How Far Will Elected Officials Go to Protect One of World’s Biggest Carbon Polluters?
By Elliott Negin
When a handful of attorneys general launched investigations of ExxonMobil for climate fraud, I wonder if they had any idea that they would be attacked for attempting to stifle the company's right of free speech.
After all, if ExxonMobil publicly downplayed warnings by its own scientists about the threat posed by burning fossil fuels in its communications with investors and the general public, it very well may have committed fraud, which is not protected by the First Amendment.
Legal experts have cited the case against the tobacco industry as an apt analogy. For years, tobacco companies emphasized uncertainty about their products' risks to stave off government regulations. ExxonMobil essentially has been doing the same thing.
Regardless, attorneys general from 13 states and more than a dozen members of the House Science Committee have entered the fray on ExxonMobil's behalf, all making the same indefensible First Amendment argument. And—surprise, surprise—most of them are climate science deniers who get significant campaign funding from fossil fuel companies and electric utilities.
"AGs United for Dirty Power" Strikes Back
In late March, 17 attorneys general announced the formation of the AGs United for Clean Power coalition to defend the new federal rule curbing power plant carbon emissions and investigate energy companies for fraud. So far, coalition attorneys general from California, Massachusetts, New York and the Virgin Islands have opened investigations of ExxonMobil and more are likely in the offing.
In response, Attorneys General Luther Strange of Alabama and Ken Paxton of Texas filed an intervention plea in May in a Texas district court on behalf of ExxonMobil to quash one of the investigations. They then followed up with a June 15 letter to AGs United for Clean Power cosigned by 11 other state prosecutors calling for an end to the ExxonMobil probes. The group—essentially "AGs United for Dirty Power"—maintained "[u]sing law enforcement authority to resolve a public policy debate undermines the trust invested in our offices and threatens free speech."
Just whose interests are Strange et al. representing?
Strange has been Alabama's attorney general since 2010. In 2014, his reelection campaign contributors included the American Coal Association, American Gas Association and Koch Industries, but his biggest energy industry supporter was Alabama Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the nation's largest electric utilities. Three Southern coal-fired power plants are the biggest carbon emitters in the country.
Paxton, meanwhile, received more money from the oil and gas industry than any other sector when he first ran for attorney general in 2014. His benefactors included Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Koch Industries, Marathon Oil and Phillips 66. ExxonMobil sat out Paxton's 2014 campaign, but the company contributed to his campaigns when he served in the Texas statehouse.
Eight other attorneys general who signed the Strange-Paxton letter also enjoy fossil fuel industry support. Jeff Landry of Louisiana and Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma pulled in the most contributions. Landry's 2015 campaign was funded by more than 40 oil and gas companies, including Halliburton, Hilcorp Energy, Koch Industries and Phillips 66. Pruitt's 2014 campaign, meanwhile, was backed by American Electric Power, Arch Coal, Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, Koch Industries, Marathon Petroleum and … ExxonMobil.
Not surprising, AGs United for Dirty Power prosecutors are not only going to bat for ExxonMobil, they are running interference for the coal industry, too. Eleven of the 13 attorneys general on the letter, including Strange, Paxton, Landry and Pruitt, are among the more than two dozen AGs who have sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the Clean Power Plan, the new federal power plant carbon emissions rule.
ExxonMobil-Funded Reps Defend ExxonMobil
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith also leapt to the defense of the oil giant. In mid-May, Smith and 12 other committee members sent letters to the AGs United for Clean Power coalition and eight foundations and nonprofit groups, including 350.org, Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists, demanding they turn over all documents and communications related to their efforts to hold ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies accountable for climate science deceptions. Echoing the Strange-Paxton argument, their letters charged that the attorneys general and the nonprofits are trying to "silence speech."
Twelve of the 13 signatories—including Smith—received campaign contributions from ExxonMobil since the 2010 election cycle and 10 of them got donations from Koch Industries.
The 17 AGs United for Clean Power members and other recipients of Smith et al.'s request refused to comply. In separate letters, they explained that the aim of the ExxonMobil investigations is to determine whether the company provided investors and the public with accurate information and reminded Smith and his colleagues that the First Amendment does not protect fraud. They maintained that Congress has no jurisdiction over state law enforcement activities and therefore has no right to demand documents and communications. Finally, they pointed out that—ironically enough—the committee's request threatens the nonprofit advocacy groups' First Amendment rights of free speech and association.
Indeed, the allegation that the attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil and the nonprofit organizations that have provided them information are somehow infringing on the company's free speech rights is absurd. No corporation has a First Amendment right to deliberately misinform about the harm associated with its product and attorneys general have every right to investigate whether a company's actions amount to fraud. Likewise, attorneys general have the right to consult with experts either publicly or confidentially in the course of their investigations. Moreover, the nonprofits singled out by Smith et al. have the right and responsibility to provide information to state prosecutors when they have reason to suspect corporate wrongdoing.
How did Smith react to this resounding rejection? On June 17, he and 16 other House Science Committee members sent a second round of letters to AGs United for Clean Power, the foundations and the nonprofit groups, again asking for documents related to the investigations. And again the recipients said no.
What's next? Will Strange and Paxton intervene in court again to try to stop another ExxonMobil investigation? Will Smith, who has a history of harassing federal climate scientists with subpoenas, resort to that tactic to force compliance with his request? Just how far will fossil fuel industry-funded elected officials go to protect one of the biggest carbon polluters in the world?
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. All federal campaign contribution data came from the Center for Responsive Politics. All state campaign contribution data came from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
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Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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