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The Power of Subpoena


This week concluded the presidential commission hearings on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The Oil Spill Commission will meet once more for final deliberation in early December before going behind closed doors to craft its report on the worst oil spill in the history of the United States.  No small task.  But a task made that much more challenging by the fact that the entity has been denied subpoena power.

During the course of the two day hearing held in Washington, D.C., the commission’s chief counsel, Fred Bartlit regularly highlighted the data gaps that subpoena power could have helped fill in.

Chief counsel Bartlit’s plea – “Subpoena, that’s damn important” – pointed in part to the possibility that the spill commission may never resolve a fundamental question: How a band of experienced roughnecks on a muddy drill floor missed critical warning signs and failed to control a rush of oil and gas that hit the rig with the force of a 550-ton freight train. But instead of testimony under oath to resolve fundamental questions, the commission has had to rely on the “full cooperation”  of the corporations involved in the rig explosion – BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

Why have these companies been munching on their carrots of cooperation, while ultimately avoiding the stick of “swearing the truth and nothing but the truth”?  Their republican beneficiaries  in the Senate have deemed subpoena power as just another vehicle for shakin’ down the oil industry.

Meanwhile the corporations involved in the sequence of events that let to the April 20th explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig have been working with the Commission and its counsel to deconstruct the event, unfortunately much of their role has been pointing the finger at the other guys.

The disputes between Transocean and BP and Halliburton as to who said what when, and who has the responsibility for that, this is where subpoena power would be helpful,” said Bartlit. “It’s hard to resolve that unless I can sit people down in a room and cross-examine them and find out what’s believable and not believable.”

Bartlit went so far as to ask the represents from the three companies whether or not they would be willing to press the Senate on granting the commission subpoena power – they weren’t empowered to respond at that time.

In the final analysis, the American public needs to know that all the facts were represented – not just to have faith in the set of recommendations prescribed by the Commission, but to avoid further demoralization of a populace already scathed by political posturing that puts party before progress.

Allison Fisher is the Outreach Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program


Elections and Energy Policy


Listen to Energy Director, Tyson Slocum, David Robert of Grist and Andy Karsner of Manifest Energy debate what the midterm election results mean for national energy policy on the program EnergyNOW.

Post-Election Analysis


Elections are about choices. In American politics, imagery and rhetoric often trump factual and substantive analysis of legislative achievements. The historic electoral coup by Republicans in the House is clearly rooted in real unrest by American voters – insecurity fueled by profound economic hardship, and a lack of comprehension by voters of what benefits record government spending and new regulations have for working families. American campaigns rarely reflect the tenor of the Lincoln-Douglas debates but rather are defined by bite-sized rhetorical tricks promoting false choices between too much- or too-little government involvement in society and the economy. 

Thanks to Citizens United, a record amount of corporate and special interest money flooded our airwaves, eagerly exploiting voters’ legitimate fears and thereby helping to define the 2010 election on terms that benefit the narrow interests of these corporations – often at the expense of benefits for working families and environmental and climate protection.

As a result, the big winners in last night’s election are the nuclear, coal and oil industries, who will see a far more advantageous financial and regulatory climate for their shareholders and investors in the next Congress. Losers are support for renewables, and those Americans who understand that the science of climate change requires us to aggressively combat global warming. The one outlier is the successful campaign in California to preserve that state’s first-in-the-nation climate change law (61% of Golden Staters voted “no” to repeal the climate law) – because voters were presented with a clear choice: protect the environment vs. support the agenda of a handful of out-of-state oil companies. The California success story of electoral support for climate change, I believe, serves as a model for obtaining national support for clean energy, energy efficiency and action on climate chance: present voters with clear, stark choices (corporate interests vs the people’s interests) and we just might have a chance. Continue on the muddled path of Waxman-Markey/Kerry-Lieberman of energy/climate policy via corporate accommodation, and enviros will continue to lose in the marketplace of ideas and elections (another bright spot for electricity consumers is the election of Richard Blumenthal to the open Connecticut Senate seat. As the state’s Attorney General, Blumenthal regularly sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over that agency’s failure to protect consumers from power company price-gouging. He’s one of the few who understands FERC and will be a welcome consumer advocate in the Senate).  Read more…

Follow the Climate Reality Tour!


We’re pleased to unveil an exciting new project: the Climate Reality Tour.

You may have caught an earlier post, but in case you didn’t, let’s fill you in The Climate Reality Tour is a movement-building road trip to promote global economic policies that are fair for workers and shift away from the climate- and job-destroying status quo. The destination? The United Nations Climate Negotiations in Cancun in late November. And to bring home the sustainability point, we decided to go by bike. Yep, by bike!

With the world in the grips of overlapping global crises – food, economic/financial and climate – the stakes are high indeed. To save the planet requires confronting these crises simultaneously, and that means overcoming the false jobs vs. environment trade-off. In truth, corporations benefit from exploiting both while human beings and the earth suffer.

But this requires political will and resolve far beyond what we’ve seen from either political party, and even many leading civil society organizations. At Public Citizen, we’ve long believed our unsustainable global economic order, as etched in the tomes of the WTO and NAFTA-type trade deals, unfairly pits workers and ecosystems against one another. We’ve decried how the status quo sanctifies the rights or multinational corporations to exploit and destroy – even above the democratic rights of a people determine their own economic and eological futures.

Read more…

Who can spend billions during a recession?


While American citizen’s are still struggling with high unemployment and foreclosures, corporations have opened up their vast coffers to influence elections.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision re-wrote the nation’s campaign finance laws to allow unlimited corporate spending in elections. Now, corporate front groups are growing in size and influence. Their secret funders remain in the shadows.

Listen to Energy Director, Tyson Slocum discuss with Earthbeat host Daphne Wysham the vast sums of corporate money that’s pushing this election season.

French nuke developer runs afoul of U.S. law


French Nuclear Developer Runs Afoul of U.S. Federal Law, Undermines U.S. Nonproliferation Goals

Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group has walked away from nuclear power, but its former nuclear partner, Electricite de France (EDF) Group, based in France, is refusing to abandon the project intended to open up the U.S. market to risky French reactors.

On Tuesday, Constellation and EDF finalized a deal to give the French-controlled corporation full ownership of the proposed third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Md., by selling Constellation’s 50 percent stake in the Unistar nuclear-development company.

The agreement appears to resuscitate EDF’s nuclear ambitions in the U.S. after the project was jeopardized by Constellation’s withdrawal from negotiations with the U.S. Department of Energy for a federally backed loan guarantee. A loan guarantee has been the essential vehicle for financing the proposed $10 billion reactor.

However, with EDF as the sole entity, the loan guarantee is no longer the foremost factor that will determine whether a third reactor is built in Maryland. EDF faces several other obstacles that should keep this project from moving forward, including a federal law that prohibits a foreign entity from “ownership, control or domination” of a U.S. nuclear project.

Public Citizen and its partners – the Nuclear Information Resource Service and Beyond Nuclear – are challenging the application for the proposed third reactor in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Even before Constellation sold its stake in Unistar, the group filed a complaint with the NRC, raising the issue of overt foreign influence in the Maryland project.

Other regulatory issues also plague the project. The EPR, the reactor design at the center of the project, is designed by another French-controlled entity, AREVA. Myriad issues with the EPR design have resulted in delays and cost overruns for reactor development in Finland, whose costs have now risen about 80 percent and whose four-year construction schedule is now four years behind schedule, and in France, whose project is two years behind schedule and about 30 percent over budget. And U.S. regulatory bodies have yet to certify the design, citing deficiencies with its digital instrumentation and control systems.

If these problems weren’t enough, collaborating with the French nuclear industry also undermines U.S. nonproliferation goals. EDF is the largest nuclear developer in the world. It offers civilian nuclear assistance to both Saudi Arabia and Jordan, despite both countries’ refusal to engage in U.S. negotiations to keep the countries from making nuclear fuel. Meanwhile, EDF is seeking U.S. taxpayer-funded loan guarantees to pay for its U.S.-based projects. The federal government should not be supporting a foreign entity that is unwilling to adhere to our national security objectives.

In addition to the unique issues associated with the proposal for a third reactor in Maryland, EDF also faces the same problem that has long plagued all nuclear power projects: nuclear power is financially unviable. Maryland has faster, cheaper and more reliable ways to generate power without relying on foreign corporations that seek to hawk a dirty, expensive and outdated technology in the U.S.

Allison Fisher is the  Outreach Director for  Public Citizen’s Energy Program

Six months after BP disaster, Congress has yet to act


Six months after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico – which set off the worst oil spill in the history of the United States – Congress has yet to pass a legislative response to the BP oil disaster.

Approximately 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico between April 20 and July 15, when the well was temporarily capped. The resulting spill coated more than 600 miles of coastline and hundreds of square miles of marsh, and killed thousands of birds and sea turtles. But the disaster is not over. Gulf communities continue to suffer, and residents are calling on Congress to take action.

While the Obama administration has released a new plan that would invest billions of dollars of BP fines into the region’s recovery, many of the key components of this plan, including the creation of a Gulf Coast Recovery Council and a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund paid for by significant amounts of BP’s Clean Water Act fines, require action on the part of Congress.

Moreover, legislation is needed to address core causes of the accident and the inadequate response to it – issues that apply to the oil industry as a whole. Legislation under consideration would add new protections for people who blow the whistle on safety violations, new safety requirements for blowout preventers and rules that stop companies with extremely poor safety records from obtaining new drilling leases. Federal action must address the immediate and long-term impacts of the BP disaster and address the impunity in which the oil industry has violated and circumvented safety and environmental regulations.

Public Citizen supports the fishermen, community leaders, environmental leaders and Gulf coast citizens whose lives continue to be affected by the BP oil disaster and who gather today to rally in New Orleans, Biloxi, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., to remind Congress that the crisis is not over and offshore drilling reform is still a top priority for the Gulf coast.

Allison Fisher is the Energy Organizer for Public Citizen

Photo from New Orleans Rally provided by Rachel Guillory