AmeriScan: September 4, 2003
The nature of the price fluctuation over the past few weeks, which has driven gasoline to a record high national average of $1.75 per gallon, strikes the energy secretary as "being unusually large and in need of greater explanation," Abraham told a House panel Wednesday.
The average retail price for regular unleaded gasoline rose 12 cents per gallon during the week of August 18 to 25 - the biggest one week increase in U.S. history.
Abraham was testifying on the investigation into the causes of the power blackout, but found himself besieged with lawmakers concerned with why gas prices skyrocketed in the wake of the August 14 power outage.
The energy secretary said his office has received a flood of complaints about gas prices and said the department's independent statistical arm - the Energy Information Administration - will conduct the inquiry.
The results of the inquiry will be made available to the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Congress.
Industry officials say the market for gasoline is extremely tight and point to the temporary shutdown of six U.S. oil refineries because of the blackout as a factor in the price spike. In addition, industry officials say higher crude oil prices, disruption to a major Phoenix pipeline and strong demand for gasoline around the Labor Day holiday helped cause the jump in prices.
Democrats pressed Abraham to investigate market manipulation and the energy secretary agreed this would be part of the inquiry.
Abraham said the investigation has just begun and he offered no timetable for its completion.
Critics blasted the administration for using the power blackout to generate support for its plan to increase domestic oil production.
"It is ridiculous to use the blackout as an argument for drilling in the Arctic Refuge and other pristine public lands," said Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat.
Critics of Estrada say he lacks the judicial experience required of the seat on nation's second highest court and believe he was not forthcoming on many of his views during the confirmation process. Estrada repeatedly refused to answer Senators' questions regarding his views on previous court decisions.
Environmentalists welcomed the news - a slew of national environmental groups had urged the Senate to reject Estrada's confirmation in part because of legal challenges to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.
They were concerned about the influence Estrada would have on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which many consider the most crucial appeals court for environmental protections.
The vast majority of cases challenging national environmental rulings and safeguards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and other federal agencies are heard by the D.C. Circuit.
"The American people want and deserve fair and balanced judges who will uphold reasonable environmental laws that protect our communities from air and water pollution and safeguard our natural resources for future generations," said Glenn Sugameli, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law firm.
"The public should not be expected to blindly trust a nominee when the administration and the nominee combine to stonewall legitimate requests for information and answers to key questions that senators need to make an informed decision about the nominee's qualifications," said Sugameli.
The report card, which looks at river conditions from the spring and summer of 2003, finds that the federal agencies responsible for managing the dams and river flows in the Columbia and Snake river basins have failed to meet federal standards for seasonal salmon migration flows and water temperature in the Snake and Columbia rivers - violating both the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
The report card highlights the fact that the lower Snake River dams were violating the Clean Water Act on August 22 when President George W. Bush toured the Snake River's Ice Harbor Dam and touted his administration's efforts to protect and restore endangered salmon.
American Rivers says that on the day of Bush's visit, the temperature of the water behind Ice Harbor Dam was 71.1 degrees Fahrenheit - 3.1 degrees over the Clean Water Act standard of 68 degrees.
"Because of the lower Snake River dams, the water temperature in the river is hot for weeks on end, creating harmful and sometimes lethal conditions for young salmon. It is like having your children swim laps in a hot tub," said Michael Garrity with American Rivers. "At the same time, young salmon are not getting the water they need to carry them downstream to the ocean."
High water temperatures also hinder the migration of adult salmon and prolonged exposure can be lethal.
The conservation group says that federal dam managers failed to meet spring salmon flow targets on the Snake River about 75 percent of the time, and failed to meet summer flow targets more than 90 percent of the time.
High summer water temperatures on the Snake River put the river in violation of the Clean Water Act some 75 percent of the time, according to American Rivers.
Federal dam managers were given three additional "Fs" by American Rivers for failing to meet spring and summer flow targets and the summer water temperature standard for the Columbia River even half the time.
Bush said that the existing management of dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers is restoring and protecting endangered salmon. In his speech at the Ice Harbor Dam, Bush took credit for improved salmon runs on the rivers and said the administration is successfully balancing the needs of the fish with the economic demands that mandate continued operation of the dams.
Conservationists want four dams on the lower Snake River removed and federal scientists have agreed this would be the best way to restore and protect salmon. Bush said that is not an option, even though studies indicate the economic effect to the region from the dam removal would be minimal.
A federal judge has ordered the administration to rewrite its plan to restore and protect the fish because its measures were not "reasonably certain" to be implemented and it violated the Endangered Species Act.
"Most of the fish returning this year had been out in the ocean since before President Bush took office, so this administration deserves neither credit nor blame for the size of this year's salmon returns," said Garrity. "But if the Bush administration wants to have both plentiful salmon and the lower Snake River dams, river flow and temperature are certainly two things that will have to improve dramatically."
The organizations filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday. They are challenging the agency's February 12, 2003 decision not to list the California spotted owl on the ESA.
In that decision, the agency said its decision was based in part on its belief that the land management plan for the Sierra Nevada region and long range timber harvest strategies on commercial timberlands have "projected increases in habitats important to spotted owl nesting, roosting, and foraging."
But conservationists say the Bush administration's proposal to weaken the land management plan - known as the Sierra Nevada Framework - would triple logging of national forest in the Sierra Nevada and cause further decline of California spotted owl populations.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the Framework to deny protection for the owl, even though they knew these protections were on the Bush administration's chopping block," said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "This decision flies in the face of common sense."
Greenwald explained that the Framework provides protection for the owl, while at the same time allowing for substantial progress toward reducing risk of destructive forest fires, by protecting fire resistant medium and large trees across the landscape and focusing fuel treatments around communities where they are needed most.
"The Bush administration is scrapping a balanced plan with broad support from environmentalists, the state of California, the public, and the scientific community to reward his campaign contributors in the timber industry," states Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. "The Framework Plan focuses on protecting and restoring old forest, which is key habitat for the owl, fisher, and a host of other species, while the Bush plan aims to cut them down."
Unlike the northern and Mexican owl subspecies, the California spotted owl has never been listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Like its cousins, however, the California spotted owl is closely associated with old growth forests. Conservationists say more than a decade of studies have determined that the owl's population is declining.
The organizations mounting the legal challenge have also filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to provide documents under the Freedom of Information Act related to their decision to not protect the owl.
The groups filed their request for information at the time of the decision more than six months ago, but have not received a response.
"The Bush administration is one of the most secretive in history, refusing to release documents to Congress and the public," said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the groups. "Preserving species should be an open and collaborative process between the public and federal agencies. The time has come to open up this decisionmaking process and put the interests of the owl front and center."
American Rivers and the Coastal Conservation League allege that SCE&G, by running Saluda Dam to generate maximum profit, is causing ten miles of river below the dam to fail to meet state standards under the Clean Water Act.
The conservation groups say the utility is breaking an agreement reached for the terms of the state water quality permit issued in 2002 to avoid these violations.
That agreement expedited clearance from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to upgrade Saluda Dam.
"The law is clear and the consequences for breaking it are not trivial, so we are at a loss to understand why these violations are allowed to persist," said Gerrit Jobsis, who works with both the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and American Rivers. "We are giving the utility one last chance to remedy the situation or we'll take them to court."
At the center of the concern is "peaking operations," which are rapid fluctuations in dam releases that are the utility's preferred method to meet higher demand on hot summer days.
These peaking operations deplete water in the Saluda River of oxygen to the detriment of its ecological health and recreational value, conservationists say, and also lead to sudden surges in river flows past the popular Riverbank Zoo area, where one or two swimmers drown each year.
According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, poor water quality resulting from peaking operations during summer and fall months eliminate habitat for popular game species - such as trout, bass, and bream - for five miles below the dam and continue to compromise habitat even further downstream.
The river is a permanent fixture on the state's list of "impaired waters" for this reason.
The conservation groups say information filed with the South Carolina Public Utilities Commission, shows SCE&G has ample capacity to absorb operational changes at the Saluda Dam while still meeting customer needs.
The information indicates that operating the dam to generate electricity at a constant rate - rather than rapidly fluctuating releases to meet peak demand - maximizes the efficiency of the dam's oxygenation equipment and improves water quality.
The statement affirms Boise's commitment to work with environmental groups to successfully eliminate the purchase of wood products from endangered areas and its pledge to give purchasing preference to suppliers who provide wood products from certified, well managed forests whenever feasible.
It also includes Boise's assurance that its purchase of logs, pulpwood, and chips will strengthen efforts to thwart illegal logging.
"This statement formalizes Boise's commitment to environmental stewardship by linking the company's broad and varied environmental activities into a unified statement," said George Harad, Boise's chairman and chief executive officer.
Boise is the first major U.S. forest products company to adopt a comprehensive environmental statement for its operations and the first distributor of wood and paper products to extend an environmental policy to its suppliers.
Conservationists hailed the decision and urged others to follow Boise's lead.
"With such strong leadership from Boise and its customers, we expect it's only a matter of time before the rest of the industry follows suit," said Jennifer Krill, old growth campaigns director for Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco based organization that has been critical of Boise Cascade in the past.
Krill's group sent letters to 12 companies it considers the most environmentally destructive U.S. forest products companies directly challenging them to meet or beat Boise's commitment. This group of companies includes: Bowater, Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, Louisiana-Pacific, MeadWestvaco, Plum Creek Timber, Potlatch, Rayonier, Sierra Pacific Industries, Sweetheart Holdings, Universal Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser. All are Boise competitors or suppliers.
"Logging, distributing or selling endangered forests is a barbaric, outdated practice that has entered its endgame in the American marketplace," said Michael Brune, executive director of Rainforest Action Network. "Any company that is still engaged in this practice is on the wrong side of history."
"Although we prefer a collaborative approach," Brune added, "if these companies will not respond to the pleas of scientists and the demands of their customers, then we are prepared to take this debate to each company's board of directors, its shareholders, its customers, and the American people."
Some 80 percent of Earth's virgin, old growth forests have already been destroyed or degraded, and 96 percent of America's original forests are gone.
The watchdog group reports that the overall disparity between penalties assessed against polluters and those actually collected has cost the state more than $45 million since 1987.
PEER obtained the data from the DEP Office of General Counsel. The records indicate that most program areas are collecting on far fewer civil penalties today than just a few years ago and finds the largest decline is among programs that target corporate polluters.
"This is money polluters owe to the taxpayers of Florida as compensation for damage done to our environment," said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. "Even though we are in the middle of one of the state's worst fiscal crises in history, this administration chooses to coddle corporate polluters rather than take the trouble to collect what they have been fined."
The DEP records indicate that the industrial waste program has collected fewer fines each year since 1999, and last year it collected on less than half of the penalties it assessed.
Hazardous waste violators paid just over half the penalties assessed against them in 2002, according to DEP data, and total fines collected from air polluters has dropped by hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2000.
Of the only two major program areas showing an increase in collections in 2002, one was the Potable Water program, which largely focuses on small, community businesses.
"Forty five million dollars would have gone a long way toward cleaning up the state's pollution," Phillips said.
Not only is Florida not collecting penalties, PEER says, it has pulled back on assessing fines. State data obtained and released by PEER last month showed that penalties assessed against Florida's largest polluters have been on the decline, and that the DEP has forgone the requirement, once commonplace, that violators clean up the pollution problems they create.
That level is not very high, says study author Steven Brechin, and some of the most surprising findings concern the United States.
Not only are Americans "more or less equally misinformed" as people elsewhere about the causes of global warming, but they also are "among the most misinformed of the developed nations surveyed, "Brechin reports.
"I find this quite remarkable," said Brechin, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "In essence, we humans are equally ignorant about the causes of global climatic change. Citizens of poor countries have a pretty good excuse, but what is ours?"
Brechin's cross national study of public opinion and global climatic change will be published this fall in a special issue of the "International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy."
For his study of the views and attitudes of ordinary citizens all over the globe, Brechin analyzed a variety of public opinion polls conducted since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement created to regulate the release of greenhouse gases. Polls included various Gallup and Pew Research Center polls and studies by the research group Environics International.
Only the Japanese and the French are more misinformed that U.S. citizens, Brechin says.
A 2001 poll, for example, found that only 15 percent of the U.S. citizens surveyed correctly identified burning fossil fuels as the primary cause of global warming.
"Even the Cubans, at 17 percent, were slightly more informed," Brechin wrote.
The citizens of Mexico led all 15 countries surveyed, with 26 percent of the respondents correctly identifying fossil fuels as the cause of global climate change.