Saturday, April 25, 2015

Free Market Mayhem: Do You Really Want to Live in a World without Environmental Regulations?

by Nomad

For corporations, a world without rules, without any annoying government interference might be heaven on Earth. But for the rest of us, it could be pretty damned close to hell on Earth.
We already have plenty of evidence of what life could be like if de-regulators get their way.

We often hear a lot of chatter about the benefits of deregulation and how important it is to avoid government interference in the world of big business. 
True to their Ayn Rand roots, both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, both candidates in 2016, have expressed the idea that "If only the government got its hands out of the private industries, then a purer form of capitalist harmony would emerge."

Free-market libertarians believe in a totally hands-off approach to government and this includes nearly all corporate oversight. Since governments (and the laws they create) are the only powers strong enough to regulate things, corporations would essentially become unrestricted and above the law. One way to that is by eliminating the agencies that are involved in policing.

In November of last year, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stated that his top priority was not going after the major polluters -such as the mining industry- His utmost concern was trying to do what he could “to get the EPA reined in.” 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is primarily tasked with effectively managing, overseeing, and enforcing environmental laws. It has the legal authority to go after and prosecute polluters who would choose the break the laws in the name of profits.
So, all in all, McConnell's soundbite might seem like an unusual position for a politician charged with protecting the public interest. However, an investigation explains his personal stake in shielding the coal industry. 

The website, EcoWatch, cites the February 2015 report by Environment America about the war on America's clean water regulations. Despite the fact that year after year, polls show that more Americans are concerned with the pollution and quality of our waterways more than any other environmental issue...
“Corporations and industry groups that oppose restoring Clean Water Act protections can drown out the voice of the average voter by spending enormous sums on election campaigns and lobbying.”
One of the many responsibilities of the EPA is to monitor at a federal level drinking water quality and waste water discharges. The Clean Water Act of 1972 was not the first legislation aimed at protecting the nation's water but it was perhaps the boldest. 
It was the first time that real power was invested with the federal government to make sure that water got clean and stayed clean. Its essential demand, that all waterways in the United States be “fishable and swimmable” by 1985 was remarkable in its forthrightness. It invested the Environmental Protection Agency with the power to prosecute “point source polluters,” i.e. commercial enterprises directly responsible for fouling the water. No longer was the onus on citizens to prove the value of clean water. Rather the burden was switched to industry. Industry had to prove that its actions did not impinge upon what became codified as an American right to fish and swim, safely, in public waterways.
The effect since that time? Significant amounts of pollutants from factories and waste water treatment plants are now removed before discharges reach rivers and streams. Billions of dollars are spent annually by companies and federal, State, and local governments to work toward the goals that Congress established 37 years ago.
Is the EPA a model of success in every way? Hardly.

However, the problems with the agency are minor compared to the problems without the agency. The proponents would throw out the baby but leave the polluted bath water.

Today more than 2.5 billion people across the developing world - that's almost one third of the global population - having no access to even the most basic sanitation is a reality faced every day. 
That does not included un-monitored drinking water which may be laced with a variety of cancer-causing chemicals or heavy metal contamination and other poisons.

To those people, the whole concept of removing environmental regulations must seem like the most idiotic policy imaginable. What excuse could any responsible legislator have for poisoning his own people?
That's a legitimate question too.

The Toxic Gray Shroud
Well, the usual reason given to voters is that all those rules and regulations are strangling American corporation's ability to compete with other countries.
Take China.
China, they say, is beating American industries simply because American companies face undue amounts of government interference through overzealous regulation. Off go American jobs because American companies feel put upon to abide by the law.

Never mind that, according to Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death. Never mind that  about 500 million people in China are without safe and clean drinking water.
Or that the "toxic gray shroud" over Beijing has become so bad that Chinese have begun to demand tighter regulations and penalties for polluters.

The free-marketers will tell you deregulation of EPA standards is all about making America more competitive, about jobs. They have successfully de-linked the idea that the destruction of the environment is actually a public health issue.  But a close look at China reveals the truth:
Hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and incidents of serious respiratory illness [have been] caused by exposure to industrial air pollution. Seriously contaminated by industrial discharges, many of China's waterways are largely unfit for direct human use".
In August 26, 2007, The New York Times published an article on the increasing problem of pollution there. In fact, according to the article, widespread environmental destruction "poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. "
Is that the direction the US should be taking?

Yes, yes, yes! say the Republicans and they are hell-bent on the leading race to the bottom.

A Tale of Two Models
The bottom line is unsurprisingly pretty basic. It's all about money. And make no mistake, regulations cost irresponsible corporations lots and lots of money. 
Ask British Petroleum.
The cumulative total costs from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill has so far totaled around $43 billion (as of last year) and millions more was spent on a public relations campaign. That's a lot of dosh, as the Brits say.

Now compare that Nigeria where there is an absence of effective industry regulation. An accident by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell there caused 1m to 2m gallons of oil to spill into the ocean off the coast.
It was the worst spill in Nigeria in 13 years in a part of that country where the oil and gas industry has been despoiling the environment for more than 50 years, on a scale that dwarfs the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico by a wide margin.
The details of the Nigeria catastrophe are warning enough to anybody promoting the idea of deregulation.
Many of the spills have taken place in sensitive habitats for birds, fish and other wildlife, leading to further loss of biodiversity and, in turn, further impoverishment of local communities. The spills pollute local water sources that people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing, laundering and fishing. They also release dangerous fumes into the air, sometimes rendering villages uninhabitable and causing serious illness for those who are unable to relocate.
It has resulted in a destruction of the environment so complete that there is no means of returning it back to its pristine state. That's if there were a Nigeria government agency able to call Shell to account. A Nigeria EPA capable of doing its job like its American counterpart is something that any realistic Nigeria would laugh at.

In the end, Shell Oil managed to pay a small fraction of the punitive costs that British Petroleum paid. Something around $63 million, according to sources, and the locals there still think the cleanup is more of hush-up. 

That's a tale of two regulatory models. But the Nigerian model is the one that brings smiles and coos of awe to industrial polluters in the US. 

Corruption in the Name of Competition
One of the big players in the regulatory slap down  is the   Koch brothers team. They have made little secret of their determination to dismantle the EPA. 
When David Koch ran for president back in 1980, his hard-right libertarian positions haven't changed much. He campaign on the abolition of the environmental regulatory agency. Along with killing Medicare and Medicaid and the elimination of all taxes. 
It was not the kind of policy Americans were ready for in 1980 and Candidate Koch's campaign was written off as something of a joke.  
Today nobody's laughing. 

In our time, there's a major difference. The Koch brothers are now firm believers in out-sourcing the job of destroying regulatory agencies. Their efforts include the use of political contributions to friendly politicians, recruitment of so-called academic experts to give some kind of legitimacy, heavy lobbying and numerous so-called "astro-turf events" to push their agenda along. 
One source points out that this is part of a concerted effort to remove oversight.
The Koch brothers, through their PACs and other organizations, have funded numerous efforts to defeat legislation aimed at reducing pollution or protecting the environment. After all, their companies don't pay the real cost for the pollution they release.
Indeed, it's easy to see how Koch Industries would benefit from absolute deregulation. As the second largest privately-held company in the United States with $115 billion in annual revenue, Koch Industries conducts business operations in the fields of petroleum refining, fuel pipelines, coal supply and trading, oil and gas exploration, chemicals and polymers, fertilizer production, ranching and forestry products.

In the past they have been the target of heavy fines for EPA violations. The brothers mean to overcome that obstacle by overturning environmental protection legislation and attempting to de-fund and eventually dismantle agencies that uphold these high standards.

The Azeri Model
Let's take a look at the countries with poor environmental regulations. The countries that we are supposedly in competition with. 
Consider Azerbaijan.
This former Soviet Republic has always had a problem with environmental issues. During the Soviet Era, petroleum waste was regularly dumped into the Caspian Sea as a means of industrial waste disposal. In addition to that, untreated sewage was routinely discharged, killing off sea’s stocks of sturgeon. 

However, it wasn't only water pollution. Severe air pollution in the major cities was also a problem, due to emissions from petroleum and chemical industries. The environmental pollution problem became a public health issue too. In the late 1980s, for example, Azerbaijan’s high infant mortality rate and high rates of infectious diseases were linked to the chemicals used in cotton growing.

Although some analysts put the blame the Soviet Union for instilling a mind-set where rapid development is the top most priority (public be damned), Azerbaijan's eagerness to adopt unbound free market principles has had a still worse effect of the environment. The choice was the recklessness of an autocratic government in the name of development or the greed of international corporations in the name of profit. 

Government negligence or government corruption blocked all manner of effective oversight. In both cases, the idea of the government as a capitalist lion tamer is an alien as ET. 

So long as nobody was free to complain and the media was under the control of the polluters then it was business as usual. At least until the long term effects began to show up. By then, it wasn't about protecting anything. It was about attempting restore was already destroyed.

And then this is the standard that polluting corporations are fighting tooth and nail to establish for the US.

If there is still any doubt that the pollution isn't just about saving the speckled owls or hugging tree, then consider this: in 2007 Sumgayit, Azerbaijan topped the list as the most polluted place in the world There, the cancer rates in are 51 percent above average. (And Linfen, China, which has China’s worst air quality and a high rate of lead poisoning in children.)
Ground water pollution from oil spillage and leakage from pipeline and storage tanks resulting in petroleum hydrocarbons, heavy metals and possibly radiation contamination; run off from heavy usage of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture; factory wastes dumped into rivers; salinity of water table due to rise in Caspian Sea and sea water intrusion; rusted water pipes; obsolete and broken equipment in water treatment plants.
Years of neglect and lack of regulations have cost the natural beauty, the wildlife and fauna  and the health of the Azeri people and their future generations. Today, the situation has become so awful that the nation has had no choice but to move toward greater environmental protection. Meaning, in the opposite direction as the Koch brothers would take the US.

The Azerbaijan government has adopted
a number of important laws, legal documents and state programs, all of which conform to European law requirements, have been developed and approved in order to improve the ecological situation in the country.
In other words, the countries the free-market proponents say the US must compete with are actually competing with the US on matching the high standards of environmental regulatory legislation.
Whether or not these measures can succeed, given the pressure for profit-making- is another question.

Competing with the Top Ten
It is no accident that of the top ten most polluted places in the world in 2014, not one of them comes from a country with a high level of regulatory authority.
Ask the citizens of any of those countries whether "reining in" any agency that protects the environment is a great idea. Ask them whether it is in the long term a a good path for a nation's development. 

In spite of all this evidence of the importance of tighter environmental regulations, the Koch brothers (and other polluters) are extremely close to achieving their goals of making America into a third world cesspool. 

The only remaining question is whether we are all prepared to allow that to happen and whether the majority Americans will be content living in a sewer of their own design.