‘Dark Cloud’ of ALEC Converges at Annual Corporate-Political Lovefest

Protesters carried signs and chanted “ALEC, go home” during an afternoon demonstration outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel on Wednesday. (Photo: Chris Stone/Times of San Diego)

This week, San Diego hosts ‘a festival of closed-door deal-making by politicians, corporate executives and lobbyists’

By Deirdre Fulton

Fighting to protect dark money. Attacking federal efforts to rein in carbon pollution. Undermining local democracy.

These are just some of the “hot topics” on the agenda this week as conservative lawmakers, corporate lobbyists, and top GOP candidates from around the country gather in San Diego for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)’s annual meeting.

“A dark cloud is headed our way in the form of a shadowy lobbying organization that buys loyalty from state legislatures with untraceable corporate dollars and threatens the very fabric of our democracy,” San Diego County Democratic Party chair Francine Busby wrote in advance of the conference.

ALEC, Busby explained, “is a ‘bill mill’ funded by corporations and billionaires. It creates ‘model legislation’ by and for industries, which right-wing legislators then take back to their statehouses and enact into law.”

Miles Rapoport, president of the grassroots advocacy organization Common Cause, described the meeting as “a festival of closed-door deal-making by politicians, corporate executives and lobbyists,” at which “[t]hey gather to do the public’s business in private, fashioning legislation that undercuts the public interest in things like clean air and water, quality public schools, economic fairness and participatory democracy.” (more…)

Could Anti-Climate Amendment Torpedo Fast Track?

Last-minute anti-climate effort led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slammed by green groups and some lawmakers

By Sarah Lazare

Environmental groups have long (warned) of the dangers Fast Track poses to the environment. Now they have solid proof.

With the controversial House Fast Track vote expected to take place Friday, an 11th-hour GOP effort to forbid U.S. trade officials from taking action on climate change has raised the fury of environmental groups and lawmakers, as well as hopes that the unpopular legislation could be torpedoed altogether.

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, an amendment was inserted late Tuesday into a customs and trade bill currently being weighed alongside Fast Track legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority.

The language is designed “to ensure that trade agreements do not require changes to U.S. law or obligate the United States with respect to global warming or climate change.”

But political observers see it as a last-ditch attempt to get reticent Republicans on-board.

As the National Journal reports, Ryan is “working hard to win Republican support for the trade bill. Doug Andres, a spokesman for the House Committee on Ways and Means, said that the climate-change amendment acts as an olive branch for House Republicans fearful that the president might use his trade negotiating power to take action on climate change.”

Critics say, in the midst of a climate crisis, it is outrageous that Ryan would seek to tie a trade representative’s hands, especially given the broad scope of the multiple corporate-friendly deals currently under negotiation: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and Trade in Services Agreement.

“President Obama needs to make it clear that ‘21st century trade deals’ cannot block climate action,” said Luísa Abbott Galvão of Friends of the Earth. “The president should start by telling Republican leadership and the public that the provision in the customs amendment is unacceptable.”

“President Obama cannot credibly claim that trade deals will force other countries to raise their environmental standards if he allows the same deals to secure a pass for the U.S. to keep dumping carbon into the planet’s atmosphere,” Galvão added.

The Fast Track legislation was already opposed by civil society and social movement groups around the U.S. and world—who criticize it as a tool for ramming through secret corporate-friendly deals, at the expense of people and the planet.

Karthik Ganapathy of 350.org said that this latest move could jeopardize Fast Track altogether: “Forbidding U.S. negotiators from ever addressing climate change in trade deals might might win over a couple of votes on the far right, but it’ll lose many more in the center and on the left because the new language is a disaster for our climate.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) derided the maneuver, declaring, “Now Republicans want to use [Fast Track] to prevent any new climate change standards in our trade deals.”

All eyes are on the vote, expected to take place Friday, with many high-profile politicians, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), remaining mum on how they will vote.

Patrick Woodall of Food & Water Watch declared in a press statement Thursday, “With Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership now on its way to the House floor, it’s time for our Representatives to stand up to the so-called free trade attacks on common sense protections for public health, the environment and consumers.”

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Food, Water, Health, Life: UN Experts Warn of Threats Posed by Secret ‘Trade’ Deals

The human rights stakes are too high to keep so-called “free trade” deals secret, say UN experts. (Photo: Syd Stevens, Overhead Light Brigade San Diego)

‘All draft treaty texts should be published so that Parliamentarians and civil society have sufficient time to review them and to weigh the pros and cons in a democratic manner,’ say officials

By Sarah Lazare

Echoing the protests of civil society organizations and social movements around the world, a panel of United Nations experts on Tuesday issued a stark warning about the threats that secret international “trade” agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pose to the most fundamental human rights.

“Our concerns relate to the rights to life, food, water and sanitation, health, housing, education, science and culture, improved labor standards, an independent judiciary, a clean environment and the right not to be subjected to forced resettlement,” reads the statement, whose ten signatories include Ms. Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of person with disabilities and Ms. Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

In particular, the officials raise the alarm about the “investor-state dispute settlement” systems that have become the bedrock of so-called “free trade deals,” included in 3,000 agreements world-wide, according to the count of The New York Times. Popularly known as corporate tribunals, ISDS frameworks constitute a parallel legal system in which corporations can sue state governments for allegedly impeding profits and thereby supersede democratic laws and protections.

The UN experts warn that “ISDS chapters are anomalous in that they provide protection for investors but not for States or for the population. They allow investors to sue States but not vice-versa.” Under this framework, states have faced penalties for “for adopting regulations, for example to protect the environment, food security, access to generic and essential medicines, and reduction of smoking, as required under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, or raising the minimum wage,” resulting in a “chilling effect,” the officials warn.

Notably, the experts declare that “All draft treaty texts should be published so that Parliamentarians and civil society have sufficient time to review them and to weigh the pros and cons in a democratic manner.”

The recommendation comes amid heightened controversy over the administration of President Barack Obama’s refusal to publicly disclose basic information about three mammoth pacts currently under negotiation: the TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade in Services Agreement.

Furthermore, the call was issued the same day that WikiLeaks took the unusual step of announcing a bounty of $100,000 for the full text of the TPP, declaring “the transparency clock has run out.”

Ultimately, the officials conclude, the human rights stakes are too high to keep these deals secret: “There is a legitimate concern that both bilateral and multilateral investment treaties might aggravate the problem of extreme poverty, jeopardize fair and efficient foreign debt renegotiation, and affect the rights of indigenous peoples, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, and other persons leaving in vulnerable situations.”

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FBI Spied ‘Beyond Its Authority’ on Keystone XL Opponents

No Tar Sands, Y'all

New investigation reveals agency’s actions amounted to ‘substantial non-compliance’ with its own rules

By Nadia Prupis

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) broke its own internal rules when it spied on Keystone XL opponents in Texas, violating guidelines designed to prevent the agency from becoming overly involved in complex political issues, a new report by the Guardian and Earth Island Journal published Tuesday has revealed.

Internal documents acquired by the outlets through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show how the FBI failed to get approval for launching investigations into Houston-based protesters, whom the agency labeled “environmental extremists,” and held a bias in favor of the controversial tar sands pipeline—currently awaiting federal approval—extolling its supposed economic benefits in one document which outlined reasons for spying on its opponents.

“Many of these extremists believe the debates over pollution, protection of wildlife, safety, and property rights have been overshadowed by the promise of jobs and cheaper oil prices,” the file states. “The Keystone pipeline, as part of the oil and natural gas industry, is vital to the security and economy of the United States.”

The Guardian reports:

Between November 2012 and June 2014, the documents show, the FBI collated inside knowledge about forthcoming protests, documented the identities of individuals photographing oil-related infrastructure, scrutinised police intelligence and cultivated at least one informant.

….However, the partially redacted documents reveal the investigation into anti-Keystone activists occurred without prior approval of the top lawyer and senior agent in the Houston field office, a stipulation laid down in rules provided by the attorney general.

Additionally, the FBI appeared to have opened its file on the Keystone XL opponents in 2013 following a meeting between officials from the agency and TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.

“For a period of time—possibly as long as eight months—agents acting beyond their authority were monitoring activists aligned with [direct action climate group] Tar Sands Blockade,” the Guardian writes.

Dozens of activists were arrested in Texas in late 2012, although none were accused of violent crime or property damage, according to key Tar Sands Blockade organizer, Ron Seifert.

“Less than a month after TransCanada showed the FBI a PowerPoint claiming that people opposed to [Keystone XL] need to be watched, Houston’s FBI office cuts corners to start an investigation; it’s not surprising but it is revealing of who they really work for,” Seifert told Common Dreams on Monday. “The FBI has been harassing and actively repressing communities of organizers for decades.”

Yet more records show that the FBI associated the Tar Sands Blockade, which organizes peaceful protests, with other “domestic terrorism issues.”

Other documents suggest that the Houston-based investigation was only one of a larger probe, possibly monitoring other anti-Keystone XL activists around the country.

“We’re not surprised,” Seifert continued. “We’re also not deterred. Movements for climate and environmental justice are activating people from diverse political backgrounds to take direct action to defend themselves from threats like [Keystone XL]. People are stepping out of the blind alleys of electoral politics and building grassroots power, and that’s scary for people who want a monopoly on power.”

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‘Climate Denial, Plain and Simple': Feds Approve Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plan

Budapest Shell gas station in July 2012 to protest the company’s plans to drill

“Not only does it put the Arctic’s pristine landscapes at a huge risk for oil spills and industrial development but it’s utterly incompatible with President Obama’s rhetoric to address the climate crisis.”

By Nadia Prupis

The Obama administration has given conditional approval to Shell to start drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic this summer, dealing a major blow to environmentalists who have sought to protect the vulnerable Beaufort and Chuchki Seas from fossil fuel exploration.

“Arctic drilling is climate denial, plain and simple,” Jamie Henn, co-founder of climate activist organization 350.org, tweeted after the announcement. “Shameful decision by [President Barack Obama] to allow Shell to drill.”

Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a statement on Monday, “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

However, environmental activists have long warned that there is no way to fully protect against the dangers of offshore drilling, particularly in areas that are hard to reach by emergency vessels. Not only does fossil fuel exploration harm endangered species which rely on the Arctic’s pristine ecosystems to survive, but an accident in those remote waters could be more devastating than the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill which killed 11 workers and poured millions of barrels of oil into the Atlantic Ocean, activists say.

Furthermore, green groups point out that the only way to avoid climate catastrophe is to leave untapped reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas unexploited.

Calling Shell’s drilling scheme “the largest, loudest and dirtiest exploration plan ever proposed in the American Arctic Ocean,” Friends of the Earth said the Interior Department’s approval “is unconscionable given that the latest science says Arctic oil must be kept in the ground in order to have a chance at keeping the planet safe.”

The White House first granted drilling approval to Shell in the summer of 2012, but that project was derailed by numerous safety and operational problems. According to the New York Times, the Interior Department’s new approval (pdf) of the plan “was conditional on Shell’s receiving approval of a series of remaining drilling permits for the project.”

That was of little comfort to environmental groups which say that the oil giant has not demonstrated it can drill safely in the ecologically delicate region.

“Once again, our government has rushed to approve risky and ill-conceived exploration in one of the most remote and important places on Earth,” Susan Murray, a vice president of Oceana, told the Times. “Shell’s need to validate its poorly planned investment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean is not a good reason for the government to allow the company to put our ocean resources at risk. Shell has not shown that it is prepared to operate responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and neither the company nor our government has been willing to fully and fairly evaluate the risks of Shell’s proposal.”

Henn later tweeted, “Giving Shell ‘conditional’ permission to drill in the Arctic is like giving a drunk keys to your car and asking them to please drive safe.”

“It’s deeply troubling to see the Obama administration give the oil industry the green light to drill in the Arctic,” Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement on Monday. “Not only does it put the Arctic’s pristine landscapes at a huge risk for oil spills and industrial development but it’s utterly incompatible with President Obama’s rhetoric to address the climate crisis.”

Noblin continued:

The Interior Department bent over backward to rush Shell’s permit through the regulatory process so it could move its drillships into the Arctic this summer. Considering Shell ran its drillship aground in Alaska in 2012, it’s hard to fathom how the federal government can rationalize rubber-stamping Shell’s second try at Arctic drilling.

Arctic drilling is a step in the exact wrong direction. Scientists tell us that if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to keep Arctic oil in the ground. Arctic drilling gives us a 75 percent chance of an oil spill and a 100 percent chance of climate catastrophe. Interior should send Shell packing.

Erik Grafe, a staff attorney with environmental legal nonprofit Earthjustice, added, “This decision places big oil before people, putting the Arctic’s iconic wildlife and the health of our planet on the line. The agency should not be approving such threatening plans based on a rushed and incomplete environmental and safety review. Ultimately, Arctic Ocean drilling is far too risky and undermines the administration’s efforts to address climate change and transition to a clean energy future. These fossil fuels need to remain in the ground.”

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