Runoff: Vitter Vs. Edwards

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Charlie Turner Tweet: @charliemichio

Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly, a publication on African-American issues, November 4th edition.

UPDATE: Edwards leads Vitter 51% to 35% as of November 16th

The runoff election for Louisiana’s next governor will be held on November 21st between Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) and Sen. David Vitter (R), in what is arguably the state’s most important election within the last decade. If you are a one-issue voter on abortion or gun control, then this election has little value as both candidates hold the same positions on most social issues. But on healthcare, education and social equality there are serious distinctions between the two candidates. These stances are especially relevant considering that whoever inherits the $1.6 billion budget deficit will be able to decide the fate of several Louisiana universities and hospitals that may close to remedy the fiscal hole Gov. Jindal is leaving behind. Investments made by our government take years to bear fruit, so what happens now will reverberate well past a four-year term.

Funding and Support

It is surprising that Vitter almost did not make it into the runoff, (garnering only 4% points over the next GOP rival in the open primary), considering the senator’s name recognition and incredible fundraising figures. Vitter has more financial backing than all other candidates combined, a feat he accomplished by capitalizing on the unrestricted nature of US campaign finance laws after Citizens United- a Supreme Court decision that Vitter supports. In fact, Vitter has been more than just a vocal supporter of limitless corporate and union money in politics, his campaign has partaken in the tear down of regulatory walls in campaign finance. This past summer, a federal court ruled that campaign dollars for Vitter’s senate seat could be moved to the PAC supporting his gubernatorial race. The decision could easily open the door for presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, to use contributions for their respective senate seats towards ambitions for the White House. Such a coup in an already lawless campaign finance environment was made possible from Vitter’s strong ties to national GOP figures. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, the Vitter PAC in question, is managed by Charlie Spies who was an instrumental figure in establishing Mitt Romney’s fundraising apparatus in the 2012 Presidential election.

It is not hard to understand why Vitter has received such a strong backing from national GOP leaders that include John McCain, Chris Christie and others. During Vitter’s tenure in the US Senate, he has been a staunch ally of pro-business legislation as well as an effective disruptor of Democratic initiatives. For example, Vitter was the mastermind in defeating incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu by recruiting Rep. Bill Cassidy who was seen as the best option in the crucial midterm race. Vitter is undoubtedly more experienced with government, but the perception that an Edwards Administration would bring desired change could easily bring a Democratic governor.

Edwards has not served national office and is relying far more on local groups, which includes Republicans, which are tired of Gov. Jindal’s leadership and policies. While Jindal enjoyed wide support from state congress and national conservative pundits, Edwards remained a critic of the Governor’s reliance on tax breaks for big business and a refusal to increase taxes. Jindal like Vitter have both signed the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. As a result, Edwards has received the support of unions, the sheriffs department and major education officials, groups that feel threatened by looming budget cuts and see a Vitter administration as the executor.

The differences in political background have been a major point of attack for both candidates, which has unfortunately distracted from their positions on the issues, especially those concerning poverty. The most prevalent distinction is Edwards’ unconditional promise to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, a policy change that 62% of Louisiana supports. Meanwhile, Vitter’s tenure in the US House and Senate could be characterized as a roadblock for federal anti-poverty programs, Medicaid included. The Senator has derided welfare initiatives in particular, from food stamps to the Lifeline program, for being wasteful and disincentives for full-time employment. In general, the issue of economic equality and the state’s role in combatting poverty may be the largest distinction between Edwards and Vitter.

Medicaid Expansion 

Vitter has stated that he may be open to expanding the federal-state partnership program once he began his run for the statehouse, but has previous stance of opposing the acceptance of the ACA provision. In fact, there are plenty of sound bytes on Vitter’s opposition to Medicaid expansion, including an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire two years ago. The Senator viewed the provision of the Affordable Care Act as another burden on the state’s budget despite the expansion being covered by federal dollars for 10 years. Now that Vitter has softened his tone since the governor’s race, he has been able to deflect Edwards’ attacks on the issue. Vitter’s argument is that everything must be on the table, and he cannot commit to expanding Medicaid until he has executive power. Vitter has made similar qualifications on other budget issues.

Edwards has joined the majority of Louisianans in stating the moral and economic responsibility to expand Medicaid with the other 40+ states that include many Republican governors. A Medicaid expansion will not solve the immediate issues in the state’s healthcare, but would greatly help emergency room and preventive care services that are facing cuts. Whether Louisiana will be able to handle the cost of expanded Medicaid 10 years down the road is a risk that Edwards, and the majority of current governors, have decided to take.

Minimum Wage

The movement for a higher minimum wage has not caught on in Louisiana as much as other states, but polls show that a significant portion of voters support a boost at the state level. Rep. Edwards has repeatedly stated that increasing the state’s minimum wage will be a number one priority. The economic argument being that Americans on the poverty line are more likely to spend increased earnings in order to meet basic necessities.

Vitter, along with the national GOP, see the minimum wage as an artificial levy on businesses that will prevent employers from hiring. But while raising the minimum wage may cause an immediate loss of roughly 500,000 jobs, almost every study shows that the increased consumerism from a higher minimum wage will improve the economy, which in turn will generate higher employment in the long run.

Welfare Programs

The term ‘roadblock’ was used previously to describe Sen. Vitter’s views on welfare programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but that may be an understatement considering the efforts he has made to restrict federal entitlements. Vitter proposed a bill in the Senate that would mandate food stamp recipients to show a photo ID to the cashier in order to stop abuse of the program. It is difficult to see a photo ID law saving the government much money since data shows that food stamp fraud is quite rare, and has fallen to the lowest rates of all time despite the surge in enrollment after the Great Recession. The real problem with photo ID laws is that they prevent those in need from using the service, especially African Americans. According to the Brennan Center School of Justice, 1 in 4 African Americans do not possess the identification required to participate in SNAP under Vitter’s proposed law because of the cost to purchase one. Meanwhile there have been no efforts to help distribute IDs to low income residents.

But when fully examining Vitter’s record on anti-poverty initiatives it is clear that his issue is more on principle rather than what is effective. He has proposed banning convicted felons who committed certain violent crimes from government-sponsored assistance. Non-violent offenders are not exempt from his quest to limit welfare either- Vitter supports measures to require drug-testing to qualify for federal assistance for anyone in need- a proposition that not only adds another layer of bureaucracy but also implies that those who have a history of drug-use should be cut off from safety-net programs. In a state with a highest-incarceration rate in the country, it is difficult to see how barring the most vulnerable from food stamps will help a sinking economy or improve public safety. However, as Vitter’s TV commercials attest, these stances help create an image of being ‘tough on crime’.

Perhaps most concerning for Louisiana’s black community is Vitter’s support for photo ID laws in federal elections. A tactic used in North Carolina and other states, admittedly to boost GOP candidates, has been barred from Louisiana to date. But Vitter has voted for a photo ID law in the US Senate in 2007 and has stated his support for mandating that everyone purchasing an ID if they want to participate in elections.

Edwards has not had the opportunity to speak on national welfare programs as much as Vitter. But he has effectively used his support for Medicaid expansion and public education to separate himself from Vitter’s incendiary rhetoric on safety net initiatives.

It is difficult to know whether Vitter would governor Louisiana with the same tone he displayed as a US Senator. After all, one can get away with symbolic votes and partisanship in congress where colleagues can override an individual’s decisions. But as Gov. Jindal has shown us, it is far harder to hide behind ideology in the statehouse where the level of influence is simply greater. While both are the same on many social issues, the two candidates have vastly different ideas of how to handle those living under poverty- an important distinction with Louisiana still being the second poorest state in the union.

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Congress and Americans Give the Nod To Torture

America tortures people. The debate that has ensued, not the first one in living memory, has different parameters depending on who you speak to. Supporters of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ have continued to highlight the need to leave every option on the table while also claiming that the techniques have yielded results. The opposition to the program is a bit more fracturus. Whether the program brings into question legality, efficacy or morality is something that is not completely agreed upon. First, the findings on what the practice of EIT means.

The Findings

Detainees were not more likely to give up useful information when being physically harmed- that includes Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. And KSM is hardly representative of those who were detained, in fact a large portion of detainees weren’t even affiliated with jihadism. 23% of detainees were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Pentagon. That means that even the hyper cautious over military commissions that are expected to be over zealous before just, have admitted that nearly a quarter of detainees have no connection to terrorism whatsoever.

Despite the revelations that came from the report, torture still has a considerable amount of support from political leaders. Of course, those who were directly involved or created the CIA program continue to defend the techniques as ‘enhanced interrogation’. James Mitchell, a psychologist regarded as the architect of the program, and John Brennan, CIA Director and overseer of these tactics, have gone on the record voicing their opposition to the torture report as something they see as political motivated and out of context. Their justification of EIT has not changed since the initially public discussion in the mid 2000s. The only real difference is that many of the exposed torture techniques have been chalked up to rogue CIA officers. The claim that the CIA acted independently from the White House and the President’s knowledge is heavily disputed. The report revealed that there were details from the EIT program that were not known to the President until 4 years after their implementation. However, according to the breaking coverage from the Intercept ,V P Dick Cheney, CIA Director George Tenet and Nat. Security Advisor Condelezza Rice were aware of the illegal techniques even while they claimed that intelligence agencies used ‘humane’ practices.

Ultimately, it should not matter if the President knew about the CIA program in full. The White House is responsible for what their executive agencies carry out. But it is still worth identifying the role that the White House played in the EIT program because the answer to that shifts the debate. Bush Cabinet officials and agency heads are quickly pushing the blame to lower level officials who committed illegal torture techniques without their authorization. If faceless mid-level CIA personnel acted independently, it would free White House officials from responsibility. From there, a story of isolated incidents and rogue actors is far more dismissible than a story of a corrupt institution and leadership.

Public Opinion on Torture

With so much conflicting information on who gave the orders to torture and how much elected officials knew about the program it makes polling difficult to gauge. The various polls conducted on the matter confirm that US public opinion is frayed on the issue. With any survey, semantics dictate the results- this is especially true when we can’t agree on what to call the practice in question. Respondents to a 2011 Pew poll that used the word ‘torture’ were more likely to express clear opposition to the techniques compared to those who responded to a 2013 AP poll that used the term, ‘harsh interrogation techniques’. Furthermore, there is the question on how to define a respondent’s ‘support’. If someone says that torture is justified ‘Sometimes’, does that necessarily mean that they support the program?

A study by Reed College confirms the long-standing critique of polling, which is that respondents almost never identify with absolutes. A respondent is far more likely to gravitate towards the available moderate answer even when they possess strong feelings on the matter. Broad questions will always receive broad answers, the specific questions are what can elicit one’s beliefs. This is the case with any survey, and is especially true when the definition of ‘torture’ is debatable.

So do Americans support the CIA interrogation program? It’s difficult to say for sure, but signs lead to ‘yes’. When comparing results of 2004 and 2011 Pew polls, public support of torture seems to have grown.  Despite the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report being dubbed as an historical moment, the revelations have not moved the needle of American perception.

In fact, several editorialists view the the Senate Intelligence report itself as a reason why Americans should be proud of their country instead of embarrassed. ‘What nation releases a report with such brutal self-examination? Certainly not those that the terrorists come from!’ is the general gist of the article written by Thomas Friedman. While comparing US policy to that of Middle Eastern dictatorships is probably a dangerous platform, the comments also conflate what the actions of the Senate Intelligence Committee and what their report truly is.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, a bipartisan body that was established in 1976- along with it’s House counterpart- to better monitor the executive’s branch intelligence agencies. After it was revealed that intelligence agencies were involved in the coverup of the Watergate scandal, it became clear that congress needed to monitor the CIA, FBI and NSA on a consistent basis. The SIC has been tested the most since 9/11 as the intelligence community experienced a massive expansion and a significant reduction in regulations. It is unclear how the SIC monitors intelligence agencies since these bodies answer to the executive branch. A Senator cannot give an order to a CIA official, but the SIC does have the ability to check the intelligence community. As legislators their obvious power is to pass laws that restrict their activity. However, congress has never passed any meaningful regulations on intelligence int he last 30 years. After the Edward Snowden revelations, the Senate was close to passing the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act but couldn’t get the votes, that includes SIC chair Dianne Feinstein.

The other way to check the intelligence community is to release information to the public. The scorn of the electorate has repercussions for the President, which in turn affects intelligence gathering. With the recent coverage of the CIA torture report you would think there would be political cover for such a move. But similarly to the legislative angle, the SIC has yet to declassify pertinent information- a power that the committee undoubtedly possesses.

The Senate Intelligence Committee: a history of restraint

Senate Resolution 400, the bill that founded the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1976, outlines how intelligence agencies are suppose to routinely share intelligence that is needed to make sound national security policy. The committee is most empowered by Section 8, a provision that established the process in which a committee member can declassify information that is seen to be in the public interest. Even if the executive branch (usually meaning the very intelligence agencies that are being evaluated) SIC is able to get a Senate floor vote on whether the declassification can happen or not.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem. Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem. Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee

While there are hurdles, Section 8 gives the opportunity for intelligence officials to be held accountable in the public square. However, the Senate hasn’t ever been forced to vote on declassifying information because Section 8 has never been enacted before. There have been attempts from lone SIC members to declassify information, but ultimately the committee leaders overruled the request.

So despite the controversial release of the CIA torture report, it is worth noting that the SIC did not share any information that the White House was unwilling to make public. The fact that Section 8 was not employed, coupled with the fact that nothing from the report reflects negatively on the Obama Administration, has only added to the belief by Republican congress members that the report was politically motivated.

The details of the report are gruesome but after examining the process in which the findings were released the report cannot be seen as close to comprehensive. President Obama may certainly view the Bush White House’s interrogation techniques are morally abominable. Simultaneously, the public has no clue if Obama continues to sanction EIT because the SIC refuses to challenge the Executive Branch on what can be released. Considering that the Obama Administration continues the practice of rendition, it is quite likely that torture is still committed even if in an indirect manner. To the contrary of Friedman’s claims of functional checks and balance system for intelligence agencies, the US has shown to mislead the public on it’s practices and the congress is fine with whatever information they are given.

How To Portray the Full Story of Torture

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Three men recently released from Guantanamo Bay to Uruguay. Another six men have already received asylum in Uruguay in Dec 2014. Miami Herald

None of the opinion polls attempted to gauge surveyed Americans level of knowledge on the torture report. It could very well be that the surveyed Americans had no clue there was new information on the CIA torture program. And it is very likely that Americans are unaware of the Section 8 provision. It should not be expected for every American to read an congressional report most in the country have a minimal interest in politics. In theory the role of the media should be to give a thorough summary of a story, and that entails including all sides of the matter. Unfortunately, western media seldom interviews those who were held in black sites or Guantanamo. This is still the case even after three Guantanamo Bay prisoners, all of whom were detained without charges, have recently been granted asylum in Uruguay. (An accessible destination for foreign journalists). The three individuals, all of whom have legal counsel, may be advised to not speak to the media, especially American organizations. However, I doubt that the few former Guantanamo detainees are not eager to share their stories. It would be interesting to see how public polls are affected after the US hears the side of the tortured.

Seawater=Fuel≠Less Greenhouse Emissions: Why the Pentagon Can’t be Trusted to Take on Climate Change on its Own.

The concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails.

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After over a decade of research by the US Navy,  technology has been developed that converts the hydrogen and carbon from seawater into fuel. A scale-model replica airplane has been filmed flying using the new seawater fuel. A toy plane is hard to get excited about, but it shows that existing engines can use the energy source without being modified. It’s an impressive breakthrough that once again shows the scale of the Pentagon’s Research and Development wing. Pentagon projects, such as this one, can easily go undetected by mainstream media. The DoD doesn’t need the same level of press coverage that an Apple product requires for market purposes. However, companies just like Apple have benefited from federal programs like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which develop some of the world’s most cutting-edge systems. While these innovations came from national security concerns, they are often later applied commercially. (The application of GPS and other satellite-based systems is a perfect example). Seawater fuel may also become available to consumers down the road, but this shouldn’t be confused as good for the environment.

No one can predict with certainty the success of a new piece of innovation, but what is known is that the seawater-to-fuel process is years off from being ready for primetime. Navy researchers believe that US military ships won’t be able to produce their own fuel until the next decade.

This is where skepticism over the story has appeared from environmental activists, and why it’s warranted. Will deriving fuel from seawater actually help fight climate change? Researchers have disseminated the warning for years now that oceans are at their limits of carbon uptake, making the waters more acidic and less able to absorb manmade CO2. So the concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails. The two main problems with this new fuel source is (a) even once we wait for it to be developed, is it worth it? and (b) a branch of the Pentagon controls the fate of the project.

The timeline, as mentioned earlier, shows that this technology is only a novelty for at least another ten years. The Navy has the raw ability to extract hydrocarbons from seawater, but when can we see a ship run off of the water that it takes in? (And in the case of the Navy, an aircraft carrier). It’s horribly counterproductive if the seawater is processed off site then transported to active fleets. The amount of petroleum required to just transport the seawater fuel product to deployed vessels would negate any carbon offset hoped of being achieved. Therefore, the next goal is to give military ships the capability of producing their own seawater fuel with an installation of onboard catalytic converters.

That said, even once on-site production becomes a reality ships will still rely on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of the catalytic convertors operating off of solar panels- instead the system will run off good ol’ gasoline, the amount of which is currently TBD. So as you can see, seawater-powered fleets is a far cry from a green revolution. But it’s a mistake to think that the US Navy is in the green revolution business. The Department of Defense has been, and will always be, in the business ensuring military readiness and global dominance. When the announcement on this technology was made, an enthuasitic Vice Adm. Philip Cullom explained why this is such a big deal:

“It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Vice Adm. Philip Cullom. “We are in very challenging times where we really do have to think in pretty innovative ways to look at how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume it. We need to challenge the results of the assumptions that are the result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, unlimited amounts of fuel.”

I don’t mean to vilify the Vice Admiral, his quote is accurate and honest assessment on how this development will be applied. This article’s purpose is to bring down any giddiness on the prospect of this technology being a move away from fossil fuels. Because as mentioned earlier,  the Department of Defense is in the business of increasing military readiness and global dominance.

Watchdog groups like Project Censored have identified the Department of Defense as the worst polluter in the world, well above the usual suspects of multinationals. I’m sure there are some that see these sorts of reports as far-left hyperbole, but that does not detract from the fact that the US military has an extensive track record of toxic dumping and unprecedented use of fossil fuels. This can be traced from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to  Camp Lejeune here in the US. The DoD has shown that the institution does not see a strong connection between protecting the environment and national security. Now climate change is a far greater issue since it poses as an existential threat, and to the Pentagon’s credit they have identified it as such.

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Erin Brokovich standing with prostesters in DC  urging Pres. Obama to help families of Camp Lejeune

So is climate change the issue that will finally get the DoD to start cleaning up its environmental record? There is some optimistic evidence to say yes. Besides the Pentagon’s plans to cope with ensuing rising sea levels, the Obama Administration has made a pointed stance expanding the military’s role in the fight against climate change. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the directive to get 20% of the DoD’s energy from renewables by 2020. The same administration signed into law the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act which grants medical care to those made ill by the Lejeune water supply. Has the Pentagon truly begun to see the national security implications of it’s heinous record of pollution? I argue that the answer is between ‘barely’ and ‘meh’. Climate Change is undoubtedly on the Pentagon’s radar, but so is a zombie apocalypse. Just because the Pentagon is aware of something, doesn’t mean it will act on it- especially if it requires sacrificing the military supremacy.

You know that the Pentagon is acutely aware of the research done on climate change because they have conducted several studies themselves. Establishment R&D groups like the RAND Corporation have been perfunctorily contracted to analyze how the military could reduce it’s carbon footprint. If you take the time to read the exhaustive papers, you can tell that its understood greenhouse emissions have serious consequences for the nation. (No ‘global warming is a hoax’ sentiment in these circles). Unfortunately for climate advocates, the reports that show concern with climate change also strongly advise a continuous reliance on fossil fuels. (If you have time, you should at least read the summary from the RAND report). There are calls for a marginal increase in wind energy, but overall a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future is the general consensus in the DoD. All hesitancy to use more renewable energy stems from the concern that it will limit the might of the US military. Renewable sources are unable to sustain the growing energy needs and would come at an increased fiscal cost as well. In the same 2011 RAND study, the authors came right out to say that seawater-to-fuel technology would be not be fiscally feasible. (pg 39). Did the authors know about the Navy’s work on the new fuel source? Who knows. What can be assumed is that RAND would probably be opposed to incorporating seawater-to-fuel capabilities if it detracts from military strength simply for greenhouse gas reduction. I apologize for the cynicism, but if solar is considered too cumbersome for RAND, then I’m sure they aren’t going to wait around for seawater fuel).

rand dr strangelove

The guy from Dr. Stranglove was based on a real RAND Corporation adviser

On an optimistic note, there is reason to believe that the Navy won’t be the sole owners of seawater fuel technology forever. As mentioned earlier, the Pentagon has developed some of the most groundbreaking innovations that have instrumental in building our current day economy. (AKA private businesses). ARPANET, a communication system constructed in the 1960s to survive a nuclear attack, was constructed by on the Pentagon’s dime. While it was designed for military purposes it later went on to be the foundation for the world wide web. The internet has been improved upon and expanded through private investment, being fully ingratiated into the world economy. So it’s not farfetched to think that private groups will work to make the seawater-to-fuel conversion a zero-emission process.

The seawater fuel breakthrough isn’t the only prospect the military has in curbing greenhouse emissions. There have been reports that Pentagon is funding research on converting ocean waves and common algae into energy sources as well. They are all exciting projects that have potential to move the country away from fossil fuels. But ‘potential’ doesn’t mean anything until it actually happens. Ultimately, this story shows that the government alone cannot be trusted to solve all problems. A tempered summary but at least it’s accurate.

Only Politicians Can Hold Oil Companies Responsible, Not Public Advocates

The relationship that Gov. Jindal has with the oil & gas industry has been further illuminated this week. Not only has he been successful in removing supporters of the lawsuit from SLFPA-E leadership, but has now prevented levee boards from suing anyone in the future. The new law that cuts out SLFPA-E, SB469, retroactively delegitimizes the levee board lawsuit and only allows certain government agencies from filing suit for coastal issues in the future. Thats right- levee board authorities, which are mainly comprised of lawyers and judges, can no longer undertake legal action to protect the coast line. Instead they are at the whims of state politics and the businesses closest to those in power.

There has been a some grassroots mobilization against the lawsuit-killing legislation. Notably, LTG Russell Honore, a man who came into the public eye when commanding the Joint Task Force for Katrina, has now become a leader in Louisiana environmental issues. He and his group, Green Army, has been a consistent local voice in challenging corporate power in issues ranging from fracking to the Bayou Corne sinkhole. The General has proven to be an effective community organizer, in many ways becoming the default face of Louisiana’s marginalized green movement.

But despite the state’s loyalty to the oil & gas block, there have been critics from within government. SB469 won by a 59-39(6 absent) in the state House and 25-11 (3 absent) in the state Senate. A sizable majority for sure, however, there still shows at least some political opposition to the booming industry. The most notable public official to speak out against the bill is Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. Caldwell is a conservative politician who has shown little interest in climate change or other environmental preservation issues. However, he has rightly pointed out that this law could prevent citizens from making claims from the BP oil spill. AG Caldwell, the seemingly lone public servant on the other side of this issue, has been drawing attention to this plausible scenario. ‘Plausible’ is probably the right word to use in this instance since a blocking citizens from compensation could lead to electoral backlash. Almost all Gulf Coast small businesses and home owners are reliant on the class action suits to receive BP money, having little input in the negotiation process.

The state house restricting levee boards is a highly technical issue which could explain the lack of public concern on this new development. Critics mainly belong Greater New Orleans grassroots advocates, and as mentioned their voices are often muzzled by the powers at be. This issue is surely to arise again as Louisiana continues to a football stadium of coastline every hour despite Jindal’s approach of addressing the issue within the statehouse.

Coastline destruction is an undeniably significant problem, that even the business community is anxious about. But the lack of electoral attention to this issue is particularly depressing for  climate advocates. If states lack the political will to hold oil companies responsible for the  destruction of land – then the prospect of holding said companies accountable for carbon emissions seems to be even more of a pipe dream.

Is the World of Energy that Fragile? : A Lawsuit Against Oil &amp Gas Shines Light on Coastal Erosion

A significant legal battle in Southern Louisiana has led to a discussion on the evolving relationship between the public and the fossil fuel industry. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E), a local authority that monitors levee structures around Greater New Orleans, has filed a lawsuit against the numerous energy companies that drill offshore. SLFPA-E uses compelling data that indicates that the exploration and drilling of fossil fuels has severely damaged the state’s wetlands and coastline. Not only does this have ecological impacts, but a compromised coastline makes residents far more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding. Research conducted by public officials as well as energy industry scientists has definitively outlined that oil & gas companies are responsible for roughly one-third of coastal erosion.

NASA.gov
NASA.gov

Naturally, the accused companies strongly disagree with the validity of the suit. One Chevron executive referred to the lawsuit as ‘laughable’, and industry spokesmen displayed confidence that the state government would not let the charges remain. Sure enough, Gov. Jindal removed Jon Barry, head of SLFPA-E, roughly 2 weeks after the story broke and has since made moves to ensure that the suit fall flat.

It’s not hard to see how close the oil industry is with Louisiana politics as well as daily life. Just about every New Orleans convention or event is sponsored by Chevron, that includes Super Bowls, Alligator Festivals and King Cake competitions. It’s not only American companies either- Sasol, a South African multinational, has recently committed to investing up to $21 billion in Southwestern Louisiana. The benefits of having energy producers in your backyard are fairly obvious. It has been well-documented how folks with high-school diplomas are making close to six figures working on oil-rigs. However, the SLFPA-E lawsuit proves oil & gas extraction has negative impacts that are too overwhelming to ignore.

Lets be clear, the fossil fuel industry is here to stay in the Gulf. Uprooting oil & gas companies is just about unthinkable in the American South’s political climate. The industry is deeply ingrained within the Gulf economy providing over 50,000 direct jobs. After all, the majority of Louisianans were bitterly against the moratorium on oil exploration and drilling after the Deep Horizon oil spill. Lafourche Parish is known for having some of the lowest unemployment levels in the country, but during the moratorium the vast majority of constituents were left temporarily jobless. So unfortunately for climate change advocates, the debate concerning the future of fossil fuels is considerably narrower in Louisiana. However, this SFLPA-E lawsuit may finally be the politically safe platform that Louisianans have lacked in the past to rethink their intense loyalty to the energy sector- even if only in an incremental manner. While the lawsuit doesn’t bring any new concepts into the fold- oil companies’ ecological damage has been an issue for some time – it does have the benefit of timing.

Coastal America was faced with enormous premium increases after a restructuring of the National Flood Insurance Program. The NFIP being the federal agency that insures homeowners for water damage from storms. After the Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Isaac the National Flood Insurance Program fell into $24 billion of debt. Despite recent reforms to the NFIP, Louisiana residents are still at risk of home damage which means that actuaries would increase their NFIP premiums. Being battered by storms has always been part of the Bayou state experience. But the threat of property destruction is exponentially greater when the coastline buffer receding at such a fast rate. In fact, one of the primary reasons private insurers pulled out of the Flood Insurance market was because of coastal erosion. As proven by the aftermath of Katrina, insurance companies would be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars in claims, which would surely negate any revenue generated from monthly premiums.

It is without a doubt Louisianans have a strong financial incentive to support coastal restoration efforts. Even conservative leaders such as Gov. Jindal (who is hardly an environmentalist) uses millions of state dollars to rebuild artificial sand dunes across the inner Gulf. Now the main questions are: how expansive should coastal restoration operations be? And who pays for it? Unfortunately for the Louisiana treasury, state leaders aren’t ready to ask the energy companies to finance costly coastal restoration operations, even though they have proven to cause roughly a third of the damage. The billions of tax dollars collected from oil & gas companies help pay for Jindal’s coastal restoration efforts. But their current contribution barely puts a dent of the coastal destruction they have committed.

Chaland Restoration Proj

The SFLAP-E lawsuit, while sure to fail, could potentially get Louisianans to demand at least some compensation for coastline damage outside of the tax dollars generated from their day-to-day operations. Obviously there will always be strong opposition to any move that demands additional accountability from oil companies- but the argument that these corporations will leave the Gulf if compensation is requested should be viewed with intense skepticism. Conservatives will always insist that taxes and regulation scare away business….And in an increasingly global marketplace, this argument has validity. But when it comes to extracting fossil fuels, don’t governments have considerably more leverage?

To give an extreme example, when Hugo Chavez created ‘one of the most aggressive tax systems’, by increasing oil royalties from 1% to 16.6%, oil multinationals became incensed. Yet American multinationals continue operations in Venezuela to this day despite their cries of unfairness. No one in the US is asking for the level of compensation that Chavez demanded… yet the same sound bytes are used: ‘They don’t have to be here’. ‘They’ll go to China.’ ‘They’ll go somewhere more business-friendly’. Energy spokes people have continuously said, ‘Our shale is no different than elsewhere’. The concept of corporate-flight is a concern that routinely enters the debate whenever increased taxes or regulation is proposed, usually by those connected to the industry in question. The US and especially the Gulf have an enormous amount of shale formation along with a trained workforce. Plus unlike several countries that are major sources of energy, the US can guarantee a level of stability and safety for their workers.

The truth is, it is fairly rare for a oil & gas corporation to cancel a drilling operations because of increased taxes- Which is arguably what the SFLAP-E lawsuit demands from oil companies to help restore Louisiana coastline. Exxon Mobil has been aggressively extracting oil in Angola where they are taxed at a rate of 75%. Of course, they only actually pay a tax rate around 35% after the US government reimburses the difference. The massive tax breaks given to US oil companies has been a contemptuous issue for the American left for decades now and has even gained some steam in the Tea Party movement as well. These beginnings of bipartisan support are easy to understand when you recognize that American taxpayers are subsidizing the choice of Exxon Mobil to work within an unforgiving business climate. This corporate favoritism should be seen as even more egregious considering that it has proven to be borderline political suicide to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for coastline destruction back in the US.

Ultimately, the fossil fuel industry appears to be willing to put up with a lot of hassles when the payout is worth it. The risk-reward concept is hardly a groundbreaking economics, but is worth noting when you consider the vast resources the Gulf has in the form of shale gas. The Gulf stands in contrast to Kansas where Shell pulled out all operations in 2011 because of a unsatisfactory payout. Kansas played by the rules of the energy industry by hosting an almost nonexistent regulatory environment for horizontal fracking and some of the lowest tax rates in the country. Yet Shell decided that their shale deposits weren’t worth it even after buying 600,000 acres of land. Which brings me back to my main point: when you have the goods, the energy companies come to you. So shouldn’t we expect our government to maximize their leverage?

Unfortunately, for people in Louisiana who face sky high Flood Insurance premiums and an unusually high level of poverty- Republican leadership isn’t even close to interested in asking a little bit more from these oil titans. GOP leadership has recently begun testing the line that the role of government is to facilitate a business friendly environment. But even conservative voters should realize that government should facilitate a strong business climate while getting as much as possible for their constituents. Doesn’t the Shell-Kansas story indicate that it doesn’t matter how comfortable you make oil companies? These folks will set up camp in war-torn, tax gouging, corrupt capitols like Angola.

The broader issue of climate change is not a part of this coastal erosion discussion. Unfortunately, asking oil companies to curb emissions isn’t in the sphere of debate in Southern Louisiana politics. What is a manageable first-step is getting the oil & gas dependent states to start holding these energy corporations accountable for their most basic environmental degradation. Even though the SFLPA-E lawsuit has proven to be a non-starter, it provides a great opportunity for this first-step.