files. They show estimated numbers of people eligible for food stamps in each state, as well as an estimated percentage of those who receive food stamps.

In many states, food stamp participation rates have improved over the past six years. The median state in 2003 had an estimated 57 percent of eligible residents enrolled in the food stamp program, but by 2006 (the most recent year for which data are available on the USDA site), that figure rose to about 67 percent. Still, in an average state, only two-thirds of people eligible for food stamps are getting them.

The state-by-state figures reveal huge variation. In the top three states, more than 90 percent of people eligible for food stamps are enrolled in the program. That figure is above 80 percent for the next five states. In the states near the bottom, barely 50 percent of eligible residents get food stamps, and the figure is even lower in some major metropolitan areas.

I can't generalize about what needs to be done to improve participation in the food stamp program, because different states would need to tweak their policies in different ways. The USDA site links to research on factors that affect enrollment, and Jill Richardson talks about many of those factors here.

The economic impact of getting food stamps to more eligible people would be significant. California has consistently been near the bottom in terms of food stamp enrollment rates. The 2006 chart shows the state dead last, with only 50 percent of approximately 3.9 million eligible Californians estimated to be receiving food stamps. Even modest improvement in the enrollment rate would result in hundreds of thousands more people receiving food stamps. Those people would have more to spend on goods and services. Many retailers would benefit as the money flowed through the economy.

Iowa's food stamp enrollment rate is closer to the national average, but if we raised it from the 71 percent estimated for 2006 to 80 percent, nearly 30,000 more Iowans would be receiving food stamps. If we raised food stamp participation above 90 percent, roughly 60,000 more Iowans would be receiving food stamps.

Given the multiplier effect of food stamp benefits on economic activity, this program merits attention from policy-makers. Government spending on infrastructure projects is worthwhile, especially if used for smart investments in our transportation system or for making schools more green. However, food stamp recipients have the potential to get money circulating in the economy, saving jobs in the retail sector, faster than most "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects. Remember, no other form of government spending has more economic stimulus "bang for the buck" than food stamps.

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