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Fossil Fuel Industry Funds State Attorneys General to Sabotage Environmental Regulations

Energy

The job of a state attorney general is to enforce the state's laws and look out for the interests of its citizens. A large part of that involves oversight of corporate special interests and protecting the state's citizens against them. He or she is in theory the "lawyer for the people." But a story in the New York Times this weekend laid out how many state attorneys general are serving as little more than errand boys and mouthpieces for the fossil fuel industry.

A gusher of fossil fuel industry campaign contributions is causing state attorneys general to act almost as private attorneys for the industry.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

"Never before have attorneys general joined on this scale with corporate interests to challenge Washington and file lawsuits in federal court," wrote reporter Eric Lipton.

It's the second part of a series the paper is doing to "examine the explosion in lobbying of state attorneys general by corporate interests and the millions in campaign donations they now provide." It follows up on part one which ran in late October, revealing how some attorneys general shut down investigations or settled lawsuits with terms highly favorable to corporations.

Part two, Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance With Attorneys General, contains even more egregious examples of how partisan and special interest-driven these theoretically independent elected officials have become. It offers hair-raising details about the fundraising efforts of the Republican Attorneys General Association and how an outsized money flood has allowed the Republican Party, backed by fossil fuel interests, to take over a majority of attorneys general posts for the first time in history, with 27 incoming Republican attorneys general in 2015. During the 2014 campaign, attorneys general candidates such as Texas' Ken Paxton, Ohio's Mike DeWine and Alabama's Luther Strange received massive infusions of cash from the energy industry.

The article provides evidence of just how far some of these attorneys general are willing to go to virtually serve as free counsel for big gas and oil companies.

Among its revelations: Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt delivered a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), insisting it was vastly overestimating the air pollution caused by gas drilling in the state—a letter written by lawyers for one of the state's largest oil and gas companies and copied almost directly onto state government stationery. That letter elicited effusive praise from that company in an email exchange.

"The email exchange from October 2011, obtained through an open-records request, offers a hint of the unprecedented, secretive alliance that Mr. Pruitt and other Republican attorneys general have formed with some of the nation’s top energy producers to push back against the Obama regulatory agenda, an investigation by The New York Times has found," Lipton wrote.

And that was only one of many letters Pruitt wrote on behalf of corporate interests. In addition, he's joined the companies he supposedly oversees as plaintiffs in court cases, "a departure from the usual role of the state attorney general, who traditionally sues companies to force compliance with state law," Lipton writes.

Among those supporting Pruitt's efforts to scrap environmental protections is billionaire Harold Hamm of Oklahoma-based Continental Resources. Hamm, developer of the Bakken shale formation and widely known as the "founding father of fracking," was the chairman of Pruitt's re-election campaign.

The New York Times article exposes the "Rule of Law" campaign, in which these attorneys general work in coordination not to serve the interests of their state but to push a corporate agenda, and specifically to attack and sabotage the actions of the Obama administration on issues like environmental protection, the Affordable Care Act and corporate oversight. Pruitt, who has emerged as a national leader among state attorneys general in promoting fossil fuel interests, has a record of public remarks heavy on rhetoric about states' rights and federal government "overreach," challenging things like requiring coal-burning plants to install pollution reduction equipment as an infringement on local self-determination.

In addition, the article reveals that energy industry lobbyists have handed attorneys general draft legislation, asking them to influence their legislatures to give the attorneys general more authority to work to undercut the Obama administration and proposed EPA regulations. A summit last year in Oklahoma which brought together state attorneys general and fossil fuel industry power brokers resulted in the creation of the "Federalism in Environmental Policy" task force. Its job: producing ideas on how to monitor and block federal efforts to curb fish kills, reduce ozone pollution, slow climate change and tighten regulation of coal ash.

“It is quite new,” said Marquette University professor Paul Nolette, author of the forthcoming book Federalism on Trial: State Attorneys General and National Policy Making in Contemporary America, told The New York Times. “The scope, size and tenor of these collaborations is, without question, unprecedented.”

The actions of Pruitt and his colleagues on behalf of industries providing them with campaign cash are so brazen that even some Republicans have questioned them.

“When you use a public office, pretty shamelessly, to vouch for a private party with substantial financial interest without the disclosure of the true authorship, that is a dangerous practice,” David B. Frohnmayer, Republican attorney general of Oregon in the ’80s, told the New York Times. “The puppeteer behind the stage is pulling strings, and you can’t see. I don’t like that. And when it is exposed, it makes you feel used.”

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

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"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.