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State Attorneys General Make Secret Pact With Big Oil to Oppose EPA

RP Siegel headshotWords by RP Siegel
New Activism

Last week I wrote a story about the outpouring of support for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan among both businesses and state legislators. Of course, with a measure dealing with a subject as volatile as climate change, not everyone is going to agree on the course of action, or whether action should even be taken.

But you might be surprised to learn who is opposing this and how they are going about it. A story broke in last week’s New York Times about how various energy companies had formed a secretive alliance with a group of state attorneys general. For example, Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt sent a letter to EPA officials, asserting that the agency was grossly overestimating the amount of carbon pollution being generated by natural gas wells operating in the state. What Mr. Pruitt failed to mention, as the Times learned through an open records request, was that the letter had been written by attorneys for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies, and then cut and pasted directly onto the attorney general’s letterhead.

In other words, Mr. Pruitt was using the power of his office to give the oil company’s appeal more clout, insinuating, if not outright stating, as a letter from an attorney general is apt to do, that legal action could potentially follow. The email exchange obtained by the Times revealed notes from the company, heartily thanking Pruitt for his help.

A similar pattern plays out in at least a dozen states. Corporate donations to the political campaigns of attorneys general exceeded $16 million this year, collected by the Republican Attorneys General Association, which Scott Pruitt heads.

There are a number of reasons why this is not okay. First of all, the attorney general is the top law enforcement official in the state. His or her job is to uphold the law and protect the people. That means the majority of the people and the land, water and air that the people need to survive. It doesn’t mean the people with the most money or those that happen to share their political philosophy.

Second, the idea the regulations are bad for business is wrong-headed. The idea, that “greed is good,” that was promulgated by Gordon Gecko in the movie "Wall Street," has been debunked time and again -- and should have been retired for good after the financial collapse of 2008. Yet it still has its adherents.

Let me be clear, economic self-interest (aka greed) is a powerful force that can motivate great benefits for all people. It is, no doubt, the force that has brought our country to its current economic stature, both the boom years and the disaster that we are still trying to recover from. But a world without the means to exert a force to counteract the effect of unchecked greed is a world out of control.

Let me give a simple example: A truck is barreling down the highway, and a small child wanders into the roadway ahead of him. At the very least, the driver is going to slow down and drive around the child, even if that costs him a tiny bit of time and money. That’s a no-brainer. No one would argue that. If anything, some might argue that the driver should do more than that, and, of course, that the child shouldn’t have been there. But in real life, stuff happens.

What regulations do is they let companies know that they are headed full-steam towards doing harm, though the harm is not as easy to see, or the remedy so easy to effect, as in the example I gave above. They protect the people and our shared environment, from what the enthusiastic pursuit of profit might have overlooked in its single-mindedness. Now, of course, not all regulations are well-conceived, and companies are entitled to bring their concerns of fairness to the table as part of the democratic process. But that is not what is happening here.

Some will argue that it’s just as valid for those to oppose the plan as to support it. They would be correct in principle. But let’s look at how this is being done: Those supporting the plan announced their support in a public press conference, while those opposing in this way were operating in secret, only to be exposed by rigorous investigative journalism. That should tell you something. Those supporting the plan know that they will, in some cases, experience some economic challenges (e.g. higher short-term energy prices) as we transition, but they understand the longer-term systemic implication and see their support as an investment in the future. Further, they are looking beyond their own immediate bottom line to the greater good of the society that they and all their customers live in.

Those using this illicit and corrupt approach to oppose the plan are doing none of that, which is why they feel the need to operate in secret. They are driven only but their immediate short-term bottom line.

It would be overly simplistic to suggest that this is simply a moral failing on the part of the executives. To some extent, it is our Wall Street economy that puts these pressures on executives who have an obligation to deliver attractive returns to their investors. That’s why the system itself needs to be regulated and why we need regulations to make doing the right thing a cost of doing business. Then there will be those that pull their trucks over to the side of the road and safely escort the child home, and those that simply slow down and veer around her, but, in either case, at least the child will be safe.

Image credit: FlabbyPanda : Flickr Creative Commons, alterations via RP Siegel

RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com


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