Why Fossil Fuels Are Dirty Politics as Well as Dirty Energy
When the Western Energy Alliance in June invited K-Street mugger Richard Berman to advise them on how to deal with public opposition to oil and gas extraction, Berman’s back-alley style can hardly have surprised those who invited him. His tactics and viciousness have been broadly reported in the media, and blasted even by his own son. CBS’s 60 Minutes called him Dr. Evil.
So it should not have been a surprise when Berman summed up his philosophy by telling the industry you can either “win ugly or lose pretty.” Winning ugly includes tactics like digging up personal dirt about your opponents, discussing “how he had done detailed research on the personal histories of members of the boards of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to try to find information that could be used to embarrass them.” (As far as I can tell, Berman is either inept at this tactic or environmental board members are stunningly virtuous people, because there is no public record of any serious embarrassment resulting).
What may have surprised Berman, however, was that someone in the audience not only recorded his remarks but was sufficiently appalled to leak them, so you can read it all in its ugliness. Anadarko Petroleum, to its credit, has distanced themselves from Berman, saying “Anadarko did not support Mr. Berman’s approach and did not to participate in his work because it does not align with our values.” Unfortunately, it appears that Berman may still have raised $3 million from other oil and gas companies for his latest endeavor, “Big Green Radicals.”
But Richard Berman was not the only poster child last week for the reality that fossil fuel extraction and democracy are a poor fit. And oil is not the only villain. In Kentucky, a coal mine operator who is also a member of the legislature, Rep. Keith Hall, was indicted in U.S. District Court for bribing a mine inspector to ignore safety violations at Hall’s surface mining operations. Hall is charged with paying the inspector $46,343 over eighteen months to ignore repeated environmental and safety violations, but at some point apparently decided he had paid enough.
Halls ex-wife commented "Kelly was the inspector on Keith's mines … I remember one time when we were in Frankfort, Keith said he had paid Kelly $10,000 already, but Kelly was saying Keith owed him another $10,000, or $20,000 altogether. Keith said Kelly was just aggravating him to death about it, he just wouldn't drop it. And then I knew they weren't friends anymore."
What did Kelly agree to cover up for Hall: unresolved citations for dropping rocks on nearby homes; mining outside of permitted areas; water pollution; failing to obey regulations on blasting, reclamation and maintaining slurry ponds; and allowing rocks, dirt and trees to slide down slopes.
Nor is the problem unique to the U.S. In India, Jindal Iron and Steel conceded that the Indian federal police were investigating the company for paying bribes for the right to mine coal from public lands in the state of Chattisgarh. And to the south, in Sri Lanka, a parliamentary inquiry explored the urgency of identifying who was responsible for importing sub-standard coal for power plants and pocketing the profits.
This is a pretty good crop of corruption for a single week—meanwhile, on the legal side of the democracy-subversion ledger, the oil industry continued to pour funds into U.S. elections in ways that staggered even highly jaded political reporters. Chevron’s investment in the Richmond city elections climbed more than the $3 million mark, prompting the San Francisco Chronicle to comment, “Chevron has spent $72 per registered voter in Richmond—more than a minimum wage worker brings home after a full day’s work in this blue-collar city.” And overall the oil industry has now reported pouring $7.5 million into defeating three anti-drilling ballot measures in three counties whose combined population is substantially less than one million. And that doesn't even count the flood of oil and Koch related money preventing the auto companies from buying advertising time for the new model year in the nine key Senate swing states where up to 50 percent of the total add buy is now political, thanks to the Supreme Court.
So why is it that extracting coal, oil and natural gas so often ends up being at odds with the rule of law and the premises of democracy? Is Richard Berman right—does the industry have a choice between winning dirty and losing clean?
Well, let’s begin with the basic reality. Oil, gas and coal are lucrative, very lucrative businesses, but only if two conditions are met. You have to get permission, in some form, to extract them, and almost all of the world’s coal and oil are owned by governments, publics in theory—so getting favorable lease terms is a huge windfall for the companies that can arrange—negotiate—or obtain through bribery those rights, ideally at very cheap royalty rates. Here in the U.S., just look at the give aways of Powder River Basin coal in closed bidding processes, or the scandalous Gulf of Mexico lease deals awarded by Congress a decade ago and never remedied.
And then you have the problem that drilling or mining for fossil fuels involves enormous risks and costs to neighbors and communities—ranging from long range air toxins in their lungs to the actual destruction of farmer’s fields by strip mining. These communities and stakeholders will resist—and they have the power of public sentiment on their side. So the second fundamental problem that faces a coal or oil company is how to override local resistance, or local demands for compensation for the damages which unavoidably flow from coal and oil development for other stakeholders like farmers, fisherman and residents.
There are two models for solving this problem. One is genuinely voluntary market transactions, in which other stakeholders accept the compensation they receive for the damages imposed. But in many cases paying proper compensation would drastically erode—or even eliminate—the profit potential from coal, oil and gas production. In some cases clearly local people would not accept any likely level of compensation—so the companies in that case do face Berman’s “lose clean” scenarios. Much of the world’s coal, oil and gas cannot be developed with the full compensation of or voluntary consent from local communities.
Evidence of this dilemma can be found in India, where iconic social activist Medha Patkar, who first came to prominence in her campaign against uncompensated dislocation of local populations to construct the Narmada Dam, has now joined the global campaign to persuade the World Bank to restore recently gutted policies designed to ensure that Bank funded projects do not ride rough shod over the right of local communities.
So that leaves an opportunity: national governments often want the revenues the oil companies will pay for developing those resources, and if oil and coal companies unwilling to “win dirty” refuse to engage in those situations, there have always been plenty of firms willing to play by whatever rules local elites (not publics) establish.
So John D. Rockefeller and his fellow Appalachian coal barons, the templates for the ruthless fossil fuel moguls, do not lack successors—best exemplified in the U.S. today by the Koch Brothers.
So we need to understand that however many oil and coal companies do decide to play clean, there will be others willing to “win dirty,” and that unless we can find ways to limit their political clout both communities and the environment will continue to be devastated in the name of carbon profits.
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
Vitamin D<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vitamin-d-supplements-lose-luster" target="_blank">Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied</a> supplements (<em>SN: 1/27/19</em>). <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-12/" target="_blank">Certain foods</a>, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections:</strong> In 2017, the <em>British Medical Journal</em> published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583" target="_blank">might help prevent respiratory infections</a>, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.</p><p>But one key word here is <em>deficient. </em>That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).</p><p>"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.</p><p>And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19:</strong> Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.</p>
Zinc<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6457799/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies of using zinc for colds</a> — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in <em>BMJ Open</em> <a href="https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e031662" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">did not find any value for zinc lozenges</a> for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.</p><p><strong>What we know about zinc and COVID-19:</strong> The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine-no-evidence-treatment" target="_blank">hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19</a> (<em>SN: 8/2/20</em>).)</p>
Vitamin C<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.</p><p><strong>Why it might help:</strong> It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong>Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the <em>Journal of Medical Virolog</em>y, looked at <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jmv.25707" target="_blank">what is already known about vitamin C</a> and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."</p><p>But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">didn't support the idea</a> that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: </strong>About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.</p><p>In a review published online in July in <em>Nutrition</em>, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vitamin may help prevent infection</a> and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.</p><p>Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's <a href="https://www.drugsincontext.com/can-vitamins-and-or-supplements-provide-hope-against-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful</a>, the pair concluded in July in <em>Drugs in Context</em>. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.</p><p>And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."</p>
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