Headlines: Economic Crisis Fueling Repression; Dozens Protest Shell over Niger Delta Trial

Democracy Now Headlines: Economic Crisis Fueling Repression; Dozens Protest Shell over Niger Delta Trial

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

US, South Korea Raise Military Alert Level

The United States and South Korea have raised their military alert level after North Korea said it would abandon the 1953 truce that ended the Korean War. North Korea’s move follows its nuclear test and several missile launches earlier this week. The US-South Korea Combined Forces Command says it’s raised the alert level to three, the highest since North Korea’s only other nuclear test in 2006.

Ex-Officer: Blocked Photos Showed Rape, Sexual Abuse at Abu Ghraib

The former Army officer in charge of investigating the Abu Graib scandal says the photos recently blocked by President Obama include images of rape and sexual abuse. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Major General Antonio Taguba said at least one picture shows a US soldier raping a female prisoner while another shows a male translator raping a male prisoner. Taguba says other photographs show sexual assaults with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube. The Obama administration recently drew criticism when it reversed a pledge to allow the photographs’ release.

US Military Toll Highest in Iraq Since September ’08

In Iraq, four Iraqi civilians and a US soldier were killed Wednesday in a Baghdad car bombing. At least twenty US troops have died in Iraq this month, the most since September 2008.

Israel Vows Continued Settlement Building as Obama, Abbas Meet

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House today for his first meeting with President Obama since Obama’s inauguration. Ahead of Abbas’s arrival, the Obama administration renewed calls for Israel to stop settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. But Israeli officials, meanwhile, said they’ll continue expanding settlements to accommodate so-called “natural growth” amongst settler communities.

Israeli Figures Attribute Settlement Growth to Migration

Israel says it needs to keep building to meet the housing needs of growing settler families. But recent Israeli government statistics show a large percentage of settlement growth was caused by settlers moving in from outside the territories. Despite its call for a settlement freeze, the Obama administration has still refused to demand Israel dismantle any of the large settlements that carve up the West Bank and that the World Court has deemed illegal. In Ramallah, independent Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti called on the US to exert meaningful pressure on the Israeli government.

Mustafa Barghouti: “I believe that the Palestinian president should demand American immediate, clear-cut pressure on Israel. Without American pressure on Israel, there can be no progress for peace and there can be great threat to the idea of peace based on two-state solution.”

Report: Israel Taking Vast Majority of West Bank Water

A new World Bank study says Israel is now drawing four times as much water as Palestinians from a critical shared aquifer in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinians are taking just one-fifth of the water supply amidst a fifth-consecutive drought this year.

Amnesty: Economic Crisis Fueling Repression

The human rights group Amnesty International says the worldwide economic decline is leading to greater repression across the globe. In its annual global report, Amnesty warns, “We are sitting on a powder keg of inequality, injustice and insecurity, and it is about to explode.” The report says abuses are increasing as marginalized communities demand basic rights amidst worsening economic security. It also says incidents of racism and xenophobia are on the rise in addition to new restrictions on refugees and asylum seekers. Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said the United States needs to address growing inequality at home.

Irene Khan: “We saw in the Americas in the last year still the issue of inequality very much on the agenda. The economic crisis has made it even more prominent now, where poor people are being ignored, indigenous peoples’ rights are being trampled upon, business and the economy taking precedence over livelihoods and lives of people. That is a major problem in the Americas.”

The full Amnesty International report comes out today.

Lengthy Sentences Handed Down in Holy Land Case

Five founders of a defunct Muslim charity have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in a controversial case that critics have called a political witch-hunt. The Holy Land Foundation founders were convicted last year on charges of funneling money to the Palestinian group Hamas. Holy Land was the nation’s largest Muslim charity until the Bush administration shuttered it in 2001. The case relied on Israeli intelligence as well as disputed documents and electronic surveillance gathered by the FBI over a span of fifteen years. It was the second trial against the defendants after the first ended in a mistrial. Defendants Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker were sentenced to 65 years apiece. At his sentencing hearing, Elashi said: “Nothing was more rewarding than … turning the charitable contributions of American Muslims into life assistance for the Palestinians. We gave the essentials of life – oil rice flour. The [Israeli] occupation was providing them with death and destruction.” Another defendant, Mohammad El-Mezain, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was found guilty of supporting Hamas but acquitted on 31 other charges. Volunteer fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader was sentenced to 20 years in prison. And the fifth defendant, Abdulrahman Odeh, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Army Halts Training at Base over Record Suicides

The U.S. Army has temporarily suspended regular operations at a Kentucky base that leads the military in suicides. At least eleven soldiers have taken their lives at Fort Campbell this year. The Pentagon says it will halt regular training for three days so commanders can identify and help soldiers at risk of suicide.

Admin Mulls Single Agency for Regulating Banks

The Obama administration is reportedly considering establishing a single agency to regulate the banking industry. The new bureau would replace the several bodies that failed to prevent or foresee the nation’s economic collapse. The White House is expected to unveil a formal proposal in the coming weeks.

Obama Orders Secrecy Review

In other White House news President Obama has ordered a review of government secrecy and whether too many documents are being kept from the public. Obama has asked national security adviser James Jones to vet Cabinet officials on their disclosure process and appointed Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to head a task force on government secrecy.

Torture-Linked Firm Vacates Spokane Headquarters

The torture-linked military contractor Mitchell, Jessen and Associates has moved out of its Spokane, Washington office to an undisclosed location. Named for its founders, the military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the firm played a key role in developing the Bush administration’s torture methods used on foreign prisoners. The investigative website ProPublica reports Mitchell-Jessen has disconnected its phone number and hasn’t left a forwarding address at its now vacated offices.

Activists Raise Environmental Concerns at Chevron Meeting

Activists gathered in and outside a shareholders meeting for the oil giant Chevron Wednesday in an attempt to call attention to the company’s environmental practices. Activist shareholders were able to address the meeting and propose a motion calling for a report evaluating Chevron’s environmental record. Hundreds of people also gathered outside for a protest against Chevron’s practices in several countries. Chevron is facing a $27 billion dollar damage claim over jungle pollution in Ecuador.

Dozens Protest Shell over Niger Delta Trial

Meanwhile dozens gathered outside a New York courthouse where a landmark civil trial against the oil giant Shell had been set to begin. The case accuses Shell of supporting human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, including complicity in the torture and execution of Nigerian writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists. The trial has been delayed until next week. Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International said he hopes the trial will bring attention to problems facing the Niger Delta.

Steve Kretzmann: “What we really hope as a result of the trial is the underlying issues that Ken and the other Niger Delta peoples were trying to address, the constant gas flaring, the pollution of their homeland, the complete abject poverty, we hope these issues are addressed in Nigeria because that is ultimately what Ken and the Ogoni were struggling for and what communities in Nigeria are still struggling for today.”

The case was brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-citizens to file suits for human rights abuses overseas.

Illinois Senate Backs Medical Marijuana

In Illinois, the state Senate has passed a measure to legalize medical marijuana. The measure now goes to the state House, where it’s already passed in a committee vote.

U.S. Plans Massive Embassy in Pakistan

The U.S. is planning a massive diplomatic presence in Pakistan similar to its current embassy in Iraq. In a recent funding request, the Obama administration asked Congress for $736 million dollars to build a new U.S. embassy as well permanent housing for U.S. officials in Islamabad. The request falls just below the $740 million dollar cost of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Burmese Court Bars Suu Kyi Witnesses

In Burma, the court overseeing the trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected three of four witnesses that would have testified on her behalf. Suii Kyi is accused of violating her house arrest over an unwanted visit from an American citizen who swam across a lake to reach her home. The American, John Yettaw, testified Wednesday he was prompted by a ‘vision’ of Suii Kyi’s assassination. Yettaw is believed to be mentally unstable. Wednesday marked both the 19th anniversary of Suu Kyi’s victory in national elections that Burma’s military junta has refused to acknowledge and the sixth anniversary of the last time she was free from house arrest.

Ex-Chilean Soldier Indicted in Jara Killing

In Chile, a former soldier has been indicted on charges of involvement in the 1973 killing of the Chilean protest singer Victor Jara. Chilean military forces tortured and killed Jara days after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the elected President Salvador Allende. Jara’s hands were smashed so he could no longer play guitar before he was shot 44 times. The former soldier, Adolfo Paredes Marquez, has admitted to involvement but denies pulling the trigger. Chilean human rights attorney Nelson Caucoto said he hopes the commanding officers can be located and prosecuted.

Nelson Caucoto: “I hope we get to the bosses, the ones who gave the orders. Because I imagine that in this chain of command an 18-year-old didn’t have much of a chance to resist orders.”

Ethnic Studies Pioneer Ronald Takaki Dies at 70

Back in the United States, the ethnic studies professor and author Ronald Takaki has died at the age of 70. Takaki taught at University of California Berkeley for more than three decades. He is widely considered a founding figure in the field of multicultural studies.

Haitian Priest, Activist Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste Dies at 62

And the Haitian spiritual and political leader, the Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste, has died. He was sixty-two years old. Doctors say he suffered a stroke unrelated to the leukemia he battled three years ago. Jean-Juste was well-known as an advocate for Haitian refugees and later an outspoken supporter of the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after his overthrow in the 2004 U.S.-backed coup. The U.S.-appointed provisional government jailed Jean-Juste two times during its rule. The latest came in 2005, right before he was expected to register as a favored candidate in Haiti’s national elections. In 2004, I interviewed Father Jean-Juste right after his release from his first prison term.

Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste: “Look what they have done to Haiti, it is broken into pieces. Now we have to collect the pieces, and allow the people to come together, and I don’t see any way now unless President Aristide is restored to power and democracy has been corrected. The same way we do it in 1994.”

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Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis

Environmental activist Vandana Shiva’s newest book–Soil Not Oil–is an excellent resource for those who are serious about not just averting a larger global climate crisis, but for those who want to preserve living communities of bio-diversity. Shiva’s examination of the inter-connected global climate, energy, and food crises offers a refreshing perspective on the debate about global warming.

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

With all the trendy “green consumerism” and corporate green-washing that dictates so much of current discourse around environmentalism, it is important that we examine independent perspectives on the severity of the world’s ecological crisis.

Vandana Shiva has provided a fresh and independent perspective for more than two decades now as she has confronted how we think about environmentalism by writing books about water, seeds, global trade policies, and patriarchy’s relationship to the natural world. In her most recent book Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, the Indian activist provides needed analysis for those of us who might be duped by the market approach to environmental justice.

Shiva argues that the world is faced with three fundamental global crises: global warming, energy use/depletion and food. The author believes that these three issues are inter-connected, therefore how we respond as a global community with any of these issues will impact the other two. Soil Not Oil does not just address those three issues, it provides an analysis and challenge to those of us in the US who think we have the best approach to solving the climate, energy and food crises.

For example, the business community has primarily dominated the response to global warming in the US, much of which has been supported by the ideas put forth by Al Gore. Shiva argues that these “solutions” are imperialist in nature since they dictate what the poorer countries of the world should do. This imperialist response by rich countries is best demonstrated by the idea of carbon trading. Carbon trading allows the biggest polluting nations and corporations to transfer their pollution onto other nations and communities by investing in “green” technology abroad. Shiva believes that the market should not be deciding how to deal with something so crucial as climate change and suggests that carbon trading is a false solution since “it does not begin with policies and laws that protect and support the nonpolluting patterns of production, distribution and consumption.”

Carbon trading will in effect mean that the big polluters will be subsidized to continue to pollute, because “slightly greener” companies can sell their carbon credits to the worst polluters. This market solution provides no real incentive for developing truly sustainable ways of production, which is why Shiva believes that the nuclear industry has been cashing in on the global warming frenzy. Nuclear power has received the support of politicians and some environmental groups despite the fact that the uranium mining that is done in order for nuclear power to work is highly toxic and unsustainable.

When discussing energy use, Vandana Shiva focuses on the cost of car use in her home country of Indian. With the increase in personal auto transportation on the rise in countries like India, it not only increases the global demands of oil production, it has resulted in increased deaths and road construction. The new road construction throughout India has primarily impacted India’s rural farming communities, communities that have lost their land and their livelihood.

This shift to greater car production and use in countries like India has meant less land for food, the third major crisis that Shiva tackles in Soil Not Oil. Not only does road and parking lot construction take away precious land from small farmers, it necessitates that more land is used for bio-fuels to power the machines. This has resulted in less land for food production and high prices for basic food staples. Those of us in the US have experienced increased in the cost of basic grains, but this increase in global food prices has hit people harder in countries like India. So why bio-fuels are presented as a green fuel it has actually caused more environmental destruction and poverty.

Shiva believes that the market-based solutions that the rich nations have adopted in responding to the global climate/energy/food crisis has and will only make things worse. The author believes that the power to make decisions about food and energy should be put in the hands of smaller communities, decisions that she believes would be more sustainable. Shiva cites numerous examples in India where people have created their own seed banks to promote traditional grains like millet, which is more nutritious and sustainable to grow. When local communities have control over the most fundamental resources such as food and energy production there is a greater chance that the issue of how it impact that community will be central to the decision making process, unlike when corporations or nation states impose their decisions on communities.

Soil Not Oil concludes with the author appealing to the idea encompassed in the Indian work Shakti, which means the “capacity to do” or “to have power.” When local communities have the capacity and the power to determine the futures, a future that is not driven by external market forces, only then can the world overcome the global climate crisis we are faced with. Soil Not Oil is an excellent resource for those who are serious about not just averting a larger global climate crisis, but for those who want to preserve living communities of bio-diversity.

Vandana Shiva, Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, (South End Press, 2008).

Militarized Energy Policy Costs the US $100 Billion per Year

The United States’ militarized energy policy–which depends on the military to protect access to the fossil fuels that the US needs to fuel its economy–costs $100 billion per year according to a new report from the National Priorities Project.

The National Priorities Project has released a new report titled “The Military Cost of Energy” that explores how much the United States is spending to secure access to energy. According to the report, the United States is spending $100 billion annually on military operations to defend access to oil and natural gas reserves around the globe. The report estimates that the military spends up to 30 percent of its annual budget to secure access to energy resources internationally. While many people will point to the Iraq War as evidence of this, the report argues that the use of the military to secure energy resources is far more pervasive.

The report shows that the United States spends billions of dollars per year to secure access to fossil fuels–the country’s primary source of fuel. The United States imports 58.2% of the petroleum that it uses, creating a system where energy needs in some way dictate and/or inform military policy. There is little diversity in US energy sources, with 85% of energy coming from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal). Only 6.8% of the United States’ energy comes from renewable sources such as hydro, wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal sources. The report says that $100 billion is spent on securing access to energy resources while only $1.2 billion is spent on renewable energy sources.

Along with the report, the National Priorities Project released two fact sheets that provide analysis of how this militarized energy policy effects the states. Michigan’s share of the $100 billion of federal money spent each year is $2.8 billion, with only $931,000 going to renewable energy. The organization also provides an important overview of Michigan’s energy use and the sources for its energy:

* Michigan, in 2005, consumed 312.9 BTUs of energy per person. This ranks Michigan as number 36 in the nation for energy consumption per person. The United States as a whole consumed 340 million BTUs of energy per person.

* Of this energy consumed, these are the sources Michigan drew their energy from over the last 40 years:

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* Thirty-one states have set renewable energy guidelines for their electricity providers called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). Michigan does not have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). Michigan has not specified that any amount of electricity produced in the state be renewable by any year.

* Research is required to discover and develop new sources of energy as well as ways of conserving the energy we currently access. In 2008, Michigan received a total of $45.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. Of this, 57.4% was for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

* Because the transportation sector relies almost exclusively on fossil fuels, vehicles that do not use gasoline or diesel are particularly important. Of 8,154,235 vehicles registered in Michigan in 2006, 0.2% were alternative fuel vehicles. The national average is 0.3%. By comparison, in 2006, 13% of Sweden’s newly registered cars were alternative fuel vehicles.

Overall, the report provides an important analysis of one of the motivators of US foreign policy.

McCain Promotes Nuclear Energy in Michigan Visit

On Tuesday, Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain spoke at the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant in southeast Michigan. His speech–largely held in response to Obama’s unveiling of his new energy plan–outlined support for “clean coal” and nuclear power, including the construction of 45 nuclear power plants.

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Republican presidential candidate John McCain was in southeast Michigan yesterday at the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant. Just 24 hours after Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke about his energy plan, McCain laid out part of his energy platform. The Arizona Senator began his remarks by saying, “It’s time we got serious about energy independence.”

McCain stated that he supports the construction of an additional 45 nuclear power plants as a way to “reduce our dependence on foreign oil without adding to climate change.” McCain did not present any new energy policy proposals while in Michigan, instead he continued to promote what he calls his Lexington Project. The Lexington Project calls for an expansion of domestic oil exploration and production, a clean car challenge, the use of what is referred to as “clean coal,” an investment in alternative energy, and a “cap and trade system that would set limits on greenhouse gas emissions.” Under McCain’s plan, there would be a 60% reduction in carbon levels by 2050.

McCain took the opportunity to criticize Senator Obama by saying that the Democratic Senator “was against off-shore drilling and against nuclear power.” The fact is that in recent days Barak Obama has reconsidered his position on off-shore drilling and has been a strong proponent of nuclear power. Recently, the two presidential candidates have been making claims about each other’s energy policies. In a new ad by the Obama campaign, the ad overstates McCain’s relationship to oil companies and how much money his campaign has received from them. According to the non-partisan FactCheck.org, McCain has received $1.3 million from the oil industry, not the $2 million the ad claims. The Obama ad also claims that McCain would “propose another $4 billion in tax breaks” for the oil industry. However, FactCheck.org writes, “McCain is not proposing new tax breaks specifically targeted to the oil industry. He’s proposing a general reduction in the corporate income tax rate, which Democrats figure would benefit the five largest oil and gas companies by $3.8 billion.”

McCain did address a crowd of supporters while in southeast Michigan, but according to the Detroit News, there were protestors outside the gates of the nuclear power plant, several of them were union workers with the Fermi 2 plant who held signs in support of Senator Obama.

Running on Empty: Media & the Oil Crisis

In his July column for Recoil magazine, Mediamouse.org contributor Jeff Smith examines how the media covers the oil crisis. Not surprisingly, he finds that they leave out the larger context of what is driving prices up, focusing instead on how much oil costs and advertising where people can get the best prices.

In early June, the major news media reported that a proposal in the US Senate to eliminate tax breaks and tax some of the profits from big oil companies was defeated. The Associated Press story that appeared in the Grand Rapids Press cited a few Republicans and Democrats, but energy experts and the public were excluded from the story. This kind of coverage is standard practice by the news media when reporting energy issues.

Another approach to reporting on this issue is for the news media to appear like they are consumer advocates. You have seen it in recent months. How many local TV and radio stations are always telling you which gas stations in town have the lowest prices? Go to their websites and you will find links on the front page telling you where to find the cheapest gas or they will urge you to contact them if you find a “good deal.” While this type of journalism may seem like the media companies care about your pocketbook it has nothing to do with journalism. Posting which gas stations have the lowest prices is nothing more than a form of advertising, something the gas companies are not in need of.

Last fall, the president of Shell Oil was in Grand Rapids to give a luncheon talk to members of the World Affairs Council. I went to cover the event for MediaMouse.org and was amazed by the fact that the head of this oil company spent most of the time talking about how Shell is committed to developing alternative fuels. However, when asked to give a percentage of their budget spent on alternative energy the slick oilman said they spend less than 5% of their budget on such matters. The only other news media reporting from the event was a local radio station, yet the local TV stations all ran stories on his visit. Instead of reporting on the event, they each did interviews with the Shell president so they wouldn’t have to listen to the 45-minute presentation.

The channel 8 story was by far the worst in terms of not challenging the oil executive. Their interview was for 2 minutes, long by industry standards, and basically consisted of lofting softballs at the Shell President. At one point the reporter asked, “You’re in the oil industry, isn’t it in your best interest though to protect oil and keep that going as long as possible?” The response was, “I’d rather say, we’re in the mobility industry. We like to keep people on the move.” Wow! Now that is Orwellian double-speak if I ever heard it. What’s more amazing is that the channel 8 reporter didn’t even question him. In fact, the whole interview was just a form of stenography, where the reported ran whatever the oil executive said without questioning it.

Much of the news coverage around the current gas/oil prices tends to look like a stock exchange report, where the focus is on the how the prices go up and down, but rarely do they talk about the reasons for this. Part of their hesitation to investigate these issues is that it means work and in the current state of US journalism investigative reporting is not encouraged unless it involves a celebrity scandal. The larger reasons for not pursuing this kind of reporting are that the news media is highly dependent upon the industries that sell oil and are driven by oil. These industries include the big oil companies, distributors, the big automotive companies, and local car dealerships to name a few. These companies all buy ad space/time from media and are therefore less likely to be the subjects of news stories.

Even when the news media reports on policy or regulating the oil industry, the coverage is quite limited as was mentioned at the beginning of this story. Instead of just reporting that the Senate proposal was defeated, why not report on which members of the Senate are recipients of campaign contributions from big oil? If you look at the Center for Responsive Politics database, you will find that in 2008, all major party candidates for president were recipients of campaign contributions from big oil. Both Republicans and Democrats received money, since big oil wants to make sure that whoever gets in has their interests in mind. I think reporting on this kind of influence peddling might be useful information for the public, don’t you?

Good journalism might also include some historical context regarding the US government’s relationship to big oil. In 1940, President Roosevelt stated in a diplomatic meeting with Britain, “Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.” The not so hidden secret is that since World War I the US and Europe have been trying to control the world’s oil resources, quite often with force. This has been the case in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Oil resources have played a role in dozens of US interventions, according to historian Bill Blum, author of Rogue State. Iraq is just the most recent example of an intervention that is motivated in part by the control of major oil reserves and we know what the consequences of that intervention have been, particularly for Iraqis.

In addition to looking at US policy and oil interventions, reporters could look at the racist nature of oil exploration. Many of the major oil drilling projects in the world are in Arab countries, on the African continent, or in Latin America. In the case of Latin America and Africa, most of the oil exploration is on indigenous land, such as the Ogoni in Nigeria or the Uwa in Colombia. The continued exploration of oil is one of the main factors in the extermination of indigenous populations, according to Al Gedicks in his book The New Resource Wars.

Then there is the environmental component of oil exploration and the burning of petroleum. We are all now aware of the global warming crisis we face, but how much of that discussion has looked at the role that militarism plays in the contamination of the planet when attempting to control the world’s oil resources? Sonia Shah in her book Crude has demonstrated that since WWI those countries with more control of the world’s oil have always had better military capability. Why? What do you think the tanks, planes, trucks, jeeps, ships, rockets, and submarines run on? The amount of fuel that is expended daily by militaries around the world is generally overlooked in the discussion about global warming and environmental sustainability. When was the last time you even heard and environmental organization condemn war? A chapter of the Sierra Club in Utah tried to speak out against the impending US Invasion of Iraq, but the president of that organization threatened to have their chapter shut down if they persisted.

Clearly, this issue is much more complex than what you are paying at the pump. However, since you do have to pay over $4 for a gallon of gas let me leave you with this thought. The next time a reporter, possibly during the Fourth of July weekend, approaches you to find out how you feel about gas prices tell them that their news agency needs to start reporting on why the prices are so high instead of why you are pissed off about them. If they refuse, then take the microphone out of their hand and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

This article is based in part on a workshop I did at the International Peak Oil and Climate Change Conference during the Memorial Day weekend at Calvin College.

Why was the President of Shell Oil in Grand Rapids?

On Thursday, Shell Oil president John Hofmeister spoke in Grand Rapids. His talk–held as part of a public relations tour by Shell–portrayed the company in a favorable manner while emphasizing the idea “alternative fuels” and ignoring Shell’s history of environmental and human rights abuses.

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John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil, spoke as part of the “Global Executives Briefing Series” hosted by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. His talk–held at the University Club in downtown Grand Rapids–was titled “How the US Can Ensure Energy Supply for the Future.” Hofmeister stated up front that he was on a 50 city tour and that Grand Rapids was number 45. The tour is designed to “engage key audiences and talking to the American public about Energy Security.” According to Source Watch, the tour is part of a larger public relations campaign to “counter public anger at high oil prices and “windfall profit” tax proposals.” Hofmeister referred to this public anger as an “intolerant debate after Katrina.”

Hofmeister began his talk by stating that the US is faced with 4 major insecurities–homeland insecurity, financial insecurity, environmental insecurity, and energy insecurity. In each case the government has responded fairly well except in the are of energy insecurity. Hofmeister said there are more energy resources to be had than we can use, but he didn’t substantiate that point. Hofmeister also said “public policy prohibits us from getting 85% of US based energy.” He then gave the example of how the Energy Bill of 2005 permitted some positive changes in the system, but “the 2007 Energy bill takes away the 2005 remedies.” Hofmeister also stated that “there is no energy strategy dealing with energy policy. So, what could the energy security strategy look like?”

He went on to say, “when it comes to conventional oil and gas, the US model is still the envy of the world – we need to develop conventional gas and oil resources, but we are prohibited from accessing it. Unconventional oil and gas sit in a different state of development,” but that Shell is exploring this type of energy. He discussed coal as a viable source of energy, but to make it more efficient “why not gasify coal so you can manage the molecular structure into clean energy.” He also stated that there is an increase in the demand of natural gas but that the US is inadequately equipped with what he referred to as re-gasification terminals.

Hofmeister then discussed bio-fuels, which he claimed Shell has been developing for 40 years. Shell is putting its effort into other bio-fuels technology, such as the use of corn stalk or cane pulp instead of the current forms of bio-fuel production. Shell also has wind farms in 7 states and has a partnership with GM on hydrogen fuel cells. However, for the US to have energy security, Hofmeister said that Shell believes there are three other things that need to happen. First, there needs to be a commitment to a culture of conservation, which he emphasized as new technology development not our present consumption habits. Second, he said, the government needs to take the lead on greenhouse gas emissions so that companies can trade energy credits. Lastly, Hofmeister said, the public needs to be educated about energy and energy policy. He said that Katrina provided a great opportunity for this to happen but instead people just complained about gas prices and “didn’t understand it and accept the fact that production was down by 25% but demand stayed the same.”

In many ways, Hofmeister was presenting Shell Oil in an extremely positive light, with the emphasis on future technology development and “alternative fuels.” However, the public record on Shell is significantly different and raises serious questions about the motives of this global energy company that contrast significantly from the talk that Hofmeister gave. For instance, Hofmeister mentioned on several occasions that government seemed to be a barrier to great access to energy resources, yet Shell Oil has spent over $27 million dollars in lobbying efforts since 1998 according to the Center for Public Intergity. He is also a member of the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee thus providing Shell with additional opportunities to influence public policy.

The largest omission from Hofmeister’s talk however, was that Shell does most of its business overseas and it is outside of the US that Shell has a record of environmental devastation and in some cases has played a role in human rights abuses. Oil extraction alone has caused tremendous ecological devastation and the process itself creates highly toxic waste. In the Niger Delta, villagers have been suffering the consequences of Shell Oil’s decision to inject waste from energy extraction into the ground. Hundreds of residents became sick from the toxins in the ground and water and dozens have died. Oil spills and toxic waste are common with oil extraction, but 40% of Shell’s global spills have occurred in the Niger Delta according to Al Gedicks, author of Resource Rebels.

Many communities have organized in response to the health risks and environmental devastation committed by Shell Oil. The most famous case began in the 1990 with the Ogoni people in Nigeria. After years of suffering from contamination the Ogoni people organized MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People under the leadership of a charismatic organizer named Ken Saro-Wiwa. MOSOP organized demonstrations and mass protests and in 1993 Shell was forced to close its production facilities on Ogoni land. However, the Nigerian military was now occupying the territory and began attacking the Ogoni movement. Within two years 2,000 civilians were dead and 37 villages were destroyed. In May of 1994 Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were arrested. It was later discovered that Shell was bribing witnesses to testify against the Ogoni organizers. In 1995 Saro-Wiwa and the other eight prisoners were tried in a military court and executed. The execution sparked an international campaign to boycott Shell. In the US there was a Senate bill that would have prohibited Nigeria Oil from being imported into the US, but the bill was easily defeated and couldn’t even get enough sponsors.

Shell Oil has consistently denied any wrong doing in the Ogoni case, but during ongoing legal battles over the 1994 executions a memo was leaked that originated from a Nigeria military officer in charge of the Ogoni operations. The memo states “hell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” The officer then recommends “wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings, making constant military presence justifiable and wasting targets cutting across communities and leadership cadres, especially vocal individuals in various groups.” When the documentary Delta Force was released Shell admitted to paying “field allowances” to the Nigeria military and providing logistical support in the form of access to Shell helicopters and boats. According to Resource Rebels, “The company also admitted to importing weapons into Nigeria to arm the police.”

The Ogoni case is just one example of how Shell and other oil companies are anything but proponents of a culture of conservation. For information on oil company practices globally and community resistance to their practices an excellent resource is Oil Watch which can be read in both English and Spanish.

CEOs of Military Contractors and Oil Companies Making Fortunes off “War on Terror,” Oil Shortages

A new joint study by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy has found that the CEOs of the top military contractors and oil industry corporations are making substantial personal profits off of the “war on terror.” A military contractor with a local presence—L-3 Communications—was identified as one of the top 34 military contractors in the report.

According to a joint study called Executive Excess 2006 by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, the CEOs of military contracting and oil corporations are making substantial fortunes off the “war on terror” and oil shortages. The CEOs—like all CEOs surveyed in recent years (the CEO to worker pay gap is now 411 to 1)—are not only making substantially more than workers in the United States, but their salaries are also far outpacing the pay of “average” CEOs. The CEOs at the top 15 oil corporations have received a 50% raise since 2004 and are now making, on average, three times more than CEOs of comparably sized businesses. The CEOs of the top 34 military contractors salaries have doubled since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing “war on terror,” pocketing nearly a billion dollars since 9/11. Military contractor CEOs are currently earning 44 times more pay than military generals with twenty years of experience and 308 times more than Army privates.

The average compensation for military contractor CEOs has risen from $3.6 million in the pre-9/11 period of 1998-2001 to $7.2 million from 2002-2005. Their compensation has grown by 108% compared to 6% growth by CEOs of other corporations. The highest paid CEO—George David of United Technologies—was paid more than $200 million from 2002 to 2005. The report argues that the privatization of many aspects of the “war on terror”—encompassing everything from training interrogators for use in Iraq to feeding United States soldiers stationed oversees—has resulted in a landslide of contracts to corporations who are now making substantial profits from the ongoing “war on terror” and the United States’ occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Stock prices for the top 34 military contractors investigated in the report have increased by 48% on average as profits have increased by 189%. The increase in compensation for CEOs of military contractors has even grown faster than the government’s military budget, with the value of Defense Department contracts issued between 2001 and 2005 increasing by 75% compared to an increase of 108% in CEO pay.

Of the top 34 military contractors defined in the report, one has a presence in the Grand Rapids area. L-3 Communications Titan—ranked 18th in the report—maintains a facility in Grand Rapids that is producing materials for use in the “war on terror.” The report identifies L-3 as making “satellite, avionics, missile defense, and marine communications” with 53% of its work being done for the military while receiving slightly over $5 billion in military contracts, but the corporation has also been contracted to do “intelligence” work in Iraq. Locally, L-3 Communications has produced a variety of components for military aircraft used by the Navy, Air Force, and Army. While L-3 Communications is in the Top 34 of military contractors, there are several other corporations doing work for the military in Grand Rapids, with one other corporation—Smiths Group (Smiths Aerospace)—also being among the top 100 military contractors .

The second group of CEOs examined in the report—executives at major United States oil industry corporations—has also seen a substantial increase in compensation, being paid $32.7 million (on average) last year, or 518 times more than the average oil industry worker in 2005. This compensation has grown as the price for oil has increased from $40 per barrel to $70 in the past year and a half, with many analysts blaming the “instability” in the Middle East—caused in part by the United States’ “war on terror”—for the rising price of oil. The three highest paid oil industry CEOs were William Greehay of Valero Energy ($95.2 million), Ray R. Irani of Occidental Petroleum ($84 million), and Lee Raymond of ExxonMobil ($69.7 million). Rather than invest in infrastructure or alternative energy sources, most oil industry corporations are taking the profits and transferring them to executives in what amounts to a “massive transfer of wealth from average Americans who can’t afford it [$3 gas prices], to big oil companies who already were experiencing all-time record profits” according Senator Byron Dodge of North Dakota. The oil industry, like military contractors, spends millions of dollars lobbying the government for legislation designed to its benefit.

Report finds that Energy Prices have Risen Rapidly after Five Years of Bush Energy Policy

On Tuesday, the fifth anniversary of the White House energy plan developed by Vice President’s energy task force, Representative Henry Waxman released a report showing that energy prices and dependency on foreign oil have increased. The report found that:

  • Energy prices have risen rapidly. Over the last five years, crude oil prices have increased by 143%; gasoline prices have increased by 71%; natural gas prices have increased by 46%; and prices for other fuels have increased at a rate significantly higher than the inflation rate.
  • American families are spending record amounts for energy. Five years ago, the average American family spent $3,300 on gasoline, home heating, and electricity. This year, the average American family will spend over $5,100 on gasoline, home heating, and electricity. This is an increase of nearly $2,000 per family. The indirect costs of higher energy prices in the form of higher prices for consumer goods and services are likely to cost families another $1,400 per year.
  • The nation’s dependence on foreign oil has increased. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Texas Governor George Bush criticized the Clinton Administration for allowing U.S. imports on foreign oil to reach 56% of U.S. oil consumption. Five years after President Bush announced his energy plan, U.S. imports of foreign oil have risen to 65% of U.S. consumption.

While few have benefited from the rise in energy prices, the energy industry has profited considerably, with oil companies reporting record profits of over $100 billion in 2005.

Vern Ehlers Answers Questions from Constituents at Annual “Town Hall” Meeting

On Saturday, Vern Ehlers, congressional representative for the Grand Rapids area and Michigan’s 3rd District, held a “town hall” meeting during which he addressed a variety of questions from immigration to peak oil.

On Saturday, Representative Vern Ehlers, the federal Congressional representative for Michigan’s Third District, gave what he termed an “update” on activity in Washington and allowed a total of 45 minutes for questions from the audience. Representative Ehlers described the interest in this year’s town hall meeting as being quite exceptional and said that he will work to either schedule another meeting in the fall or will make 2007’s annual meeting an hour-and-a-half. In previous years, Ehlers said that he had scaled the meeting back due to what he termed a “lack of interest.”

Ehlers began the event giving a fifteen minute overview of “what is going on in Washington,” beginning with the need for people to enroll for the new Medicare benefit—“Medicare Part D.” While giving no specifics of the plan or who would benefit from it, Ehlers told the audience that people need to sign up by May 15 or there would be a penalty, because as he said, it is an insurance program and you cannot have people enrolling only when they were sick. Ehlers then described how “the budget is a huge issue this time of year” and explained that the Congress has successfully cut everything in the “discretionary spending” category with the exception of defense and homeland security. Ehlers also addressed gas prices, which he described as something that Americans “have go to live with” blaming high prices on what he called the “fear factor” that results from political instablitiy in Nigeria, Venezeula, and the Middle East. Ehlers also described how demand for gasoline has increased due to large vehicles in the United States and new cars in China and India and suggested that an increase in fuel economy standards would be a potential solution. The recession was also proclaimed to be “officially over” during his introductory comments, with Ehlers stating that “everyone has a decent job now” although “it may not be the job they prefer” and that this is one of the “big issues” facing Michigan.

During the question and answer period, Ehlers addressed a wide variety of questions from those dealing with peak oil to immigration. In response to a question about NAFTA and CAFTA, Ehlers once again stated that the two trade agreements have been beneficial to the United States while ignoring the thousands of job losses incurred by workers in Michigan due to NAFTA. This discussion of NAFTA was briefly tied to immigration by audience members, although the two interrelated issues were never addressed together by Ehlers. Instead, Ehlers said that he had “a concern about the large number of illegal immigrants” and that it was an issue that affected all ethnicities and that it was too easy to get into the United States on the coasts and through Canada. He claimed that “illegal immigration” is not a new problem and that it has been ongoing for years but that in recent years it has become easier to enter the country, despite the fact that it remains difficult to enter the country illegally. During the discussion Ehlers claimed that he did not have any answers to the problem, specifically in light of the difficult question of what to do with people who have been in the United States for years, but then later confirmed that he supported HR 4437 which offers a very clear approach to the so-called “problem” of immigration by further criminalizing immigrants and their supporters. Ehlers also indicated support for “reforming” the tax system and stating that he opposes the current progressive income tax and instead would favor something like the so-called “fair tax” that would eliminate personal and corporate income taxes and replace them with a consumption tax that Ehlers said was more inline with the tax policies of other countries.

Throughout the event, a small group of antiwar activists with the group Code Pink sat in the audience wearing pink with “no war” slogans on their hats and clothing, signifying the opposition to Ehlers long-term support for the war. While Ehlers conveniently picked over members of the audience seeking to pressure him to stop supporting the ongoing occupation of Iraq, Ehlers was eventually asked a question about his support for the illegal invasion of Iraq. Ehlers said that the situation in Iraq is improving with the establishment of a new government and that the “main problem” in Iraq is that the United States was not prepared for the post-war situation. Ehlers claimed that he raised these concerns from the start of the war, although he offered no specifics. Similarly when an audience member asked him a question about whether or not President George W. Bush should be punished for taking the country to war illegally using distorted intelligence, Ehlers dodged the question by saying that before one could be punished that the premise would have to be proven true, thereby suggesting that he believes President Bush did nothing wrong in the pre-war lead up to war.

From the start of the Ehlers overview, he was generally very condescending towards the audience, repeatedly touting the fact that he is a “scientist” and that he is a “nuclear physicist” and doing so in such a way that projected the notion that he somehow had a superior understanding of every issue, even those that had nothing to do with his educational background. These condescending remarks had their height with Ehlers using a simplistic analogy about how he wished that “energy were purple” so that people could understand exactly how much energy they are using and so that it could be quantified. He went on to describe how he felt that most people—with the exception of scientists like himself—cannot understand energy because it is not tangible. During this discussion of energy the entire discussion focused on personal energy use, despite the fact that earlier comments focused on the need for alternative sources of energy and higher fuel economy standards. Ehlers also reacted quite negatively when someone attempted to pass the microphone to another audience member, with Ehlers describing how he would chose who to recognize to speak because it was his event.

Report: Halliburton’s Performance Worsens

According to a new analysis prepared by Representative Henry A. Waxman, Halliburton’s performance has worsened during its work on a contract to restore Iraq’s southern oil fields. The analysis, which draws from undisclosed correspondence, evaluations, and audits reveals that government investigators have harshly criticized Halliburton’s performance and have found:

  • Intentional Overcharging: Halliburton repeatedly overcharged the taxpayer, apparently intentionally. In one case, “[c]ost estimates had hidden rate factors to increase cost of project without informing the Government.” In another instance, Halliburton “tried to inflate cost estimate by $26M.” In a third example, Halliburton claimed costs for laying concrete pads and footings that the Iraqi Oil Ministry had “already put in place.”
  • Exorbitant Costs: Halliburton was “accruing exorbitant indirect costs at a rapid rate.” Government officials concluded that Halliburton’s “lack of cost containment and funds management is the single biggest detriment to this program.” They found a “lack of cost control … in Houston, Kuwait, and Iraq.” In a partial review of the RIO 2 contract, DCAA auditors challenged $45 million in costs as unreasonable or unsupported.
  • Inadequate Cost Reporting: Halliburton “universally failed to provide adequate cost information,” had “profound systemic problems,” provided “substandard” cost reports that did “not meet minimum standards,” and submitted reports that had been “vetted of any information that would allow tracking of details.” Halliburton produced “unacceptable unchecked cost reports.”
  • Schedule Delays: Halliburton’s work under RIO 2 was continually plagued by delays. Halliburton had a “50% late completion” rate for RIO 2 projects. Evaluations noted “untimely work” and “schedule slippage.”
  • Refusal to Cooperate: Evaluations described Halliburton as “obstructive” with oversight officials. Despite the billions in taxpayer funds Halliburton has been paid, the company’s “leadership demonstrated minimal cooperative attitude resolving problems.”

View the full report