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Veteran investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith’s new work, Who Stole the American Dream?, steps back from the partisan fever of the 2012 campaign to explain how we got to where we are today — how America moved from an era of middle class prosperity and power, effective bipartisanship, and grass roots activism, to today’s polarized gridlock, unequal democracy and unequal economy that has unraveled the American Dream for millions of middle class families.
On 22 September 2012, Hedrick Smith spoke at the Parish Hall on Orcas Island, WA, as part of the Crossroads Lecture Series. He spoke for about an hour, followed by a 20 minute question and answer session. His book is available on Orcas Island at Darvill’s Bookstore (a signed copy), or at Amazon.
Smith’s book is brimming with fascinating insider stories that detail the shift from a strong middle class of the 50s and 60s, to the current weakened middle class, with an income inequality that is at an all time high, ranking with that of Rwanda and Uganda.
This didn’t happen by accident. Smith details how, beginning in the 1970s, corporate attorney Lewis Powell sparked a political rebellion with his call to arms for Corporate America. Like a gripping detective story, Smith follows the trail through to present day. Chronicling a stunning shift in power, away from a healthy growing middle-class, toward a superPACed, lobbyist fueled, special interest driven, well oiled, corporate powered, political machine.
Over the past decade, at the center of the machine, stands the “Gang of Six” and Washington insider Dirk Van Dongen, the man behind the curtain, who coordinates very effective lobbying of our elected officials. The Gang of Six include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, and Van Dongen’s own National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
Who Stole the American Dream? makes for compelling reading, and at the end, Smith offers up a grassroots-centered strategy for reclaiming the dream – restoring balance to our economy and re-building a healthy middle-class. The video above will give you a summary understanding of what is well detailed in his book.
Corporate lobbyists funnel billions of dollars to our elected officials each year. Recent studies show that for every dollar spent lobbying, business receives over $220 back in legislation that favors the business.
On climate change alone, 770 companies hired 2,340 lobbyists, up 300% in past 5 years. Most of those companies have vested interests in fossil fuels and benefit from delay of legislation that would speed the transition to clean energy.
In 2011 private companies and special interest groups spent $3.32 billion lobbying their agendas. In 2010, they spent even more at $3.54 billion. From 2008 to 2010, 30 Fortune 500 companies spent more money on lobbying than they did on taxes.
In an unusual moment of candor, here’s what Senator Dick Durbin had to say about corporate money and politicians:
“I think most Americans would be shocked, not surprised, but shocked if they knew how much time a United States Senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money.” Dick Durbin, 30 March 2012
Depending on status and influence, our elected officials in Congress typically raise about $5,000 to $30,000 per day. They spend a good part of each day dialing for dollars, asking businesses to send them money. It is against the law (the Hatch Act) to make those calls from government property, so they walk to call centers located conveniently just a few minutes from Capitol Hill.
Money in Politics
For more on how corporations and our elected officials are joined at the hip, see the excellent series on Money in Politics. Here’s an excerpt from that series:
So senators and congressmen go across the street to private rooms in nongovernmental buildings, where they make call after call, asking people for money. In other words, most of our lawmakers are moonlighting as telemarketers.
“If you walked in there, you would say, ‘Boy, this is the about the worst looking, most abusive looking call center situation I’ve seen in my life,'” says Rep. Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon. “These people don’t have any workspace, the other person is virtually touching them.”
There are stacks of names in front of each lawmaker. They go through the list, making calls and asking people for money.
The fundraising never stops, because everyone needs money to run for re-election. In the House, the candidate with more money wins in 9 out of 10 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. In the Senate, it’s 8 out of 10.
It’s not uncommon for congressmen to average three or four hours moonlighting as telemarketers. One lawmaker told me if it was the end of the quarter and he really needed to make his numbers, he’d be there all day long.
The fox is in the hen house. Time to get the big money out of politics. Surely our elected representatives don’t want to do this demeaning begging for money. Surely they would like to start making laws and setting public policy based on the merits of an issue. Right?
Jeffrey Sachs has a outstanding new book out called The Price of Civilization. The title of the book refers to remarks made by US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who spoke of the need for citizens of a country, who enjoyed the benefits of living in that country, to pay the price to support that civilization.
Sachs provides a thoughtful, cogent analysis of challenges facing America, and how to address those challenges. The book has a clean straightforward jargon-free narrative that is balanced and has elements that will appeal to conservatives, independents and progressives alike – though each group will find things to disagree with, there is much that will be embraced.
Sachs looks at the nature of America, through the lens of democracy, fairness, civic virtue, compassion, and happiness, and asks the question “What is our role in the 21st century?”
Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University.
Here’s Sachs being interviewed by Charlie Rose, about The Price of Civilization.
Here’s Sachs in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, taking questions from reporters. Sachs is articulate, plain speaking and clearly frustrated with the faltering state of the nation and the cozy monied relationship between government and big business.
On a related note, Charles M. Blow had an excellent graphic from the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation report “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?” It helps give some context to issues driving the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and challenges facing America.
I am on a road trip across America, interviewing sustainable business leaders for a new book I am working on. Entering Iowa from the Northwest corner, hundreds of wind turbines rise majestically from the endless corn and soybean fields that are a staple of the Iowa landscape.
Pulling into an access road, I drive up to a newly installed wind turbine that looks like it is ready to be commissioned. It is a GE 1.6 megawatt (MW) wind turbine. The GE on-site engineer has obvious pride as he describes the wind turbine specs, design, and geology of the area that makes this site so amenable to wind power generation.
This wind turbine is located on the Coteau des Prairies, sometimes referred to as Buffalo Ridge. The ridge is composed of thick glacial deposits that gently rise to about 900 feet, from the surrounding prairie flatlands. The ridge runs eastward, from eastern South Dakota, through southwestern Minnesota, and northwestern Iowa. Numerous wind farms have been built along the ridge to take advantage of the high average wind speeds.
Iowa wind power accounts for about 20% of the electricity generated in the state – about 4 billion watts of power (4 GW). Iowa leads the US in percentage of electrical power generated by wind. Wind turbines will produce from 12 to 16 times more revenue per acre than corn or soybeans. And farmers can plant crops around the wind turbine, reaping the benefits of both. In addition, in the winter, winds are stronger, generating much needed revenue while the fields lay fallow.
Coincidentally, I saw this news today, about farmers in the UK ramping up their investment in renewable energy:
More than one third of UK farmers want to install renewable energy projects on their farmland, most of them within the next year, and hope to generate average returns of 25,000 pounds ($40,565) per year, UK bank Barclays said.
The bank’s business arm on Tuesday launched a 100-million pound fund to help farmers finance renewable energy projects, including solar panels, wind farms, hydro plants and organic waste power as a growing number of agricultural businesses seek to benefit from government support tariffs.
“We want to signal very clearly to the market that we consider this to be a big future industry, a big opportunity for agricultural businesses and also a big opportunity for the renewables,” said Barclays Business’ Product and Marketing Director, Travers Clarke-Walker, whose team will be managing the fund.
“This is a quickly emerging industry.”
A Barclays survey of 300 agricultural customers also showed four out of five farmers recognize renewable energy can save costs and 60 percent see it as a source of additional income.
The use of renewable energy on farmland has been brought to public attention in Britain by Michael Eavis, farmer and founder of the Glastonbury music festival, who installed over one thousand solar panels on his land.
The cost of installing renewable energy projects can be recovered after around 10 years, Clarke-Walker said.
The UK government slashed state support for large-scale solar plants earlier this month as it was concerned a few huge commercial projects would scoop up money intended for household and community projects.
Nevertheless, Clarke-Walker expects around 80-90 percent of projects will be solar and wind farms as they are cheapest to build and their costs are forecast to drop by up to 50 percent in the next three to five years as demand rises and technology improves.
Britain aims to generate 15 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, compared with 7.4 percent reached in 2010.
The fund’s loan budget is unlimited and the first 100 million pounds could support well over 100 projects as the average cost varies between 250,000-700,000 pounds, Clarke-Walker said.
Suffolk-based farmer Mike Porter, who plants crops such as wheat and oil seed rape, received a 130,000 pound loan from Barclays to install solar panels on a grain store last month and is expected to make 20,000 pounds per year by exporting power to the national grid.
Democrats of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce just released a new report detailing chemicals used in the toxic gas exploration process known as Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking or fracing). Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas from oil shale beneath the earths surface. Communities are increasingly concerned about fracking polluting public water systems and the environment, when the chemicals leak into aquifers, rivers, streams and the atmosphere.
While the oil/gas industry has denied any problem, there is mounting evidence that public water systems and private wells are being polluted in areas around the drilling sites. In states such as Pennsylvania, politicians have welcomed Big Oil in with open arms, and thousands of gas extraction wells are expected to be drilled this year. Presently, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The chemicals can most often leak in to the water system in several ways:
Derrick – The natural gas process involves drilling 5,000 feet or more down and a comparable distance horizontally. The majority of the drilling liquid remains in the ground and is not biodegradable.
Well Casing – If the well casing that penetrates through the aquifer is not well sealed, chemicals can leak in to the aquifer.
Fractured Shale – To release the gas from underground, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into the well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. These fissures may allow the chemicals to enter the water system. In addition, recent reports suggest that radiation in the ground is contaminating the fracking fluid. This radiation has been showing up in drinking water. For more on that see the NY Times investigative article by Ian Urbina Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.
Surface Contamination – The gas comes up wet in produced water and has to be separated from the wastewater on the surface. Only 30-50% of the water is typically recovered from a well. This wastewater can be highly toxic. Holding ponds, and handling mishaps can release this toxic brew into the environment. For some examples, see the video below about residents in Pennsylvania and the impact of fracking on their water systems. Surface evaporation of VOCs coming into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site, can produce ground level ozone. Ozone plumes can travel up to 250 miles.
Horizontal fracking uses up to 300 tons of a mixture of 750 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and millions of gallons of water per frack. This water then becomes contaminated and must be cleaned and disposed of. To date, the oil/gas industry has been secretive about what chemicals are used, and has lobbied Congress for a variety of protections. Much of the contaminated water is taken to water treatment plants that are not designed to process the chemicals and radiation found in fracking fluids.
In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. It is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.
The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemical Act) is a House bill intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and to require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use.
The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress, in 1974, to ensure clean drinking water free from both natural and man-made contaminates. Remember the days when rivers were so polluted with toxic industrial waste that they would ignite into flame?
Here’s the introduction from the Democrats report from the Energy and Commerce Committee – Chemicals Used In Hydraulic Fracturing (N.B. click on the link at left to see the actual report and list of chemicals):
Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward J. Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette released a new report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies. The report contains the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies during the drilling process.
“Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health,” said Rep. Waxman. “This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.”
“With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it’s an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals,” said Rep. Markey. “This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and should help the industry, the government, and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas.”
During the last Congress, the Committee launched an investigation into the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, asking the leading oil and gas service companies to disclose information on the products used in this process between 2005 and 2009.
The Democratic Committee staff analyzed the data provided by the companies about their practices, finding that:
The 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products, not including water added at the well site. Overall, the companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components.
The components used in the hydraulic fracturing products ranged from generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid, to extremely toxic substances, such as benzene and lead. Some companies even used instant coffee and walnut hulls in their fracturing fluids.
Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – are SDWA contaminants and hazardous air pollutants. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical over the five-year period.
Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, was the most widely used chemical between 2005 and 2009. The substance is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under SDWA. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were the other most widely used chemicals.
Many of the hydraulic fracturing fluids contain chemical components that are listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret.” The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these “proprietary” chemicals, suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.
How Fracking Can Effect Your Community And What You Can Do About It
Once a communities water system is made toxic, property values plummet. Homeowners end up with homes that can’t be sold at anywhere near their original value. They are forced to live in their un-sellable homes and continue to be exposed to the toxic environment. Fracking can compromise public health and environmental quality. The map below from the Gasland project shows where oil shale gas drilling areas are most intensive, in red.
Here’s a more detailed map from the Energy Information Administration showing “Shale Plays.”
The term “play” is used in the oil and gas industry to refer to a geographic area which has been targeted for exploration due to: favorable geoseismic survey results; well logs; or production results from a new or “wildcat well” in the area. An area comes into play when it is generally recognized that there is a valuable quantity of oil or gas to be found. Oil and gas companies will send out professional “land men” who research property records at the local courthouses and after having located landowners who own the mineral rights in the play area, will offer them an oil and gas lease deal. Competition for acreage usually increases based on how hot the play is in terms of production from discovery wells in the area. The more oil and gas there is to be had, the higher the lease payments per acre are.
And money talks. Homeowners and towns can be attracted to the offer of money for exploitation of the shale. The heavy costs paid are only realized after the deal is signed – costs to the environment, increased industrial traffic through the community, attraction of outsider oil/gas workforce that can stress local community wellbeing, and of course – environmental degradation, and risk to public water systems.
Bryan Walsh, one of my favorite environmental reporters, just published this evenhanded video that looks at some specific examples of toxic fracking related events in Pennsylvania, the heart of east coast gas extraction. While business leaders in the community enjoy the increased hotel and travel related economics, the devastating impact on homeowners and communities can be tragic.
As the video shows, there is a growing conflict between public health interests and business interests. Anytime oil/gas is involved, big money is at stake. Big Oil spends tens of millions of dollars lobbying politicians to favor their business, often at the expense of public health and the environment. Local businesses welcome all the truckers, traffic and drilling personnel because it means increased commerce. But at what cost?
Communities are fighting back. Do your homework and get to know about fracking. The articles below in Recommended Reading are a good start, and rent the HBO movie documentary Gasland. You will get a good background on how communities across the US are being effected. If you think your community is being impacted by fracking, the Gasland producers have setup a good website to learn more and with tips on how to Take Action, including links to elected officials, info on local organizations, and email action alerts. Remember – oil companies are funneling big money into politicians coffers to influence public policy. It will take your steady, informed, organized community voice to counter big oil special interests.
For ideas on how to hold your elected officials accountable, read Nicholas Kristof’s really fine article on The Power of Mockery. It highlights one of the most effective ways for grass-roots movements to speak truth to power. He also features Tina Rosenberg’s new book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Kristoff offers examples of the techniques in action, including: how kids took on Big Tobacco and reduced teen smoking in Florida; the Egyptian revolution; Serbia, etc.
I just added this excellent video by Josh Fox, calling out NY Governor Cuomo on fracking. It is an excellent review of secret memos leaked from the gas industry, detailing how fracking system failures pollute our water resources. Rolling Stone Magazine online has a good article calling the Governor out on fracking.
And finally, support politicians that are committed to a strong Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Trend Is Our Friend
Fossil fuels are becoming more expensive and extraction more toxic. The easy stuff has already been extracted over the decades. What remains poses greater and greater risk to public health and the environment. Fossil fuels are our past. Renewable energy is our future. Renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper and are much cleaner to produce. Let’s not compromise our future trying to ring every last drop of oil and gas out of the ground. Support politicians that understand the pressing need to rapidly transition to renewable energy and invest in research and development, education, and regulation.
I’ll leave you with this interactive diagram from the Gasland website. Click on the small circles to learn more about fracking. Click on the “To The City” arrow to scroll the image to the left to see how fracking contaminated water effects community water systems.
The most read article at the NY Times online yesterday was The U.S.S. Prius by Thomas Friedman. The thrust of the article centers around two brutal facts – we are fighting wars for oil, and wars consume a lot of oil. One of the tidbits mentioned toward the end of the article is that a gallon of gas costs up to $400 per gallon by the time it reaches the front lines. Moving beyond the economics, getting fuel to the front lines also costs lives. The U.S. military loses one soldier for every 24 fuel convoys it runs in Afghanistan.
Friedman observes “at a time when a fraudulent, anti-science campaign funded largely by Big Oil and Big Coal has blocked Congress from passing any clean energy/climate bill” the U.S. Navy and Marines are spearheading a strategy to make the military much more energy efficient. Friedman adds, “Unlike the Congress, which can be bought off by Big Oil and Big Coal, it is not so easy to tell the Marines that they can’t buy the solar power that could save lives.”
Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, has crafted a strategy to shift from oil to alternative energy, including, solar and biofuels. On Earth Day this year, the Navy flew a F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet powered by a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel and camelina aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds.
And while congress favors boondogles like corn ethanol, which uses almost as much energy producing it as it yields:
The Navy will use only “third generation” biofuels. That means no ethanol made from corn because it doesn’t have enough energy density. The Navy is only testing fuels like camelina and algae that do not compete with food, that have a total end-to-end carbon footprint cleaner than fossil fuels and that can be grown in ways that will ultimately be cheaper than fossil fuels.
Mabus has also set a goal for the Navy to use alternative energy sources to provide 50 percent of the energy for all its war-fighting ships, planes, vehicles and shore installations by 2020.
About 60% of the oil we consume is imported from foreign nations – many of those nations are petro-dictatorships. As we shift to alternative fuels and energy, we can reduce our dependance on foreign oil.
Though many people are familiar with solar energy, innovations in the field of biofuels are less well known. Most vehicles run on liquid fossil fuels – gasoline and diesel. Biofuels, such as camelina, provide a cleaner greener alternative to fossil fuels. Camelina Sativa is a member of the mustard family, a distant relative to canola. Camelina can grow on land unsuitable for most food crops, especially arid lands. It has yields that are roughly double that of soy. Camelina can be grown in a rotation with wheat crops. Farmers who have followed a wheat-fallow pattern can switch to a wheat-camelina-wheat pattern, and produce up to 100 gallons of camelina oil per acre, while growing up to 15 percent more wheat. And once the oil is pressed from the seed, the leftover “mash” can be used as nutritious livestock feed.
We consume more oil for transportation than anything else. Innovations in transportation fuels will have the most impact on global energy consumption and associated emissions of climate-changing CO2.
Oil production is peaking and will become increasingly expensive. It’s time to support our transition to a cleaner, greener alternative energy.
The U.S. spends more money on potato chips than energy research and development. To restore US scientific and technical leadership, Congress needs to stop bashing science and taking money from Big Oil, and start investing in our energy future.