Our political system is awash with cash from corporations and wealthy donors. Ordinary Americans feel that their opinions don’t count; low voter turnout is a reflection of that sense of helplessness. Following the Supreme Court decisions Citizens United and McCutcheon striking down limits on campaign contributions, opposition has begun to grow. The findings of a 2014 study from Princeton University show that these feelings are warranted:

“[E]conomic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence… [O]ur estimate of [the] average citizens’ influence on policy making… is near zero. …In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with [business oriented] organized interests, they generally lose.”

Our democracy more and more resembles a plutocracy, not surprising given that income and wealth inequality is greater in the US than in any other industrial nation. Various campaign finance laws have been passed since 1867, with only modest success at limiting the influence of money in politics. The McCain-Feingold law of 2002 was meant to stop the flow of unlimited “soft money” to candidate campaigns and political parties. But corporations (for-profit and nonprofit entities) and wealthy donors simply shifted their donations to outside groups, following a strategy pioneered by Democrats during the Bush years. From 2004 to 2008 the level of outside money increased 164%; it rose 135% from 2008 to 2012.  Most of this increase occurred before the Citizens United Decision in 2010 and all of it occurred before the McCutcheon decision in 2014.

This paper discusses approaches that environmentalists and social justice advocates are considering, and others that they should consider, to counter the power of money over politics and our lives, including lessons learned from people’s struggles during the Great Depression.




The Battle to Ban Fracking in California

Modern hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a so-called “unconventional drilling technique” used to extract gas and oil trapped in low permeability tight formations, such as shale or sandstone, which cannot be extracted using conventional techniques. This paper discusses the reasons that fossil fuel companies are in a fracking frenzy all over the country, why there is so much popular resistance, and how the battle is playing out in California.

Strong opposition to fracking has arisen in the US due to its association with innumerable incidents in multiple states of groundwater pollution, its excessive water use, its setting off of seismic activity, earth shifts, and subsidence, and fracking developments’ impact on local physical and social infrastructures.  Fracking also has very serious consequences for global warming.  It allows the extraction and burning of fossil fuel that would otherwise be inaccessible,and creates significant leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane, which could cause us to reach climate tipping points earlier than we otherwise would.

California Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), written by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and signed into law by Gov. Brown on September 20, 2013, is the first effort in California to regulate fracking.  Despite this, however, Gov. Brown is a fracking advocate, and SB 4 is not what it seems.  In August 2013 more than 100 environmental groups signed a letter demanding that Governor Jerry Brown refuse to sign SB 4 and immediately impose a moratorium on fracking in California, an appeal that was ignored.

The fossil fuel industry anticipates that unconventional drilling techniques will allow US output to surpass Saudi Arabia’s in the next decade, providing them with trillions of dollars of profit.   Some corporations believe that California, with “64% of the total recoverable shale oil in the USA (15.4 billion barrels) … could soon become the center of the unconventional oil and gas industry in America.”

[UPDATE: In May 2014 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) cut the estimate for the amount of recoverable oil buried in California’s Monterey Shale deposits by 96%.  The new estimate is that 600 million barrels of oil can be extracted with existing technology, much less than the earlier estimate of 13.7 billion barrels.  Some major oil companies have always expressed skepticism about the amount of recoverable oil, but even now fossil fuel associations are hopeful.  “’We have a lot of confidence in the intelligence and skill of our engineers and geologists to find ways to adapt,’ said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn. … [And] Rock Zierman, chief executive of the trade group California Independent Petroleum Assn. [says] ‘The smart money is still investing in California oil and gas.’” http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-oil-20140521-story.html]

To gain access to the Monterey Shale reserves and block regulation, the oil industry lobby, now the biggest in California, spent an estimated $45.4 million in the state from 2009 up to 2013.  The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) alone spent $2,308,790 on lobbying in Sacramento in the first half of 2013, not including the amounts spent by oil companies themselves.  Because of industry influence, Senate Bill 4 was the only undefeated bill of several that were written to regulate or ban fracking, and this only after it was weakened by industry-approved amendments.

In addition to exerting influence on politicians and regulatory agencies, the fossil fuel industry and its allies promise jobs and general prosperity for recession-weary Californians, and have built a massive PR effort to convince us that their plans are safe and beneficial for all.  Californians need greater awareness of the issues and environmentalists need to have their facts straight for the great battle ahead.

See below for the full paper.  Download it for reading convenience.  


Warning: the “C” doesn’t really stand for “Clean”

Powered by clean natural gas? No fracking way…

Buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) appear everywhere, and are increasing rapidly.  Painted green, they are festooned with environmental slogans: Powered by Clean Natural Gas, Go Green, Lean Green CNG Machine, Clean Air Technology, Clean Air Bus.  And then there’s the patriotic appeal: Powered by America’s Natural Gas, Safe and Responsible Development.  With the fracas caused by fracking for natural gas: tap water catching on fire, ground water contaminated by chemicals, excess water usage, fracking-related earthquakes, why are even many environmentalists sold on CNG fuel for heavy-duty vehicles?   Why is the American Lung Association joining the fossil fuel industry in promoting natural gas as a healthy and clean energy source?

It is the horror of toxic tailpipe emissions from diesel vehicles that drives the acceptance of CNG as (seemingly) the lesser of two evils.   This is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the intolerable well-to-wheels climate impact of CNG and the availability of better alternatives, including battery electric buses or technology that reduces diesel tailpipe emissions to CNG levels (so-called green or clean diesel).

The full article (download below, for reading ease) draws on scientific articles, government reports, and environmental critiques to report concisely and simply on what we know about the technology warming potentials of diesel, natural gas, and battery electric buses, and on how to limit exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles.  More than three dozen links are provided for those interested in further investigation. The conclusions are: CNG bus tailpipe emissions are not significantly better than new or retrofitted diesel buses.  The effect on global warming of CNG buses is significantly worse than diesel buses. Battery electric bus (BEB) technology has lower emissions than CNG & is available now.

Environmentalists should advocate that all bus lines expand or replace old buses by purchasing battery electric buses, not CNG. Until full replacement with clean renewable energy options such as battery electric buses can be achieved, older diesel buses should be retrofitted with the best modern emissions controls, or if necessary, new diesel buses purchased, rather than investing in new CNG buses and infrastructure (fueling stations and safety modifications).  The large investment needed to convert to CNG will lock in fossil fueled transportation for decades to come.  And electrification of the transportation sector is an essential step towards using 100% wind, water, and sun energy.