2009 - %3, August

Pumping in Dirty Oil From Canada's Tar Sands

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 6:18 PM EDT

Today, the State Department announced that it has okayed a new oil pipeline between Canada and the United States. A press release hails the decision to break ground on the Alberta Clipper Pipeline for sending "a positive economic signal, in a difficult economic period, about the future reliability and availability of a portion of United States’ energy imports" and for providing "shovel-ready" jobs. What it doesn't mention is that the pipeline between Alberta and Wisconsin will be pumping oil from Canada's tar sands—some of the world's dirtiest petroleum. As Mother Jones' Josh Harkinson reported in a gripping first-hand dispatch from the "Tar Wars," Canada's oil boom is exacting a heavy toll on the rural areas surrounding the massive pits that comprise the largest industrial zone in the world. For every barrel of oil produced from the tar sands, another two of toxic waste are left behind. Indigenous Albertans worry that their water and wild game have been dangerously contaminated. And that's not all: Squeezing oil from tar sands emits 151 percent more greenhouse gases than the production of conventional oil (including 80 percent more CO2). The official justification for the new pipeline echoes the Bush administration's policy, which put "energy independence" ahead of environmental considerations. Yet the State Department insists that the US is still committed to taking "ambitious action to address climate change" and getting Canada to follow suit. Sounds like a pipe dream.

 

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World Bank Knowingly Funds Harmful Biofuel Co.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 4:30 PM EDT

In our March/April 2009 issue, journalist Heather Rogers investigates the controversy surrounding biofuel production and the ever-expanding oil palm plantations in Indonesia. In her report, Rogers explores why the world's largest palm oil trader, Wilmar, is facing intense criticism: 

Wilmar is currently under scrutiny for illegalities...including logging protected areas, using fire to clear trees, forcibly removing peasants and indigenous people, and operating without proper permits. 

According to Rogers, these activities violate Wilmar's own social responsibility policies, as well as the standards of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank's private sector lending arm that has bankrolled Wilmar with millions. After pressure from Indonesian activists, IFC's ombudsman was forced to launch an investigation.

Well, the investigation finally wrapped up this summer, culminating in this damning report that details IFC's failures:

  • IFC did not address the livelihood and economic issues faced by smallholders or plantation workers in the supply chain.
  • IFC overrode the assessment by it's own economic and social department (CES) and incorrectly categorized investments in Wilmar's oil palm projects as having "limited, or no, environmental or social impacts."
  • IFC failed to address the fact that Wilmar's plantation operations were not in compliance with Indonesia's national laws, which require Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), and local land rights customs.
  • IFC investments were overly influenced by commercial pressures and disregarded environmental and social due diligence requirements.

Indonesia's civil society organizations have responded quickly to these findings. In conjunction with the UK's Forest Peoples Programme, they sent a letter to IFC officials arguing that such failures require IFC "to suspend its support for the palm oil sector in Indonesia until these deficiencies are addressed." As Marcus Colchester of the Forest Peoples Programme explains, "IFC staff knew of the environmental and social risks in the palm oil sector, including unresolved land disputes and non-compliance with its social and environmental standards, but chose to ignore the risks."

Check out Heather Rogers' investigation here.

Fiore Cartoon: Prescription for Rage

Thu Aug. 20, 2009 3:27 PM EDT

Were you born without normal levels of right-wing insanity? Then satirist Mark Fiore has the perfect drug for you: Rage-ex! It's perfect for dealing with the health care debate.

Watch the ad below:

The GOP's Health Care Reform Org Chart

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 3:22 PM EDT

Yesterday, Republicans annoyed with news reports that Democrats had decided to reform health care without them, released this chart to highlight the new bureaucracy that the Democrats' plan would create. You have to hand it to them. The chart is a pretty good visual of how complex the Democrats' reform plan really is. Health affordability credits? Health insurance exchange trust fund? Huh? You can see the full chart for yourself here (pdf). One notable omission: In perhaps a commendable show of Republican restraint, "death panels" don't seem to have made it on to the chart.

What Gay Marriage Means

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 3:05 PM EDT

When Steve Chapman asked same-sex marriage opponent Maggie Gallagher to offer a few "simple, concrete predictions" about what would happen if SSM were legalized, she "politely declined."  However, now that Chapman has gotten the ball rolling, she's taken to The Corner to offer a few "preliminary predictions about the short-term effects of SSM":

  1. In gay-marriage states, a large minority people committed to traditional notions of marriage will feel afraid to speak up for their views, lest they be punished in some way.
  2. Public schools will teach about gay marriage.
  3. Parents in public schools who object to gay marriage being taught to their children will be told with increasing public firmness that they don't belong in public schools and their views will not be accomodated in any way. 
  4. Religous institutions will face new legal threats (especially soft litigation threats) that will cause some to close, or modify their missions, to avoid clashing with the government's official views of marriage (which will include the view that opponents are akin to racists for failing to see same-sex couples as married).
  5. Support for the idea "the ideal for a child is a married mother and father" will decline.

Of these, #4 strikes me as almost certainly mistaken.  Interracial marriage bans were struck down more than 40 years ago, but so far as I know, churches are still legally free to marry whomever they wish without interference from the government.  I expect the same will be true as same-sex marriage bans are overturned.

Gallagher's other objections are more plausible, but what's striking about them is how self-referential they are.  The balance of her list all boils down to about the same thing: if social attitudes become more tolerant toward SSM, then.....social attitudes will become more tolerant toward SSM.  Which is hard to argue with.  I don't think anyone will be "punished" for opposing SSM, but it's almost certainly true that as SSM becomes more widely accepted, people who remain unreconciled will feel somewhat socially marginalized — something that happens anytime there's social change of any sort.

Widespread acceptance of gay marriage, then, will result in widespread acceptance of gay marriage.  Aside from that, though, Gallagher doesn't really predict any concrete harm to society.  So what's the problem?

Health Insurance CEOs to Hand Over the Goods

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 2:11 PM EDT

Sometimes you just can't take the watch out of the dog.

From Henry Waxman's latest shop comes this letter, delivered to health insurance company execs, requesting financial disclosures on salary, perks, revenues, and expenditures. It begins:

The Committee on Energy and Commerce is examining executive compensation and other business practices in the health insurance industry.

What a grand idea. And they're not just asking for bundled totals, companies need to aggregate claims, revenue, expenses, and total profits for the following sectors: the self-insured employer market, the insured employer market, the individual market, and all government programs they're part of (like Medicare or Medicaid). Which means analysts will get true cost and revenue data over the past four years according to various types of plans. Oooh, a rich dataset to work with, good news for the good guys.

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Tax Increases to Health Insurance Cos Without Public Option

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

All of Congress' reform proposals include provisions that would close the healthcare reform money gap by increasing taxes in some way, shape, or form. Some proposals are more progressive (House, Obama) than others (Senate, surprise) but under any scenario the yield will be significant: at least $30 billion in revenue per year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Of course, these proposals have long been considered, and were crafted with the understanding that public coverage (aka, the unfortunately lingoed 'public option') was part of the endgame. There are plenty of liberals, and moneyed ones at that, who would be willing to forgo some of their deductions or otherwise take a significant tax hit in the name of health care reform. But without a public option those tax dollars go not into the public coffers to fund a program that will increase competition and lower costs in the long run, instead they'll go right to insurance companies. This is something rich liberals, and likely key Dem congressmembers, won't go for. If the public option is indeed just a sliver, then insurance companies, who's stock prices soared Monday after the public option became non-essential, are the real winners in all of this. Not the reform anyone had in mind.

 

Sidenote: An interesting parallel argument from James Pethokoukis over at Reuters: the GOP playbook against health care legislation mirrors the Dems battle against Social Security reform efforts in 2005. Messages both times: Reform would leave the elderly at the mercy of the market, and, hey, there isn't really a problem here.

 

Bullet Point of the Day

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:37 PM EDT

From a press release announcing some of the dirty laundry that former DHS secretary Tom Ridge will air in his upcoming memoir:

• How Ridge effectively thwarted a plan to raise the national security alert just before the 2004 Election.

Paul Bedard of US News adds that this was "something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over."  Juicy!  The book will be released September 1st.

Nihilists and Hypocrites

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:16 PM EDT

Joe Klein says the Republican Party has been taken over by "nihilists and hypocrites":

An argument can be made that this is nothing new....There was McCarthyism in the 1950s, the John Birch Society in the 1960s. But there was a difference in those times: the crazies were a faction — often a powerful faction — of the Republican Party, but they didn't run it. The neofascist Father Coughlin had a huge radio audience in the 1930s, but he didn't have the power to control and silence the elected leaders of the party that Limbaugh — who, if not the party's leader, is certainly the most powerful Republican extant — does now. Until recently, the Republican Party contained a strong moderate wing. It was a Republican, the lawyer Joseph Welch, who delivered the coup de grâce to Senator McCarthy when he said, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Where is the Republican who would dare say that to Rush Limbaugh, who has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler?

Yep.  Both parties have their extreme wings, but the GOP's is not only way deeper into crazy land ("death panels" for them vs a public option for the most liberal Dems), but it's virtually all they have left.  Michele Bachman is pretty much the modal Republican now, not just a fringe nutball.  Conversely, Dennis Kucinich, who's far to the left but perfectly sane and coherent, barely gets the time of day from the mainstream core of the Democratic Party.

I don't actually mind if most or all Republicans vote against healthcare reform.  They're Republicans!  They're opposed to expanded government programs and private sector regulation and new entitlements.  But the death panels and the home nursing inanity and the "healthcare racism" and the town hall screeching and all the rest are the mark of a party that's gone completely off the rails.  They're doomed until they figure out a way to extricate themselves from the Beck/Limbaugh/Fox News axis of hysteria.

Are the Palins Splitsville? And Other Tabloid News

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

The tabs this week are full of juicy political “news.” We read them so you don’t have to. From the August 24 editions:

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is this week’s headliner in the Globe, which reports that she and “first dude” Todd Palin are splitsville due to stress over her political success, daughter Bristol’s illegitimate child, and ongoing rumors that Palin had an affair in the mid-1990s. The Globe claims that Palin is “so fed-up with Todd, 44, that she’s thrown her wedding ring away, booted him from her bed and is planning to move with her kids to Montana, where she is said to have purchased land.”  A Palin spokesperson denies all charges. “No divorce. No affairs. No land in Montana. Nothing! All lies and fabrications," she tells the Globe.  (No links, btw. The tabs are strictly paper products.)

The Star also leads with the Palin marriage crisis, observing that after Palin publicly resigned as governor on July 3, she jumped into a waiting SUV and bolted, leaving husband Todd at the curb. “They left me,” Todd reportedly chuckled—a sign, the Star notes, of things to come.  The Star also provides a handy photo chronology of Palin’s bare hands to back up claims that she threw her wedding ring in Lake Lucille shortly after her resignation speech. A photo dated July 26, from Palin’s swearing in of the new governor, shows she still wasn’t wearing it three weeks later.