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** Opinion: Energy and Environment: Offense Instead of Defense

by Guy Berliner Friday, May. 18, 2001 at 9:01 PM

This piece makes the case for an offensive strategy on energy issues, instead the environmental movement's current defensive reactive approach.

Energy and Environment: Offensive Strategy An Environmental Energy Strategy: The case for offense instead of defense

[Note: The original of this document appears at

I plan to add notes and more supporting information as time allows.]

It has been said sometimes that the best defense is a good offense. This holds especially true, I would argue, with energy policy. Currently, environmentalists are at a disadvantage in this area, both because of the putative energy "crisis" (a crisis owing in large measure to equal parts private greed and bad public policy), and because of the diktat of the current American regime. In both cases, our opponents are very vulnerable, and they themselves have taken the "offense-as-defense" strategy to heart.

Consider, for example, the first problem of energy policy: the artificial crisis provoked by bad public policy and manipulative private greed. Here we have a clear case of policy makers, enraptured by blind "free market" obscurantism, enacting a policy that was doomed to failure, despite the warnings of public interest advocates and other observers. This policy called for the deregulation of wholesale energy prices without any discipline to ensure against de facto price fixing in this highly monopoly prone industry. Once enacted, the policy led to a free-for-all by wholesale energy generators which even the parent companies (especially the parent companies) of formerly regulated utilities joined in on. Rates on wholesale power shot up orders of magnitude, far exceeding anything that could be accounted for by spontaneous vicissitudes of nature. So much was admitted by even the most formerly enthusiastic "free market" proponents on California's Public Utilities Commission.

As most commentators (e.g., Los Angeles Times) have noted, none of this is a good argument for yet further deregulation of, say, environmental rules, as a way to ameliorate the "crisis." Yet that is exactly what the current US regime contemplates, a case in point of clever use of "offense-as-defense."

Consider another example. The current Administration in Washington has unilaterally declared it will not seek to ratify the Kyoto Treaty or make any further commitments on measures to curtail global warming. The US, as principal contributor to the problem, has an international responsibility to play a leadership role on this issue. The failure to do so should greatly undermine the already highly fragile legitimacy of this regime. But so far, because of inadequate and reactive strategy by environmentalists, it has not.

What are the outlines of an "offense-as-defense" strategy? The key to offensive as opposed to defensive strategy is "maximalism" as opposed to "realism." Our opponents understand this well. For example, they are pushing for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a wildly controversial and unpopular proposal that is bound to be defeated by concerted opposition. But, in the meantime, they create much more room for maneuver for themselves. Environmentalists find themselves devoting all their scarce time just to fending off ever more aggressive attacks. Meanwhile, the Administration, its allies in Congress, and its corporate constituencies gain the upper hand, via the ANWR "diversionary tactic," in their push for opening up all manner of other valuable off-shore and public lands resource extraction bonanzas. Some of these face no effective opposition from large environmental groups, so preoccupied are they with the ANWR "bait-and-switch."

What would environmental maximalism mean in practice? Merely pushing for new and expanded national parks and wilderness areas? More conservation initiatives, such as CAFE standards? No, I'm afraid these are the same things environmentalists have called for for years, and didn't even succeed in getting in the Clinton Administration; such modest and inadequate half-measures hardly constitute maximalism; certainly they don't put the current regime on the defensive, not when even the Clinton Administration failed to respond to them.

Maximalism would mean fundamentally challenging the moral legitimacy and criminal liability of the auto, petrochemical, and allied industries, and their political backers. There is no shortage of material for such a challenge available to us. Let us start with the current Administration itself:

The current acting Vice President, Richard Cheney, was chairman of Halliburton, among other things the world's largest oilfield services corporation. During his tenure there, Halliburton was a subcontractor for Unocal in a joint venture with the Burmese military dictatorship to build a gas pipeline in Burma. The Burmese military partners employed slave labor for portering, counter-insurgency, and to excavate the route for the pipeline, as well as other vital supporting operations. In 1990, elections were held in the country resulting in overwhelming victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyii. The Burmese military junta refused to recognize the election results, and proceeded to slaughter and imprison thousands of Burmese civilians who had supported the opposition movement. The representatives of the democratically elected government in exile pleaded with foreign multinationals such as Unocal, Total, and Halliburton to desist in their profitable joint ventures with the junta. Most companies eventually complied. Unocal and Halliburton were among the few to refuse to do so.

The Burmese dictatorship has been universally condemned by such organizations as Amnesty International, the International Labor Organization, and the US Congress, for gross human rights abuses including, torture, slave labor, and extrajudicial executions.

Unocal is a defendant in a lawsuit being brought by Burmese victims of forced labor, and the target of a corporate charter revocation campaign by the National Lawyers Guild in the state of California for involvement in these and other criminal acts.

Mr. Cheney should be vigorously questioned on his and his company's role in the Burma atrocities. His fitness to lead American energy policymaking should be sharply called into question on this basis. Environmentalists should insist that policymaking in matters such as energy and resource extraction meet the highest standards of respect for human rights. Cheney's background casts grave doubts on his suitability for this task.

Expanding the inquiry into industry practices further afield, in both time and place, we should question many industry practices that have heretofore gone unchallenged. The story "Secret History of Lead" by Jamie Lincoln Kitman in the March 20, 2000, issue of The Nation, reveals that three of the world's largest corporations took part in a conspiracy to keep leaded gasoline on the market for sixty years, despite known public health risks, with the result that 67 million American youngsters are now estimated to have received measurably toxic lead exposures. The story, winner of an IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) medal for distinguished investigative journalism, has not received the attention it deserves.Consider that if the same standards of liability were applied to the corporations implicated in this story as have been applied to the tobacco industry, the resulting damage awards could be enough to rebuild all of America's depressed urban areas.

Strong evidence exists for numerous industry violations of environmental laws and fundamental labor rights and human rights around the world. Two Business Week reporters, in a George K. Polk Award-winning story in 1998, reported on Mobil Oil's practice of supplying excavation equipment to the Indonesian military and death squads to dig mass graves for striking oil workers. The same year, in another award-winning story, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reported on Chevron's use of its helicopters in the Niger Delta to ferry Nigerian security forces around to suppress unarmed demonstrators. The Nigerian forces reportedly availed themselves of Chevron's services repeatedly, firing on demonstrators with automatic weapons from the security of Chevron helicopters flown by Chevron pilots.

Environmentalists should cite these and many other examples of industry criminality or criminal complicity to call for wide ranging investigations of the practices of these organizations. Given the critical situation the world confronts with global environmental threats, many of them provoked directly or indirectly by the oil, petrochemical, and allied industries, and given the crucial importance of reducing the world's dependence on fossil fuels, all profits from these industries should be devoted to developing and implementing humane and environmentally sound alternatives. This can only be ensured by placing these enterprises into public receiverships, or by outright public expropriation. The argument in favor of nationalization of these industries should not be framed mainly in economic or political but legal terms. Public receivership should be offered to companies in lieu of criminal investigations of industry executives as an incentive to smooth the process. The tobacco industry lawsuit may be viewed as a possible model where industry tractability has been encouraged by the threat of criminal liability for top management.

Given the current political climate in Washington, this strategy won't succeed in its particulars at the moment. But it could constitute a good initial step towards putting our opponents on the defensive, and giving environmentalists more room for maneuver.

Guy Berliner

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