Just The Facts, Ma’am

Old timers will remember the days of “Dragnet” when TV screens were small and the pictures black and white. Jack Webb, the expressionless lead in that show always asked for “just the facts.” In those days folks could distinguish between the facts and opinions. Nowadays, not so much. Corporations seem to have the greatest difficulty as they seek to manipulate or ignore altogether relevant facts in an attempt to persuade the public and the Congress that they wish only to help further the public good. Profits are secondary. Right!

One such example pops up every now and again in the ONEARTH magazine published by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group I support which does, in fact, seek to help protect the planet from greedy and duplicitous corporations. They are spitting into the wind at best, as evidenced by a recent example in this month’s magazine. The NRDC published a portion of a letter written by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity that seeks to respond to a negative report by the NRDC to the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. The NRDC printed the response by ACCCE with its comments in bright yellow, footnoted more or less as follows (“Just the facts, Ma’am”). They begin by insisting that the notion of “clean coal” is an oxymoron, which is a fact. They then to proceed point by point:

Claim by ACCCE: The clean air act “is not designed to regulate greenhouse gases and any efforts by the EPA to do so will cause unnecessary economic harm.”

Rejoinder (by the NRDC): “The Supreme Court disagrees. In 2007 it ruled that greenhouse gases meet the definition of an air pollutant in the Clean Air Act, and in 2011 it ruled that the EPA has the authority to set standards for carbon pollution from power plants.”

Claim: “Our conclusion is that the NRDC proposal would cause substantial economic harm and any such harm is impossible to justify.”

Rejoinder: “ACCCE uses an inflated estimate of energy efficiency costs, which makes the overall costs of reducing emissions seem higher. It also uses a shoddy apples-and-oranges comparison in weighing the costs and benefits of carbon emission reductions.” Further, “ACCCE kooks at only one side of the ledger, ignoring the economic benefits of limiting pollution in terms of improving human and environmental health and reducing climate change. [In logic this is called the “fallacy of ignored aspect” and it is an example of flawed reasoning.] If you factor in these savings, ACCCE’s own numbers show that the cumulative benefits would exceed costs by more than two to one.

Claim: “According to the analysis conducted by NERA, the CO2 reductions that would result from the NRDC proposal represent, at most, 1 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rejoinder: “Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, and no other single policy would reduce emissions more effectively than setting limits on these emissions.”

Of considerable interest in this debate, of course, is the appeal by the Clean-Coal [sic] industry to the “economic benefits” of reducing restrictions on coal-burning plants. In a word: you are taking our profits away from us. (No wonder the industry hates the EPA and the government that supports it. People like the Koch brothers have their sights set on the EPA and are determined t bring it down.) But there is considerable evidence, suggested here, that the economic and health benefits to the public at large greatly outweigh the losses to the coal industry, thus giving the lie to the corporate claim to be concerned with the public good. So, what else is new?

In general, when it comes to claims and counter-claims, since the issues are often technical and beyond my ken, I tend to ask which side has a hidden agenda. If there is an axe to grind then the “facts” are likely to be skewed in favor of the one wielding the axe. As a general rule, the corporations don’t much care about the common good: they are almost exclusively interested in profits for their shareholders and huge salaries for their CEOs — 475 times the size of the salary of their average employee at last count. It’s not likely, therefore, that data, or “studies,” supplied by corporations to serve their own purposes will be reliable, whereas data provided by disinterested third parties are more likely to be reliable.  It pays to be suspicious. It should surprise no one to see how those who have something to sell will play games with facts or ignore them altogether. So it goes.

Taking On Big Oil

I am just ornery enough to think if Lisa Jackson pissed off the dirty energy industry she must have been doing a terrific job as director of the EPA. However, she will be stepping down after four years of scrutiny, second guessing, and downright nastiness from people like the Koch brothers surrounding her attempts to put teeth into environmental protection. As a recent Yahoo news story tells us:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The past four years of U.S. environmental regulation was marked by a crackdown on emissions that angered coal miners and power companies. Over the next four, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency will have to decide whether to take on an even larger industry: Big Oil.

Following Lisa Jackson’s resignation on Wednesday, her successor will inherit the tricky task of regulating a drilling boom that has revolutionized the energy industry but raised fears over the possible contamination of water supplies.

The battle between the dirty energy industry and environmentalists has been going on for years and centers around the untenable dichotomy: either jobs or the environment. One gets tired of pointing out that we can protect the environment while at the same time we create jobs. But, while true, the statement falls on deaf ears, since when Big Oil says “jobs” it means “profits.” It is clear, however, that clean energy can provide thousands of jobs. It already does. Despite the lack of any solid support from the government, the solar industry, for example, already provides more jobs than the coal industry.

But Big Oil has poured billions into fracking in an attempt to extract cheap oil and gas from underground. It has a vested interest in continuing to exploit the earth and those jobs assuredly are at stake. The problem is that the fracking process contaminates millions of gallons of water — which is going to become increasingly precious — thereby rendering it useless for human or animal consumption. Jackson has said in public that the process can be made safe, but studies now underway will prove whether she was just saying what she was coached to say. In any event, Big Oil has put the screws on Jackson and waits to see who President Obama will nominate for the position she vacates to take a well-earned vacation.

Speculation is that Obama will be reluctant to nominate an environmental “hard-liner” because of the precarious condition of the economy and the fact that the energy industry is one of the few bright lights on the economic horizon, and oil is one of the few bargaining chips this country has to play in the international game of survival poker. But Jackson’s experience has shown that even a strong person may wilt under the constant attacks of the monied special interests who pull the strings in Washington. Compromise is possible if the person heading the EPA is tough enough to stand up to Big Oil with its bottomless pockets. A weak person in that position will almost certainly prove to be ineffective — and that  is something future generations will live to regret. This may prove to be another example of short-term thinking directing political decisions; money provides the fuel. It’s getting to be a tiresome story.

Gutting the E.P.A.

One of the more insidious aspects of Mitt Romney’s energy plan is to allow individual states to grant permission for Big Oil to drill on the federal lands within their borders. This plan would effectively circumvent the Environmental Protection Agency, though our large corporations would love to see that agency disappear into the night.

But as one who has taught business ethics for years and who has seen countless numbers of cases in which federal agencies stand between each of us and poisoned air and water, contaminated foods, and harmful drugs, the idea that the EPA might be weakened strikes me as a seriously stupid on Romney’s part. The recent issue of OnEarth the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council provides a case in point.

In this issue we are told about a  legal case brought by NRDC in conjunction with the EPA against British Petroleum in Whiting, Illinois (about 20 miles southeast of Chicago) where BP has a refinery that processes crude oil from the Canadian tar sands (which in themselves are another environmental disaster. But that’s another story.) The refining process, as determined in a study by the Sierra Club in 2010, is a hazard to the health of people within a few miles of the refinery, causing health problems such as asthma, emphysema, and birth defects.

The court ruled in behalf of the EPA and British Petroleum will have to shell out $400 million “to install [scrubbers ?] and prevent 4,000 tons of pollutants — including sulfur dioxide, soot, and toxic substances such as benzene — from billowing out of the refinery each year.” The settlement requires that BP reduce the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions and inform the public about the results of its pollution monitoring. As OnEarth goes on to point out, “the settlement means that refineries around the country will face more rigorous standards when they attempt to modify their operations.” And yet, the EPA is the agency that the Republican candidate for President would gut and render impotent in the name of “jobs” and, of course, higher profits for the wealthy.

We need to realize as this election approaches that there are issues much larger than merely the state of the economy that are in question. The mantra of “lower taxes” and “more jobs” needs to be tempered by a realization that we need to regard the long term as well as the short term. When jobs are created they need to be in industries that have a social conscience and will not undermine our health and safety. And if lower taxes mean cutting back on the authority of such agencies as the EPA it may very well entail the turning loose of unconscionable companies like BP who care only about “the bottom line” and not a bit about our health and the future of the planet.  (You may recall BP was the culprit in the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 brought about by the company’s unwillingness to build in safety measures in their drilling equipment. The repercussions of that spill are still being felt in the region) There are indeed large issues at stake in this election and we need to be aware of the cloud of rhetoric that surrounds us in an election year and can be just as threatening to our well-being as the fumes from an oil refinery.