Thursday, January 03, 2013

Under-reported Texas environmental developments

-- Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons was fined some pocket change (to him) for making illegal campaign contributions to Texas legislators on behalf of his nuclear waste management PAC.

The committee — WCS-Texas Solutions PAC – made $64,500 in unauthorized political donations to Texas lawmakers in late 2011. The problem was that the PAC didn’t qualify as a legal PAC. The law requires that PACs have at least 10 contributors. The WCS PAC had only one — Simmons, who deposited $100,000 and then dispensed money to favored political candidates. Waste Control Specialists operates a nuclear-waste dump in West Texas. Had Simmons, who heads the company, made the donations directly in his own name, it would have been okay. But the 10-contributor law is aimed at making sure big donors don’t try to disguise their giving by doing so through a political committee.

For someone who gives as much money as Simmons does -- at $16.5 million, he was the third-largest contributor to the Mitt Romney campaign, behind Sheldon Adelson and Bob Perry -- this is positively ignorant. As Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice noted...

“Let’s all pray Simmons takes more care in handling atomic waste than he does in handling his campaign contributions.”

-- The Exxon Mobil employees locally who oversee the pipeline in Montana, the one that leaked oil into the Yellowstone River last summer, apparently fell asleep on the job.

Delays in Exxon Mobil Corp.’s response to a major pipeline break beneath Montana’s Yellowstone River made the spill far worse than it otherwise would have been, federal regulators said.

Department of Transportation investigators examining the spill said pipeline controllers in Houston could have reduced the volume of the 1,500-barrel spill by about two-thirds if they isolated the rupture as soon as problems emerged.

Instead, crude drained from the severed, 12-inch pipeline for another 46 minutes before a remote control valve near the river was finally closed.

The July 1, 2011, spill fouled 70 miles of the riverbank along the scenic Yellowstone.

Does everybody understand now why there is so much opposition to the Keystone XL? I suppose the best response from conservative radicals would have to be: "Pipelines don't kill people".

-- After Shell's Arctic drill ship broke loose from its tugboat and beached itself on an Alaskan coastline, the Internet meme-ists sprung the trap. Again.

A hoax website mounted by environmental activists to highlight the dangers of Arctic drilling and mock Shell’s search for oil in the region is getting fresh attention in the wake of the grounding of one of the oil company’s Kulluk rig near Alaska.

The website — designed to look exactly just like Shell Oil Co.’s real website — is welcoming a surge of traffic as people take to the Internet to search for more information about the Kulluk. Only most of them don’t know it’s a spoof.

Yes, it was so good it fooled other environmental activists...and an NPR affiliate.

For instance, one environmentalist emailed a quote attributed to Shell but pulled from the site to reporters Tuesday night before issuing a mea culpa few minutes later.

On Wednesday morning, a radio host on the NPR station KUOW in Seattle quoted directly from the site and attributed these comments to Shell:

“No oil company has ever operated in an environment as extreme as the Arctic, let alone with heritage equipment—yet that’s exactly the sort of challenge that makes the Arctic so appealing to many of us at Shell. On the slight chance that something does go wrong, Shell’s spill cleanup plan is second to none. No one has yet fully determined how to clean up an oil spill in pack ice or broken ice—but that too is exactly the sort of challenge we love.”

Classic. Here's a picture, courtesy EcoWatch, of the Greenpeace billboards connected to the effort opposing Arctic drilling that appeared in Houston last summer.

Flickr has a few more.

Update: It turns out that Shell was trying to move the drilling rig before the end of the year -- in the dead of the Alaskan winter -- in order to avoid paying Alaskan taxes on it. They remain liable for the taxes (because it grounded on New Year's Eve), and now also for a multi-million dollar rescue operation. And if it starts leaking oil...

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Let's meet back here in a couple of months and do it all over again.

Fiscal roller coaster survived! Now let's run over to Debt Ceiling Mountain and ride that one!

Setting a looming deadline to avert self-created calamity has become a frequent device for the U.S. Congress to get things done in recent years. When all else fails, as it often does, it's supposed to frighten members into action.

That was the idea when Congress created the "fiscal cliff" in August, 2011 to resolve a partisan struggle, also with a deadline and also self-created, over raising the federal debt ceiling.

Catastrophic budget cuts, timed to coincide with the threat of hefty income tax increases, would finally produce big cuts in the soaring federal budget by December 31, 2012, or else.

It didn't work. 

I'm not much into the 'soaring federal budget deficit' part, as you might guess. End the wars, raise all the taxes on the wealthy, institute a federal jobs program similar to the New Deal, and we'd be running surpluses just as we did in the Clinton years by the end of 2016.

But a few on my side of the aisle still want to grumble.

So, we have a modest deal in place to avert the contrived crisis known as the fiscal cliff. Washington is celebrating the fact that Congress averted the disaster that it created out of thin air last year.

Some say that it's not a bad deal on its merits, but we'll have to await final judgment until we see what happens with the debt ceiling, which has to be raised in the next two months. If the White House stands firm on its refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling again, and doesn't give any more concessions, then we can look back at this deal as a pretty good one, on balance. 

I suspect this will become the center-left conventional wisdom, and only dirty hippies will be bitching. So pass the patchouli, because I hate this deal. 

Though often regarded as a DFH despite my Neiman Marcus ties, I don't hate this deal. Yes, because the Social Security payroll tax goes up, the middle class gets to pay a bit more. But the benefit of that is that it resolves some of the "cut entitlements/we're going broke" bullshit coming out of the mouths of douchebags like Lindsey Graham.

Still, even Paul Krugman bitched about the deal.

So why the bad taste in progressives’ mouths? It has less to do with where Obama ended up than with how he got there. He kept drawing lines in the sand, then erasing them and retreating to a new position. And his evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling.

If Obama stands his ground in that confrontation, this deal won’t look bad in retrospect. If he doesn’t, yesterday will be seen as the day he began throwing away his presidency and the hopes of everyone who supported him.

While I would not hesitate, normally, to give the president a kick in the shins over his negotiating acumen, even I find PK's criticism a little harsh. John Aravosis mocked Krugman over his recalcitrance.

I’m sorry, but this doesn’t make much sense.  We got what you wanted, but you still feel we lost because you don’t like the way the President got what we wanted.  What was wrong with the President’s approach, I ask?  He caved on his promises, you say.  But if the President caved on his promises, then how did we end up with what you wanted?

I’m the first to criticize the President for his “cave first, negotiate later” negotiating style – and we criticized him heavily during his first term on this very point.  But I think it’s significantly harder to argue that “he caved” if you also claim that he got what you wanted.

And while I am no defender of Obama's in this regard, the truth is what it has always been for him: his competitors imploded in wave after wave of infighting and vitriol among themselves.

Just check in on any conservative website. Big Jolly is so mad he's calling for a primary challenge to John Cornyn for voting 'yes' on the bill.

Fact: I would quit blogging about politics and never look back if the Republicans weren't such a hilarious clusterfuck. They are truly funnier than the simian habitat at the zoo during mating season.

Oh, the Texas Republicans still get my goat with their wanton and intolerable cruelty. But their "success" also has to do with the quality of their competition. The only response to the question of how Democrats keep losing to them is that Texas -- outside the big cities--  is full of gun-and Bible-clinging, Walmart-shopping, oilfield trash and drugstore cowboys.

(But that's a digression, probably worthy of getting me disinvited to ride on someone's bus for next week's opening session of the Texas Legislature. Meh. I'll catch a ride later on Lobby Day with some progressive organizations.)

Meanwhile, let's pop some corn, watch the TeaBaggers in Austin pick a fight next week with Joe Straus and lose, and ride the Debt Ceiling Tilt-a-Whirl in a couple of months.

Update: Why Everyone Hates the Fiscal Cliff Deal

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Merry 2013

TPA's Texans of the Year are the Tar Sands Blockaders

The Texas Progressive Alliance, a consortium of Lone Star-based liberal weblogs, has selected the protesters of the Tar Sands Blockade as Texans of the Year for 2012.

The award has been given annually to the person, or persons or organization, who had the most significance influence -- for good or ill -- on the advancement of progressive interests and causes over the past twelve months.

"As with previous winners (like Fort Worth city council member Joel Burns in 2010, the Harris County Democratic Party's coordinated campaign in 2008, and Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent PAC in 2006), the Tar Sands Blockaders represent what progressive Texans strive for: correcting injustices through direct action. Sometimes that takes place at the ballot box, sometimes in the courtroom, and once in a while it happens in the streets. In 2012, it happened in a handful of pine trees in East Texas," said Vince Leibowitz, president of the TPA.

The Tar Sands Blockade began when TransCanada, the company constructing the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, began seizing property from East Texans via eminent domain to connect the pipeline, which will transport tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur. Despite the fact that the pipeline hasn't yet been approved by the US Department of State,TransCanada and other operators have been busily cutting down swaths of forest, appropriating the land along the route as necessary, and when challenged by the small group of people protesting, responded with threatening measures and occasionally brute force.

When petitioning, lobbying, and public hearings failed to slow the construction of the pipeline, concerned citizens took to non-violent protests, risking arrest in order to demonstrate the will and demands of Texans concerned about the environment, about the nation's continuing dependence on dirty fuels, and the collaboration of government officials with the corporate interests. A group of protestors climbed into a stand constructed in a grove of pine trees and halted construction for weeks.

The movement began in June of 2012 with the formation of the Tar Sands Blockade, and the first lawsuit was filed in July.

As construction began in August, protestors began putting themselves on the line. Seven protestors were arrested in Livingston, Texas just before the Labor Day holiday. Even as a judge allowed TransCanada to seize a swath of farmland in Paris, Texas, more protestors chained themselves to construction equipment in rural Hopkins County.

The New York Times and the Washington Post picked up the story in October.

Along with the property owner, actress and activist Daryl Hannah was arrested as the two women physically blocked a piece of heavy equipment and its operator from clearing land for the pipeline. Even as the number of arrests climbed past thirty, the protests grew. A few days before the November election, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was arrested at the construction site in Winnsboro. In Cherokee County, sheriff's deputies pepper-sprayed protesters. All of this occurred while the legal battle went back and forth -- in December, a judge granted, then vacated, his temporary restraining order on pipeline construction.

And the efforts to stop the pipeline continue today, even as its construction proceeds apace. On November 29, Bob Lindsey and prominent environmental activist Diane Wilson were arrested by Harris County sheriff's deputies outside Valero's refinery in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, where the pipeline will terminate. They chained themselves to tanker trucks outside the gates, were promptly taken into custody, and continue a hunger strike to this day that adds the humiliating and disgusting conditions of Harris County's jail to the list of outrages.

With training and mobilization of additional protests and protestors scheduled for early January, 2013, there will be more to report on this action.

The Texas Progressive Alliance salutes those who have sacrificed so much of themselves to underscore the seriousness of America's fossil fuel addiction, and how the system of corporate and political corruption has come to manifest itself in the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline.

Runners-up for this year's Texan of the Year included the following...

-- The emerging scandal of the Texas cancer research organization, CPRIT;

-- The spectacular failure of Governor Rick Perry's presidential campaign;

-- Attorney General Greg Abbott's woeful losing record in court in his many lawsuits related to the federal government, including redistricting, voter ID, Obamacare, etc.;

-- Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, who defied conventional wisdom and was re-elected to the Texas Senate despite the best efforts of Republicans to deny her;

-- The expansion of the Texas Congressional delegation to 36 as a result of the 2010 census and apportionment of extra seats based on population growth in the Lone Star State. New Texans in Washington DC include former Democratic state representatives Pete Gallego and Marc Veazey, but also -- and unfortunately -- ultraconservatives Randy Weber and Steve Stockman.