Who Killed the Vote on Fracking and Squashed Democracy?
At first glance, determining who to blame for the fact that Colorado voters will not get their chance to decide for themselves who controls oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in their neighborhoods seems simple enough. On Monday, Aug. 4, as the result of a political compromise with Colorado’s Democratic Governor, John Hickenlooper, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) agreed to withdraw his support for the citizen initiative process that could have placed two anti-drilling/fracking initiatives (Amendments 88 and 89) on the November ballot. The initiatives, which had each garnered well in excess of the 86,105 signatures needed to be placed on the ballot (provided the signatures held up), would have amended the state constitution to give more control over drilling and fracking to local communities and/or establish a 2,000-foot setback from occupied structures for oil and gas drilling operations.
Because Polis was funding the organization charged with getting the ballot measures before voters (Safe. Clean. Colorado.) he appears to have had the final say that day as to whether citizens would get to vote on fracking in November or instead, whether he would pull the measures as part of a compromise with Gov. Hickenlooper. The logic here is that if Polis didn’t have the final say on pulling the measures, then how could he be negotiating with the governor using the measures as his trading chip?
As Colorado and the rest of the country where the oil and gas industry has moved in now know, Polis chose the latter and pulled the measures at the last minute in exchange for several concessions from the governor including the appointment of a 21-member taskforce made up of oil and gas industry insiders, mainstays of the Democratic Party loyal to the governor and citizens or representatives of environmental groups who support more regulation of the oil and gas industry and fracking but who have publically not endorsed bans and moratoriums. The governor also agreed to drop the state’s lawsuit against the City of Longmont for having established oil and gas regulations considered stricter than the state’s and promised to enforce a 1,000-foot setback as the norm rather than the exception. The deal also hinged on two initiatives put forward by oil and gas backers and funded by the industry being removed from the ballot as well.
The anti-fracking supporters who had gathered signatures and spent years knocking on doors for the opportunity of a statewide vote were blindsided.
It would be an understatement to say that the people who had provided the 263,000 signatures for Polis’ initiatives and the hundreds of thousands of other Front Range citizens who had voted for moratoriums or bans in Fort Collins, Longmont, Lafayette, Boulder, Loveland and Broomfield were angered by this last-minute political maneuvering.
But is that really it? Is it really accurate to blame Polis and Hickenlooper for the fact that the measures died before they made the ballot?
On Aug. 7, in a Boulder Weekly column we promised to use every resource at our disposal to investigate and shed light on why the citizens of Colorado had been denied their opportunity to vote on the critical matter of who controls drilling and fracking in their communities and neighborhoods.
We have done our best to keep that pledge and believe that the following report will shed more light on why a statewide drilling/fracking vote in Colorado will not happen this November.
It is a long and complex story to be sure. It begins in 2002, when the environmental movement first began in earnest its push to eliminate coal as fuel for power generation by replacing it primarily with natural gas coupled to renewables. At about this same time, a handful of Colorado millionaires and billionaires, political consultants and a few politicians came up with a brilliant—at least it seemed so at the time—plan to flip Colorado from red to blue on the political map. Their plan worked so well it has now been exported to more than 20 states and has become the model used by the Democratic Party on the national level for seizing and holding power.
Democrats have constructed a political system built on manipulation rather than transparency, and history tells us that such a system will eventually crumble.
The decision to pull the anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado on Aug. 4 may well be viewed one day as the first tug on the thread that ultimately unraveled the current incarnation of the Democratic Party as well as its codependent national environmental organizations.
What happened to the ballot measures?
Within hours of the breaking news that the anti-fracking ballot measures were not going to make it onto this year’s ballot, Boulder Weekly began receiving copies of an email that had been sent out by Nick Passanante, the campaign director for Safe. Clean. Colorado., the group funded by Polis that controlled the measures.
The email apologized to activists in the anti-fracking movement for blindsiding them with the decision to pull the measures and explained that the concessions from Hickenlooper were the best outcome that could be arranged under the circumstances.
The email read, “There would have been absolutely nothing worse for the movement had we gone to the ballot box and lost ... which was absolutely a reality we were facing. We had numerous polls showing we could win—but only IF we had the resources to compete at a relatively fair level. We could have been outspent 3-1, 4-1, 5-1 and still have won.
But not 8-1, 10-1, 12-1. And as disappointing as it is to say, we simply did not have the financial backing to make that happen. In fact, we were being actively blocked by three of the largest national enviro groups in the nation—Sierra Club, Environment America, and to a lesser extent League of Conservation Voters (national, not the CO chapter). We can do a lot with grassroots movements; but at the end of the day it takes money to win campaigns of this scale and with that obstructionism we were left in a very difficult position.”
After reading this email, it was clear that there was more behind pulling the plug on the anti-fracking measures than just the Democratic Party’s publicly stated position that it feared that the measures could spark a $100 million spending spree by the oil and gas industry that could possibly, by increasing Republican turnout, work against Democrats this fall, particularly Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. Hickenlooper who are both in tight races if the polls can be believed.
The Colorado Model (No 1)
In 2002, Republicans controlled Colorado politics. That year, like most years, the Grand Old Party kicked the Dems into political obscurity. It was nothing new. In fact, as long as most people could remember, Republicans had pretty much controlled Colorado politics with the exception of a Democratic governor or maybe a member of Congress here or there. As a result, a Republican sense of permanent empowerment sometimes manifested itself in overreach on social issues such as gay rights and the environment, overreach as personified by hyper-conservative, anti-gay rights politicos like Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave and Keith King, then the Colorado House majority leader who seemed to think the gay community was an abomination worthy of legislation.
To put it mildly, progressive Democrats were tired of it, and a few of them thought they should do something about it. But what?
In 2003, Al Yates stepped down as President of Colorado State University. Before leaving, he secured a $20 million donation to the university from billionaire healthcare heiress Pat Stryker. It would not be the last time Yates steered Stryker’s money to a cause.
Yates was a successful political operator and he saw a crack in the Republican’s armor. In 2002, ironically in an attempt to get money out of state-level politics, Colorado had amended its constitution in an effort to create strict campaign finance laws.
The amendment limited spending to $65,000 per state house race and individual donors were capped at $200 per candidate. Also that year, the McCain-Feingold Act, or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, largely killed political parties as big spenders for campaigns and crowned 527 political committees the new king-makers in American political theater when the law took effect in November 2002.
Yates was quick to recognize an opportunity had been gift-wrapped for Democrats. According to the Washington Free Beacon, an important meeting occurred in April 2004 when Colorado political consultant/lobbyist Ted Trimpa sat down to lunch with Yates to “discuss the future of political activism.” According to the Beacon, “The concept of pooling together the resources of wealthy liberal patrons in a select few groups was born at that lunch. The tactic had an immediate impact on state politics in Colorado.”
With spending limits so strict, Yates and Trimpa understood that if progressives could create campaign-style organizations that were not directly affiliated with the Democratic Party and fund them through wealthy donors, those groups could outspend Republicans tenfold if need be in order to win the state.
Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Colorado, described the plan to Beacon in 2012. “They outsourced the operations of a political machine away from the Democratic Party and away from any candidate, and they built the activities so they would outlast any single campaign.”
When it came to finding wealthy funders, Yates knew Stryker and Trimpa knew Tim Gill, a software mogul. Eventually meetings were held with four very wealthy Coloradans: Pat Stryker, Internet millionaire Jared Polis, Tim Gill and oilman Rutt Bridges to discuss their becoming the funders in a plan to turn the state blue. This group of wealthy Colorado progressives became known in political circles and news media as the Gang of Four.
In 2004, Yates, Trimpa and the Gang of Four attended a meeting of influential Colorado Democrats. This meeting would later be referred to as “the Roundtable.” At the meeting, the Gang of Four was joined by labor leaders, elected officials, environmental interests, political strategists, activists and Democratic Party organizers.
The millionaires fueled the strategic choices made at the Roundtable with their funds. Of $3.6 million raised by the Roundtable for the 2004 election cycle, $2.5 million came from the Gang of Four. At the time they first started meeting in 2004, the Colorado Senate had 18 Republicans and 17 Democrats, while the House had 37 Republicans and 28 Democrats. In November that year, they successfully flipped both the state House and state Senate along with one seat in the U.S. House. Colorado also picked up one of only two seats that turned to Democrats in the U.S. Senate.
Coloradans simultaneously voted for Republican George W. Bush for president and Democrat Ken Salazar, who beat Pete Coors in a run for U.S. Senate. It was called “the Colorado Miracle.”
The Gang of Four’s methodology, documented in the Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer’s book The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care), was to target a few districts they believed could swing to blue and pour mass amounts of funding into those districts.
“The beauty of Colorado is that it’s just big enough to be important but small enough that just a few people can radically change the political landscape. It’s the best bang for the buck in American politics,” says the Independence Institute’s Caldara in The Blueprint.
The actual blueprint was to create a network of nonprofits that replaced the effectively neutered Colorado Democratic Party and fund them by way of a few very generous donors, which reduced the time needed for fundraising, then recruiting candidates known in their communities, developing consistent, topical messages and putting aside discussions of policy—the Roundtable banned all talk of issues—in favor of uniting under the cause of winning elections. The idea was that with Democrats in power, all progressive boats would be floated, so why waste time debating whose issues were more important.
While issues may not have been discussed, there was clearly one issue early on that likely motivated the majority of the Gang of Four: gay rights.
Tim Gill has been called the most powerful activist for gay rights you’ve never heard of. Time profiled him in 2007 under the headline: “The Gay Mogul Changing U.S. Politics.”
After selling his software company, which had developed the publishing software Quark, Gill founded the Gill Foundation, which, according to Time, “has invested $110 million nationwide in gay causes over the past decade. The Gill Action Fund [which, according to media accounts, was the brainchild of Trimpa who is also openly gay] threw $15 million into a dozen states during the 2006 midterm elections, targeting 70 politicians regarded as unhelpful to gay causes: 50 went down. And the fund is helping transform the political face of Colorado.”
Like Gill, Jared Polis is openly gay, although he didn’t publically come out until 2007. In fact, he is now the first openly gay member of the U.S. Congress, having been first elected in 2008.
Pat Stryker’s brother Jon is an openly gay activist and both he and Pat have long been supporters of gay rights issues. It is unclear what if any direct connection oilman Rutt Bridges has to the gay rights issue, but he has been an outspoken advocate against bullying and for the prevention of teen suicide.
While gay rights issues were clearly important, other issues such as labor and the environment were also at the forefront for those in the Roundtable. But above all, electing Democrats was the agenda.
By early 2004, according to author Matt Bai in his book The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, the Gang of Four were already funding a dozen new progressive groups. This included ProgressNow, which has been described as one of the most important groups in turning Colorado blue.
According to Dicoverthenetworks.org., ProgressNow’s original board included Polis, Trimpa, MoveOn.org founder Wesley Boyd and Rob McKay, whose fortune came from Taco Bell/ PepsiCO. The group’s first executive director was attorney Michael Huttner.
After the end of the 2004 elections, Gill, Stryker, Polis, Bridges, Trimpa and Yates came together again to decide if and how they should work to create more permanent infrastructure to continue the work they’d done for the 2004 election cycle. The group decided to work to develop a lasting progressive infrastructure that would ensure a lifeline of donor money to support efforts to keep Colorado blue.
That lasting infrastructure became the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA), essentially a matchmaker for donors and the nonprofits, political committees and advocacy groups they wanted to support. It was, according to The Blueprint, “the Roundtable on steroids: more donors, more money, more nonprofits in the network—and more capacity to shape Colorado’s political landscape.”
The 527 political committees changed names and began readying for the 2006 election cycle. House-focused 527 Alliance for Colorado’s Families became Main Street Colorado (budget $2.85 million), and the Senate-focused 527 Forward Colorado became Moving Colorado Forward (budget initially $2.65 million). New 527s were added—Clear Peak Colorado, Colorado Voter Project (for the governor’s race field operations, budget of just more than $1 million), New West Fellowship and Rocky Mountain Horizons (to support the Democratic gubernatorial candidate). In total, the Colorado Democracy Alliance was working with a budget of $11.297 million for the 2006 elections.
The techniques were similar to those used by Karl Rove and the Republican Party in Florida and Ohio in 2004, with the main difference being, no one else had been bringing such tactics to state-level races, particularly down-ballot races. In fact, The Atlantic has referred to Trimpa as the Karl Rove of the Democratic Party.
Former Governor Bill Owens, who saw his last two years in office turned upside down by the Gang of Four with both houses of the state Legislature stacked against him, said in The Blueprint, “They bought the state. We ought to treat this the way we treat naming rights to football stadiums—let’s just put Pat Stryker’s and Tim Gill’s names on the gold dome of the Colorado state Capitol, because that’s what happened. … Before campaign finance reform was passed, people tried to use money to influence an individual legislator here or there. Nowadays, big donors just buy them by the dozen.”
In July 2014, Politico summed up Colorado’s Democratic model in an article titled “The Trouble With Jared.” “Polis’ money hasn’t always gone to his pet projects. One of his earliest investments in politics led to Colorado’s recent Democratic takeover. In 2003, he joined three other progressive millionaires—known here as ‘The Gang of Four’—in building a statewide progressive infra structure that has become a national model—a legal architecture that takes advantage of new campaign finance laws alongside a machine of coordinated voter identification, outreach and public awareness efforts. In 2004, Democrats shocked Colorado Republicans by winning back legislative majorities at the state Capitol and Ken Salazar beat Coors in the U.S. Senate race. The party hasn’t lost a big statewide race since 2002, thanks to the infrastructure and rapid demographic changes.”
Describing the Gang of Four’s 2006 election efforts, Caldera told the Beacon, “In 2006, it was reported that Tim Gill and his friends put $16 million into Colorado in one year. There is no one on the right who is willing to invest those kind of dollars.”
But that’s not completely accurate today with the rise of the Koch brothers. Also, the oil and gas industry has, from time to time been willing to pour big dollars into Colorado politics when it felt threatened and that industry could dwarf the expenditures of the CoDA if it desired. The oil and gas industry poses one of the few threats to the Democrats holding Colorado in spite of the fact the state has more registered Republicans than Dems.
But consider this. Bill Ritter was elected governor in 2006 and the oil and gas industry has been exploding in Colorado ever since and the industry’s money has stayed on the sidelines for the most part. Back to that later.
Colorado Model Goes National
The influence of what was and is happening politically in Colorado can’t be overstated.
In the 2003 to 2004 election cycle, George Soros spent more than $23 million of his own money and encouraged other wealthy progressives to do likewise in an effort to prevent George W. Bush’s reelection. It obviously didn’t work. The nation’s wealthiest progressives had given money based upon the recommendations of all the usual consultants and had nothing to show for it. Soros and other wealthy donors were done. They needed a new way to influence the political landscape.
The Colorado model that had worked so well in 2004 had not gone unnoticed by Soros and his friends.
In December of 2003 in New York City, Former Clinton staffer Rob Stein gave a slideshow presentation that would change the way Democrats did business and funded their campaigns.
Stein had been studying the methods used by Republicans to shape the news and fund campaigns using wealthy donors and action groups created to be pass-through funders. He believed that the Democrats needed a similar framework in order to compete and win.
That day in New York, according to Bai’s The Argument, billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis and approximately 30 other well-healed political donors watched the slideshow along with former lobbyist and Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, who was said to have been hand-picked by Soros to lead the Center for American Progress, a think tank that Soros seeded in 2003 and still supports today with multimillion dollar donations.
Those watching the slideshow decided that forming a coalition of donors was a good idea, but that the first order of business was getting rid of Bush. While that didn’t happen in 2004, the formation of the donors group would eventually come to pass in 2005 with the creation of the Democracy Alliance, a secretive collection of approximately 100 of the wealthiest Democrats in the nation and with a requirement of at least a $1 million expenditure per year.
But before the formation of the Democracy Alliance in 2005, Stein brought his slide show to Colorado for a presentation arranged by oilman and Gang of Four member Bridges. It isn’t clear exactly who attended this meeting, but the Colorado Democracy Alliance was formed soon thereafter.
The “Colorado Miracle” was so impressive that it contributed to bringing the Democratic National Convention to Denver in 2008.
At that convention, according to The Blueprint, Democracy Alliance creator Stein moderated a panel titled “Democracy Alliance: Colorado as a Model—Donor Cooperation for Social Change.” During the panel Stein said, “There has never, in the history of progressivedom, been a clearer, more strategic, more focused, more disciplined, better financed group of institutions operating at the state and national level.”
It is clear that the CoDA became the model for the national DA and the crossover doesn’t stop there. Gill, Bridges, Yates and Stryker are all members of the DA, according to FoundationWatch, and Trimpa is or was on the DA’s board of directors as well as that of ProgressNow.
Many organizations receive funding from the DA, including ProgressNow, which has now been expanded to more than 20 states; the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S.PIRG); Center for American Progress; America Votes, a get-out-the-vote 527 organization now run by Mark Udall’s wife Maggie Fox; Sierra Club; 350.org; NextGen Climate Action; BlueGreen Alliance; the League of Conservation Voters (LCV); the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and many others.
The Nation reported that the Democracy Alliance, like its Coloradobased model, doesn’t hand out money itself, but brings its partners to meetings twice a year to decide which organizations to fund, based on recommendations from the Democracy Alliance’s working groups, and then the partners give money directly to the organizations. Like the Colorado Democracy Alliance, the organization works as matchmaker.
In 2006, according to The Blueprint, Democracy Alliance launched the Committee on States, created to take the Colorado model to the other states—18 of them in 20 months. The Democracy Alliance spent $110 million at 30 state level groups in the two and a half years preceding the 2008 presidential elections.
The blueprint for flipping Colorado from red to blue using the money from Polis, Gill, Stryker and Bridges wasn’t the only plan hatched in 2003.
In 2002-03, Sierra Club national launched its Beyond Coal campaign. The idea was that coal used for power generation was the single largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the U.S. and therefore the biggest contributor to global warming, and that being the case, it made sense that swapping lower carbon sources for coal in power generation would be the fastest way to combat global warming.
Initially, Beyond Coal was the Sierra Club’s plan for how to fight 150 new coal fire power plants that the power/coal industry had proposed to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush during the infamous meetings now referred to as the “Cheney Energy Task Force.”
While the idea of moving the world beyond coal wasn’t new in 2002—it had been around for as long as the discussion of global warming—the Sierra Club’s efforts galvanized the environmental movement in an effort to fight new coal fire plants that would have locked the U.S. into burning coal for decades to come.
Eventually, the environmental movement’s desire to get rid of coal expanded into an organized effort to push old coal-fired plants into retirement and more importantly to this story, to switch the remaining generation facilities and those built in the future away from coal and toward lower carbon fuels and renewables.
In practical terms in 2002 and even today, implementing Beyond Coal was and is about trading coal for natural gas in the energy generation sector and using liquefied natural gas in other areas such as transportation.
Renewables such as wind and solar are what get all the attention in the photos on environmental groups’ brochures and websites, but if you learn to read between the lines and translate the code names for natural gas, a more accurate picture becomes clear.
Environmental organizations and their major foundation funders like to say we should replace coal with “low carbon substitutes,” or “clean fuels and renewables,” or “green energy and renewables,” or “wind, solar and other appropriate clean sources of energy,” or they tell us that switching all energy generation away from coal will usher in the “clean energy future,” or the “clean energy economy.”
It all sounds great, but if you look long and hard enough you will eventually find the hidden meaning of “clean, green, low-carbon fuels” within an organization’s position papers and lobbying efforts, that will tell you that all these terms are just environmentally PC ways to say natural gas is going to be in the mix between now and the time we reach a fully renewable future a few decades from now if we are lucky, considering the oil and gas industry’s hold on our political system.
For this report we looked and we found this to be true for every national environmental organization in this story, including the three that were alleged to have been obstructionists to the Polis fracking measures. It wasn’t a surprise.
While most “Big Green” groups these days—post-Cornell’s 2011 Robert Howarth study on escaping methane that speculated natural gas production could be worse for global warming than burning coal—at least talk about the need for better regulations on the oil and gas industry and/or the dangers of fracking, when the rubber meets the road, they still use their influence and dollars to support legislation and politicians at every level that tout natural gas as a job creator and beneficial to the fight against global warming.
This includes the environmental movement’s support for natural gas enthusiasts such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mark Udall and John Hickenlooper, as well as for policies such as Colorado’s Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan that was proposed in June and based on Colorado’s CACJ act.
The push against coal that began in 2002 was quickly embraced by the national environmental organizations and their wealthy foundation funders. Trading coal for natural gas and renewables became the mantra of foundation funders, who provide hundreds of millions of dollars to both the environmental movement and by pass through or direct donations, the Democratic Party.
It wasn’t sinister. Based on the best science of the day, it made sense. It was a win-win as they say. Burning natural gas for power generation emits half the CO2 as burning coal and the politicians who supported the Beyond Coal position were Democrats.
The anti-coal movement picked up even more steam when Al Gore released his game-changing film An Inconvenient Truth.
As is always the reality, the funders drive “Big Green’s” agenda. And based upon their stated positions and/or who they choose to fund, foundations such as Sea Change Foundation, Energy Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Tides Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Wallace Global Fund, Park Foundation, Robertson Foundation, Park Foundation, Schmidt Family Foundation, Climate Works Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Packard Foundation and TomKat Charitable Trust are all, to one degree or another, funding organizations that are fighting climate change at least in part by supporting the replacement of coal in the energy generation sector with renewables and, for the foreseeable future, natural gas.
This is certainly true for the three national environmental organizations accused of working to obstruct the Polis anti-fracking measures. In fact, in some cases the funding bedfellows get even more bizarre. Consider the case of Sierra Club.
According to Environmental Policy Alliance, a right-leaning organization that monitors the environmental movement, the biggest donors to Sierra Club since 2009 are Sea Change Foundation: $10,750,000; The Energy Foundation: $6,224,677; Tides Foundation: $1,490,000; David and Lucille Packard Foundation: $100,000 and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: $2,000,000.
All of these funding organizations have positions in opposition to coal and/or for replacing coal with natural gas and renewables as a means to a fully renewable energy future.
But Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program has also been funded by the natural gas industry and those who support natural gas drilling and fracking as a viable job-creating industry.
It has now been widely reported that between 2007 and 2010 Sierra Club accepted $26 million from subsidiaries and/or individuals who were associated with Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest natural gas producers in the world.
Chesapeake had promised Sierra Club an additional $30 million but when the industry funding was reported in the news, it caused such a backlash that Sierra Club turned down the additional funds.
According to an April 2013 article in The American Prospect, “In 2010, the club’s new executive director, Michael Brune, stopped taking Chesapeake Energy’s cash. Brune also made the decision to come clean with the revelation and express regret for his predecessor’s lack of better judgment. ‘We never should have taken this money,’” Brune wrote in response to a letter he had received from an unhappy member.
But for an environmental organization trying to distance itself from self-interested big-money donors, Sierra Club’s next move was just as odd. In 2011, Sierra Club accepted a $50 million pledge from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be used in its Beyond Coal campaign. Bloomberg is hardly a fracking opponent.
In August 2012, Bloomberg penned an opinion piece titled “Fracking is too important to foul up,” wherein he stated, “The production of shale gas through fracking is the most significant development in the U.S. energy sector in generations.”
The next day, Bloomberg gave another pro-natural gas “Big Green,” the Environmental Defense Fund, $6 million so that the organization could pursue a strategy designed to secure strong rules and help the industry develop best practices for extracting unconventional gas reserves through fracking. In other words, Bloomberg’s money wasn’t given to EDF to study whether fracking should be done. It was given to EDF to help make sure that fracking shale gas was being done as well as it could be in the 14 states where most shale gas is being produced, including Colorado.
You may recall that in late 2013, EDF was the “environmental group” that sat down with Governor Hickenlooper and oil and gas industry representatives to craft the new air pollution rules for the industry that have been widely criticized as too little and unenforceable due to a lack of inspectors to enforce them.
It would be difficult, to say the least, for Sierra Club or any other national environmental organization to take a position of an outright ban on the shale gas revolution when their major funders and the Democratic Party support such drilling so long as industry best practices are used.
So what happens when the money of the super rich behind the CoDA’s model for Democratic politics runs head-on into the “beyond coal” environmental movement?
We found out in 2010, and yet another national model was born.
Clean Air, Clean Jobs, a Marriage of Necessity
A funny thing happened to Bill Ritter on his way to the Colorado Governor’s mansion. But it seems that no one outside of the secretive world of the CoDA can say exactly what it was.
Ridder was hardly a formidable Democratic candidate when he announced his run for governor for the 2006 election cycle. He was a former district attorney trying to increase his name recognition. In fact, oil and gas millionaire Bridges of the Gang of Four jumped into the Governor’s race, and was immediately declared the frontrunner. With one of the Gang in the race all the other candidates such as then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and former state Senate President Dorothy Joan Fitz-Gerald stayed on the sidelines.
But then, inexplicably, Bridges pulled out of the race, Ritter became the Gang’s candidate and he won the 2006 election, beating Republican challenger Bob Beauprez, who had been branded relentlessly as “Both Ways Bob” by the Colorado Democracy Alliance machine.
As a side note, you may have noticed recently that the same branding is being perpetrated by ProgressNow again in 2014 as Beauprez is once again challenging the powers-that-be’s chosen candidate, which is John Hickenlooper this time around. In fact, much of the Hickenlooper election machine is familiar.
While Hickenlooper runs commercials touting his unwillingness to do negative advertising against his opponent, Michael Huttner, the original executive director of ProgressNow, is heading up a new nonprofit group calling itself Making Colorado Great, whose only job seems to be negative campaigning against Beauprez. It is amazing how little has changed in the CoDA blueprint over the last decade. But back to Ritter.
After Bridges dropped out and Ritter won, he hit the ground running with an agenda that was almost exclusively energy driven. He teamed with Xcel Energy to pass some of the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy goals and he passed a few small regulations on oil and gas industry drilling.
While hardly an impediment to drilling in the state, the oil and gas industry wasn’t pleased with Ritter and his new regulations and Democrats feared that oil and gas money might flow into Republican coffers in 2010. It was the one industry that even the CoDA couldn’t outspend and didn’t want to try.
The media began to speculate that an oil and gas war with Democrats could be on the horizon come the 2010 election cycle. The most likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate for 2010 who had the support of the CoDA was John Hickenlooper and he was already working overtime trying to smooth things out with the industry when it happened.
Seemingly out of nowhere—because early negotiations were held in secret meetings—a proposal was put forward that created the strangest of bedfellows.
Ritter, Xcel (the state’s largest power generator), the oil and gas industry, environmental groups, Democrats and a few notable Republicans (some of whom would later become oil and gas lobbyists) decided that Colorado would be the first state in the union to stop using coal for energy generation by switching over the state’s coal fire plants to natural gas and some renewables.
The coal industry went crazy. Republicans still beholden to the coal industry went crazy claiming that the gas industry and Xcel had gotten sweetheart deals by forming an unholy alliance with Democrats and environmental groups designed to boot coal and its 2,300 jobs from the state.
Xcel got to lock in cheap natural gas prices for two decades while natural gas companies got a new reliable and profitable market to sell into.
The media was bewildered. In April 2010, The Denver Post ran a story titled “Colo. clean-air act had short, strange ride through legislature, left coal in dust.”
According to the Post, “Political observers in both parties said Ritter’s 2010 re-election bid had been damaged by the fallout over oil-and-gas rules.”
So how did such a deal get done? “Gas folks wanted to increase the use of gas,” said Xcel lobbyist Mike Beasley in the Post article. “Environmentalists wanted a cleaner, better utility fuel. And utilities wanted a cleaner fuel but wanted to do it in a cost-effective manner. Policywise, it was one of those rare perfect storms.”
On March 17, 2010, Colorado Pols wrote about House Bill 1365, better known as the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act. “If you haven’t been paying attention to Colorado House Bill 1365, the product of a deal between the state and Xcel Energy to refit hundreds of megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation along the Front Range to Western Slope natural gas, you should—this is one of the biggest political game-changers that Colorado has seen in at least several years, and the full implications are still making themselves apparent.”
The Durango Herald cut straight to the heart of the matter in its reporting on creation and passage of the CACJ Act: “Instead of fighting environmentalists, companies are using clean-air laws to open the lucrative electricity market to natural gas.
“Gov. Bill Ritter called House Bill 13 ‘a very big deal.’ His biggest critic, Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry [who today is an oil and gas lobbyist], said it could be a ‘game-changer’ for the natural-gas industry …
“Environmentalists were jubilant.
“‘This is one of the most important and consequential pieces of legislation that we’ve had the pleasure of working on,’ said Pam Kiely of Environment Colorado [the state affiliate of Environment America, one of the groups accused of acting as obstructionist to the Polis anti-fracking measures in the email]. ‘We have in Colorado really stepped out on a limb. We are talking about fundamentally changing how we power our future.’”
The paper continued, “It really is that big, folks. Politically, this plan yields benefits for everyone involved: after over a year of endless (and bogus) protestations that the new rules governing oil and gas drilling were ‘killing the industry,’ a large new market for locally produced natural gas will be created, substantially taking a whole set of electioneering claims off the table. There’s an argument to be made that Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper was already in the process of doing just that; but now the job is easier, and the energy industry has even less incentive to wage war.”
Regarding the passage of the CACJ Act, a Sierra Club press release dated April 19, 2010 reads, “The Sierra Club today celebrated the approval of the landmark ‘Clean Air, Clean Jobs’ bill. House Bill 1365, signed into law by Governor Bill Ritter Jr. this morning, will significantly improve air quality in Colorado by converting several outdated coal-fired power plants in Colorado’s Front Range to cleaner energy sources. Coal-fired power is one of the dirtiest and most dangerous sources of energy available today and this bill addresses those problems while creating sustainable family-wage careers."
‘This is an important step toward securing the clean energy economy that will power the future of our country,’ said Roger Singer, regional representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. ‘This bill is proof we can create good jobs through the development of the same clean energy technologies that will transition our country away from coal. This bill will hopefully serve as a model for state legislatures across the country to create jobs by taking on the serious problems presented by coal-fired power.’”
An article dated April 23, 2010, in the Colorado Statesman quotes Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, who spoke at the bill signing ceremony saying, “This legislation is a badly needed breath of fresh air in the effort to move Colorado away from coal and toward a cleaner and healthier energy future.”
Colorado Conservation Voters is the state affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters. And that makes three. All three of the organizations accused of being obstructionist towards the Polis anti-fracking measures in the “Safe. Clean. Colorado.” email — Sierra Club, Environment America and League of Conservation Voters—were all active supporters of the pro-natural gas, anti-coal legislation known as Clean Air, Clean Jobs.
But that may not be the biggest revelation regarding CACJ passage. One last paragraph in the Post story cited previously stands out. It reads:
“Ted Trimpa, a lobbyist for two gas companies, was instrumental in pairing gas-industry executives and environmentalists, or ‘Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.’”
You don’t say.
One of the original architects of the Gang of Four, the CoDA and the most effective model in the nation for electing Democrats, a model which has been adopted as the national model for putting Democrats in power, a man who has or does sit on the boards of the Democracy Alliance, ProgressNow, Third Way (an influencial think tank with a pro-natural gas position wherein Mark Udall and Jared Polis are both honorary co-chairs), has two natural gas companies for clients at his lobbying firm and reportedly used his influence within the oil and gas industry and environmental organizations to get CACJ passed into law?
Now that’s an interesting twist.
In case you’re wondering, the two companies are Encana and Noble Energy.
Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner Go National
Shortly after the passage of the CACJ Act, Governor Ritter announced he would not be seeking reelection. This news was likely received warmly by the oil and gas industry as it meant that the CoDA would be supporting John Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas geologist who had already been touting his love for all things oil and gas in an effort to smooth out the feathers Ritter had ruffled earlier with his new oil and gas regs. But the CoDA wasn’t finished making sure the industry was happy just yet.
In 2011, DA and CoDA member and billionaire Pat Stryker, through her Bohemia Foundation, joined with the Energy Foundation to fund Colorado State University’s newly formed Center for the New Energy Economy. Ritter announced that he would be the Center’s first director just a couple of days before he was set to leave office. Ritter’s new salary was more than three times what he made as governor.
Once the Center was established, other funders joined in, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Argosy Foundation and Advanced Energy Economy, an organization cofounded by the Democratic Party’s largest donor for the 2014 cycle, billionaire former hedge fund operator Tom Steyer.
In its explanation for the purpose of the Center and to define the new energy economy, the Center’s website appears to gives a wink and a nod to the powers behind the Center and the politics that created it by ironically titling its position paper “The Blueprint for a New Energy Economy.”
The “blueprint” reference aside, the new energy economy envisioned by the Center is very much driven by the natural gas shale boom. It is not shy in stating its belief that gas is a clean fuel that can help take the world to a better place and help offset global warming while creating jobs. The Center also believes that fracking can be done safely.
So just how influential has Colorado become in its influence over the national Democratic Party and more importantly its position on natural gas? Consider that in the same month Ritter took the job as director of the Center, the Obama adminstration released a report “The Presidential Climate Action Project: Building the Obama Administration’s Climate Legacy.”
The report acknowledges several persons for having helped to fund the project, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Tom and Noel Congdon (Tom Congdon was an early Democratic strategist who worked with the Roundtable folks in the early years of the Colorado model) and Rutt Bridges, one of the original Gang of Four and millionaire oilman who made much of his fortune by developing seismic software specific to shale gas.
The acknowledgments also single out John Podesta, who as we will see shortly has become a major force in determining the future of shale gas globally.
But even more telling is the report’s conclusion, which says it all. The report states there are only two potential outcomes for the world: One of climate disruption wherein natural calamities are a daily occurrence due to global warming and the other, the Colorado model wherein “Gov. Bill Ritter has left office after four years of work to build a ‘clean energy economy’ in his state. His efforts are not as well known as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in California, but they deserve attention because in regard to energy and climate, Colorado is a microcosm of the nation. Rich in sunlight and wind as well as oil and gas, it is beginning the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“With the help of a willing legislature, Ritter signed four dozen clean energy bills into law during his term in office. Among them was a requirement that Colorado generate 30 percent of its electricity from wind and solar technologies by 2020, one of the highest standards of its kind in the nation. Another bill established the nation’s first statutory plan to convert old coal plants to natural gas.”
Who knew that Colorado was the solution to global warming and that the answer to saving the planet looks increasingly like an unfettered drilling boom for natural gas.
Another example of Colorado’s influence over the Democratic Party’s embrace of natural gas is the fact the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act is now being replicated on the national level.
On June 2, 2014, The EPA announced its proposed Clean Power Plan that sets CO2 emissions standards for all future power plants in 49 states. The standards have been matched to the emission levels created when natural gas is burned as fuel. The standards make it uncompetitive for plants to burn coal because they would have to capture and store the excess CO2, an expensive process.
As older coal fire plants are retired, natural gas plants that will also use some renewables will take their place according to the EPA’s plan.
The Environment America website has a section titled “Biggest step yet,” wherein it talks about the new EPA Clean Power Plan that will switch a great deal of coal to natural gas and renewables. The website declares, “The Clean Power Plan sets targets for 49 states to reduce carbon from their power plants by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, cleaning up existing power plants, and switching to cleaner fuels. Vermont has no fossil fuel power plants large enough to be covered. This is the largest action the U.S. has ever taken on climate, and exactly the leadership we need in order to influence other nations to reduce their own carbon emissions.”
The new U.S. EPA rules modeled after Colorado’s CACJ Act are being enthusiastically embraced by nearly every national environmental organization and foundation funder. The “Big Greens” may talk about fracking as a problem, but they are still putting their political support into replacing coal with natural gas and renewables aka “The blueprint for a new energy economy,” brought to you by the Democratic Party and its wealthiest funders.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan will be perhaps the second biggest politically derived boon to the natural gas industry in history. The biggest such gift being liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.
The New Gold Rush
Not everyone funding Democrats and national environmental groups has embraced natural gas for purely altruistic reasons.
For instance, George Soros has invested heavily in companies that manufacture the truck engines that run on LNG and some of those that he supports are now lobbying Democrats for tax incentives that would give credits to companies that switch their fleets to such engines.
Some of the largest funders to the EDF are individuals who are making fortunes by building natural gas infrastructure such as pipelines and export terminals.
Other funders control hedge funds that are invested in oil and gas companies that will surely profit from this new energy economy.
This report has only touched on the true level to which the Democratic Party at the national level has entangled itself with the natural gas industry.
Podesta has left his position at the Center for American Progress to be President Obama’s energy advisor. Podesta has the president’s ear so what is he likely telling him when it comes to natural gas?
Perhaps it is something similar to what he wrote in a January 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed along with his coauthor Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund operator who has become the largest financial contributor to the Democratic Party, pledging to spend $100 million in just the 2014 election cycle alone. It should be noted that Podesta is also an adviser to Steyer.
Podesta and Steyer wrote, “Under President Obama’s leadership, we appear to be at the beginning of a domestic gas and oil boom. This can free us from our addiction to foreign-sourced barrels, particularly if we utilize our dramatically larger and cheaper natural gas reserves.
“There are critical environmental questions associated with developing these resources, particularly concerning methane leakage and water contamination.
“Yet as long as we ensure high regulatory standards and stay away from the riskiest and most polluting of these activities, we can safely assemble a collection of lower-carbon, affordable and abundant domestic-energy assets that will dramatically improve our economy and our environment.”
Podesta not only supports the natural gas boom here in the states, he understands its importance globally. He consults with the State Department on how shale gas can be used to enhance U.S. influence abroad as a foreign policy tool while creating energy security at home.
His old friend, former First Lady, former Secretary of State and likely future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made headlines in Mother Jones recently. The investigative magazine reported that Clinton spent a good portion of her time as Secretary of State traveling the world in order to secure access to millions of acres of shale gas to be developed by U.S. companies.
The Obama administration is clearly all in on natural gas. The pro-industry website Energy In Depth recently noted that U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell have all stressed the importance of natural gas to the country.
But the administration is doing far more than cheering on shale gas production as a way to combat coal’s CO2. It is increasingly enacting policies that will wildly grow the profits of the oil and gas industry.
In April of 2012, respected oil and gas consulting firm Ziff Energy prepared a white paper titled “Natural Gas Under Siege.” The purpose of the paper was to offer solutions to the natural gas industry on how to raise prices. The paper suggested that the industry take the steps to drive prices higher including the following:
1. exporting gas as LNG to Asia can reduce the gas supply overhang, upgrading the overall gas price. Export capacity can be developed at existing LNG import facilities, such as Sabine Pass, Cheniere and Lake Charles, La., in the U.S., or at new ‘greenfield’ projects such as the KM LNG project on the west coast of Canada that Apache is championing with top independents Encana and EOG
2. implementing gas policies pertaining to gas for vehicles and trucks, especially commercial fleets in urban areas
3. preference for gas use in power generation, in recognition of the much lower level of emissions than coal
4. considering expanding the ethanol additive for vehicle fuel (natural gas is a key feedstock for making ethanol)
The suggestions in the Ziff paper read like the Obama administration’s natural gas policy in 2014.
It isn’t that the administration is unaware that exporting LNG will raise natural gas prices in the U.S. Podesta’s Center for American Progress researched this issue and found that exports would severely impact domestic gas prices.
In his testimony before the Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Trade on Wednesday, April 9, Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, testified that “natural gas exports will increase gas prices. Increased natural gas exports lead to increased natural gas prices. Larger export levels lead to larger domestic price increases, while rapid increases in export levels lead to large initial price increases that moderate somewhat in a few years. Slower increases in export levels lead to more gradual price increases but eventually produce higher average prices during the decade between 2025 and 2035.”
It is now estimated that if the Obama administration approves all the existing applications for LNG export terminals as expected, nearly half of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. could be exported. This could cause natural gas prices in the U.S. to more than double.
While such a radical escalation in price would create a giant economic windfall for those who are invested in natural gas—giant as in when you consider the incredibly large global reserves of shale gas, it could be one of the largest expanders of wealth in history—it would not be good for everyone.
With the EPA’s Clean Power Plan about to commit the entire country to electricity generated by burning natural gas, Americans could see their monthly electric bills more than double as the result of exports. We are on a dangerous path.
The connection between Democrats and natural gas is everywhere. Countless new organizations with words like “green” and “clean” and “future” and “energy” in their names are being created every year by some of the best know political figures alongside some of the wealthiest people in the world. What we know is that they all share a single philosophy: Natural gas is a clean fuel in abundant supply that can power the world safely for more than a century. What we don’t know is whether the super rich truly believe that or if it’s just a convenient excuse for making money from the natural gas industry while electing their favorite Democrats.
It would be easier to write a book on the interconnected activities of the world’s richest environmental and Democratic Party funders than to try and describe it in this article. They sit on the boards of each other’s organizations. They cross-fund each other’s 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s that fund the political machine. They invest in oil and gas companies, export terminals and pipelines, all the while preaching the evils of global warming. They help fund industry-friendly research that seems to confirm natural gas as a pathway to defeating global warming. And most disturbing, they provide funding either directly and/or by way of environmental organizations to Democratic candidates willing to jump on board with the Beyond Coal philosophy that is vital to the growth of the natural gas industry.
But what if the new research coming out on methane leakage from the natural gas extraction process and transportation is accurate? What if natural gas is worse for global warming than coal?
And what about natural gas being a bridge fuel? The Democratic Party and even some “Big Green” environmental groups are constantly touting the 100- year supply of natural gas. One hundred years is not a bridge fuel. Already, cheap natural gas is making it harder for renewables to find needed investment capital.
And since when can the oil and gas industry be cut in half as Democrats and environmental groups are trying to do? Is it even possible to support natural gas without inadvertently supporting oil? No.
As one speaker at the recent Natural Gas Symposium put on by Ritter and Stryker’s Center for the New Energy Economy said privately after his session, when asked about such a contrived separation, “Most of the time, oil and gas come out of the same hole and natural gas producers are also oil producers.” He went on to acknowledge that Obama’s natural gas policy has helped to double the amount of oil being produced in the U.S.
“If you haven’t noticed,” he said, “nobody drills for dry gas anymore. They have all moved to wet shale because the liquids are where the real money is. In the next few years, we will have to start exporting oil as well or the price will drop to $80 a barrel because we’ll have too much of it.”
That’s why they call it the oil “and” gas industry.
Will Colorado be a model for a third time?
So there it is. These are the powerful forces that community-control antifracking proponants are up against.
There is only one thing that can threaten the current system that has been so good to Democrats, environmental organizations and the nation’s wealthiest families who fund the system, and that’s an honest to goodness citizendriven grassroots movement.
It’s unlikely that most of the men and women, moms and dads and kids who worked so hard to see Colorado’s anti-fracking initiatives on the ballot had any idea that they had become a serious threat to the Democratic Party at every level of government.
Most had no idea that a vote on who controls fracking in their neighborhoods would likely have sparked a spending war by the oil and gas industry that would have undone more than a decade of political maneuvering by the Gang of Four, the Roundtable and the CoDA.
Would the oil and gas industry’s threat to spend $100 million to defeat the fracking initiatives have kept them from passing? Possibly, but such an outcome was certainly not guaranteed based on the polling.
But would that kind of massive spending by the industry have caused Hickenlooper, Udall and any number of other Democrats running for the state House and Senate to have lost? Quite likely.
If we have learned anything from the so-called Colorado model it is that if people are willing to spend enough money they can probably determine the political color of the state.
Clearly the powers that be were afraid that they would lose control of the state if the fracking measures made the ballot and sparked the very oil and gas war that CACJ Act was written to prevent.
In an article in Politico Magazine in April 2014, Eli Stokols wrote: “Ted Trimpa, a Denver power lawyer and strategist once dubbed ‘the Democrats’ Karl Rove,’ was instrumental in helping Polis and the three other millionaires build Colorado’s progressive infrastructure and consolidate power over the last decade. Now he finds himself trying to hold it all together.
“He worries that the ballot initiative would splinter a progressive coalition in Colorado that’s been so successful that it’s now seen as a blueprint for Democrats and Republicans in other states — its many successes attributable to an unusual and lasting harmony, an ability to avoid sticky policy fights that distract from the shared goal: winning.
“Resolving Colorado’s fracking fight quickly may yet provide other states with a blueprint of how to deal with local control issues around oil and gas, a national example of how compromise and consensus can be achieved even in our polarized times. But if Polis’s measures move toward the November ballot, the country may find out that Colorado isn’t such a model after all, that coalition politics aren’t as easy as this state has made them seem.
“‘We’re a state known for the two sides working together,’ Trimpa tells me, ‘but if this initiative makes the ballot, the age of that will be gone for a very long time.’”
So who killed the Polis anti-fracking measures? We will never know all the conservations that transpired to make them go away. Everyone involved in the process is afraid of backlash so they all claim that they wanted the ballot measures to succeed.
For conspiracy theorists, Rep. Polis will be blamed. The idea being that he backed the initiatives knowing they would never make the ballot and pulling them as a favor to the powers that be, powers that he helped to create once upon a time even though he appears to have been out of the Colorado model loop for quite some time.
Others believe that Polis simply wandered off the Democratic Party reservation in an effort to do something good for the hundreds of thousands of his constituents who wanted more local control over fracking. If you are of this camp, then Polis is the only Colorado Democrat at the national level who has ever lifted a finger on the fracking issue. The Congressman has been steadfast in his claim that he simply tried to help his constituents.
As for environmental groups as alleged obstructionists, many of the folks who worked the very hardest to get the measures on the ballot are members of those organizations. It is important to draw a distinction from local members of “Big Green” groups and their regional offices who have little choice but to toe the line drawn by their largest funders.
Trying to figure out who to blame accomplishes little.
There are more important questions to ponder.
If Democrats at both the national and state level intend to support the natural gas industry for many decades to come, then the Earth cannot be saved from its destruction at the hands of global warming.
All indications are that this is the case. Hundreds of billions of dollars in natural gas infrastructure are being built with the blessing and even encouragement of Democrats. The State Department, thanks to Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, has created a fully staffed department charged with promoting natural gas development throughout the world as a means of spreading U.S. influence while simultaneously attempting to diminish the influence of Russia.
These are not actions taken and investments made in something that is truly considered only a bridge fuel.
As for drilling and fracking safely, Colorado is touted as the poster child for strong regulations on the industry, and as this paper has been reporting for several years now, there is virtually no oversight of the oil and gas industry in Colorado. If it is worse in other places, God help us. With so much momentum having been built for natural gas among funding institutions, environmental groups and elected Democrats, the question is: Can the model be turned in time or at all? Beyond Coal 10 years ago meant natural gas, but the research of the last few years has shown that to be a false path forward in the fight against global warming.
There is hope. Many environmental organizations are changing their words if not yet their actions. Concern over fracking and shale oil and gas production have entered the debate. A few funders like the Tides, Schmidt and Park foundations are now supporting research that questions natural gas’s plausibility as a bridge fuel and they have even funded grassroots anti-fracking efforts.
What has been learned over the last two months is that a powerful grassroots movement aimed at local control over drilling and fracking is more powerful than the Democratic Party and its wealthy controllers. Citizens have also learned that if they want real democratic change, they will have to do it without the support of the current incarnation of the Democratic Party or the national environmental groups.
If something more than an industry friendly compromise is the goal, then it will have to be accomplished at the ballot box without the involvement of those groups.
So will Colorado once again become the model for the nation? Will the activist base reject the pro-oil and -gas Democratic Party that has been cobbled together out of political necessity by a handful of wealthy donors and their consultants who think that Democrats beating Republicans is more important than clean air, clean water and the very future for our children?
Time will tell.
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By Tara Lohan
Our plastic pollution problem has reached new heights and new depths.
Scientists have found bits of plastic on the seafloor, thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. Plastic debris has also washed ashore on remote islands; traveled to the top of pristine mountains; and been found inside the bodies of whales, turtles, seabirds and people, too.
1. There’s a lot of it.<p>In a September study published in <em>Science </em>about the growth of plastic waste, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons — or 11% of plastic waste generated — ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016. And even with countries pledging to help cut waste or better manage it, the amount of plastic pollution is <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1515" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">likely to double</a> in the next 10 years.</p><p>A <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">study</a> about solutions to plastic waste, published in the same issue, attributed the plastic pollution epidemic to a rise in single-use plastic and "an expanding 'throw-away' culture." The researchers also found that waste-management systems simply can't deal with the onslaught of plastic, which is why so much of it ends up in the environment. We now know that only <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/whopping-91-percent-plastic-isnt-recycled/" target="_blank">9% of the plastic products</a> we use actually get recycled.</p>
2. The United States is a big culprit.<p>Plastic pollution is a global problem, but the United States plays an outsized role. In 2016 the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country, a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288" target="_blank">new study</a> in <em>Science Advances</em> found. Some of that waste was dumped illegally within the country and some was shipped to other countries that lacked the necessary infrastructure to handle it.</p><p>"The amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States' contribution among the highest in the world," the researchers concluded. Part of that is because the United States ranks second in exporting plastic scrap.</p>
3. It threatens wildlife and ecosystems.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg3MTUwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzE1MzM2MH0.YL5C-5GF2mq9OZBLSkcAnreq2Mai20DweKSNqeUSWM4/img.jpg?width=980" id="20233" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3db4a05d5d417d925a770cf309db1db1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A giant otter plays with a plastic bottle. Paul Williams / CC BY-NC 2.0<p>Out of sight (for Americans) is <em>not </em>out of mind — and definitely not out of our waterways. An estimated 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have either ingested plastic or been entangled in it.</p><p>"If we don't get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales," George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist and coauthor of the September <em>Science </em>study about plastic waste's increase, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it/" target="_blank">told <em>National Geographic</em></a>. "And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean's wildlife essentially forever."</p><p>Microplastics have also been found in terrestrial animals, soil, drinking water and, not surprisingly, <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2020/08/18/microplastics-found-in-human-organs-for-the-first-time/?sh=42994a4e16f2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in our own bodies</a>, although it's not clear yet just how dangerous that is for people.</p>
4. The fracking boom is producing a plastic boom.<p>Despite the known risks of plastic pollution and concern over its mounting presence in the environment, plastic production — driven by fossil fuels like fracked gas and its component chemicals — is on pace to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.</p><p>The American Chemistry Council <a href="https://www.americanchemistry.com/Shale-Infographic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">boasted that shale gas drilling is driving a surge</a> in plastic production, including the investment of more than $200 billion to fund new and expanded operations at 343 production plants in the United States.</p><p>On the ground this means more harmful pollution along the Gulf Coast's "Cancer Alley," where petrochemicals have been manufactured for decades in low-wealth communities of color. And it means the build-out of new facilities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.</p><p>Fracking also causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, to be released into the atmosphere — amplifying the climate crisis. The refining process and the incineration of plastic waste also further drives greenhouse emissions and hazardous pollution.</p>
A petrochemical plant in Houston's ship channel. Louis Vest / CC BY-NC 2.0
5. Solutions are multifaceted.<p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/plastic-pollution-do-beach-cleanups-really-make-a-difference/a-46196975" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Beach cleanups</a> tend to make headlines, but it's a losing battle as long as petrochemical companies keep producing so much plastic and we keep using plastic for products we're meant to toss after a single use.</p><p>The September study in <em><a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">Science</a></em> on plastic solutions found that it's possible to cut plastic pollution — perhaps as much as 80% by 2040 — but it will take systemic change both in reducing the amount of plastic produced and in better managing the waste stream.</p><p>Regulatory efforts can help this process, including by regulating plastic as a pollution source under the Clean Water Act.</p><p>Efforts to ban single-use plastics, as the European Union aims to do by 2021, are another positive step. So too are "<a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">circular economy laws</a>," which have been <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5845?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22H.R.5%22%5D%7D&s=1&r=5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">introduced, but not yet passed</a>, in the United States.</p><p>These laws would halt the production of new petrochemical facilities and encourage businesses to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the products they produce by requiring them to be reused, adequately recycled or composted.</p><p>Getting circular economy laws enacted, though, will mean enough public and political will to counter the petrochemical, fossil fuel and plastic industries.</p><p>At <em>The Revelator</em>, we'll keep covering the push for solutions to the plastic problem and new science to better understand the threats. And if you want to know more about how wildlife has already been affected, what laws could help, whether industry will be held accountable and more, check out these stories from our archives:</p><p><strong>Laws and Regulations</strong></p><p><strong></strong><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-warnings/" target="_blank">Plastic Pollution: Could We Have Solved the Problem Nearly 50 Years Ago?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/clean-water-plastic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How an Old Law Is Helping Fight New Plastic Problems</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-illegal/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal?</a></p><p><strong>Impacts</strong></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-ship-shore/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution: From Ship to Shore</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastics-fracking-climate/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plans to Turn America's Rust Belt Into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trash-galapagos-ecotourism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Trash in the Galápagos Reveals the Dark Side of Ecotourism</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/elephant-seals-diving-garbage/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephant Seals: Diving Through Garbage</a></p><p><strong>Taking Action</strong></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Story of Plastic: </a></em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-movie-stuff/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How to Win the Fight Against Plastic</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/cities-zero-waste/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Cities Go Zero-waste? One Japanese Town Tried</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/secret-value-trash/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Secret Value of Trash</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/junk-raft-polluted-ocean/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Junk Raft: A Journey Through a Polluted Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/bioplastics-environment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Are Bioplastics a Better Environmental Choice?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-straws-problem-solution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution Is a Problem — These Kids Are Working for a Solution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/thai-activists-fight-trash-taboo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thai Activists Fight Trash Taboo</a></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-archives/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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