It's Friday, and nothing says Friday like the words "The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project is out." Am I right? Let's just pretend I'm right. It's out, everyone! Some people might get into conspiracy theories about governmental agencies that release highly controversial documents late on a Friday right before the Super Bowl, but surely those are just theories. Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project party in the house!
The report is a key step in the process set in motion two years ago, when President Obama rejected the initial application by Transcanada to build the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, which would ship tar-sands crude from Alberta to the central U.S., became a lightning rod for protest. Still to come: a broader State Department review of whether the pipeline is in the U.S.'s overall national interest, and then, finally, a decision by Obama himself.
In this process, the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project (or the KXL EIR for short) serves primarily as fodder for that final decision. The report released Friday largely concludes that Keystone won't really make a difference to the climate or the environment -- which means that it gives Obama one more excuse to say "yes" to the pipeline and one fewer to say "no."
To those interested in trying to stop -- or at least slow down -- climate change, the 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, which was dubbed “Hopenhagen” before it began, is remembered today as “Brokenhagen.” The summit’s failure to come to any kind of agreement was a key factor in pushing climate change activists away from working within governmental channels and towards direct action fights, like Keystone.
Why did Brokenhagen happen? Was it just a clash of expectations? Too many cooks in the climate accord kitchen? Was it bad behavior by China? The U.N.? The Senate?
Now we can add one other potential culprit to the Agatha Christie mystery that was Copenhagen: spying.
From the beginning, negotiators told the Danish newspaper Information, the Americans in Copenhagen seemed to know too much. “I was often completely taken aback by what they knew,” an anonymous member of the Danish negotiating team told the paper.
The first time I ever heard of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was from a friend who had gone to Immokalee, the region in South Florida where most of the tomatoes of the eastern seaboard are grown, on a volunteer trip. He came back depressed. People were living in circumstances that were not unlike (and in several cases fit the technical definition of) slavery, and they had for generations. People struggled. Nothing changed.
The next time I heard about the CIW, it was because they had changed something, and changed it big. After years of collaborating with federal slavery investigations and pressuring tomato growers for better wages and living conditions, the CIW had decided that the entire system needed to be reformed. Tomato growers didn’t get paid enough to pay fair wages. The federal, state, and local governments, on their own, were not capable of policing the kind of labor violations that were going on.
And so they developed a new plan: convince the biggest tomato buyers to pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes, most of which would be funneled back into worker’s wages; and create an independent certification organization -- The Fair Food Standards Council -- that would handle labor violations.
They set their sights on their first target -- Taco Bell -- and won. With pressure, other companies began to sign the agreements too. Back in Immokalee, they rallied themselves by staging boxing matches where a farmworker punched out competitors wearing the logos of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods. Last year, the United Nations brought a delegation from the CIW to Geneva to speak about its successes to the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. And earlier this month, Walmart, the CIW’s biggest catch yet, sat down and signed the agreement too, without the CIW’s even needing to mount a public campaign pressuring it to do so.
How did such an improbable thing come to pass? And what can we, like the U.N., learn from their example?
The CIW was founded by a group of farmworkers and organizers in Immokalee, Fla. in 1993. Among them was Greg Asbed, a Brown grad who had gone to work at Florida Rural Legal Services. Recently, I talked with Asbed to try to answer these questions.
Q.You have an independent certifying body. Why, do you have that, and not a union? Other than the fact that unions aren’t doing too well?
A. We don’t have the right to unionize. California has a state labor relations act for agricultural workers but agricultural workers everywhere else are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and you just can’t organize without fear of losing your job. That’s just been the reality forever. So as a farmworker, you’ve always had to find some other way to do things.
But we’ve always been different. The people who formed the organization didn’t grow up in union families. They came from peasant movements in Haiti and Guatemala. They organized in the way that they knew how.
Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., Keystone XL South was supposed to begin piping tar sands crude from Cushing, Okla. to refineries in Texas. That's what the pipeline's builder, Transcanada, had announced.
The pumps that keep crude moving through the pipeline were running last Thursday, as TransCanada performed last-minute tests of the system. But on Friday they went silent, according to observers in the area, and so far it looks like they haven’t started up since.
“Last week we heard info from two different sources that they had a major leak," says Kathy DaSilva, of Nacogdoches, Texas, who has been involved in the fight around KXL South for the last three years. “But we have not been able to verify or find where the leak was.”
Leaks are a big concern for DaSilva. While the national campaign against Keystone XL was framed as a climate change issue, regionally, it was about water. When TransCanada split Keystone into two pipelines -- North (which crossed the Canadian border, and which Obama has yet to approve) and South (which crossed several states, but no borders, and therefore needed no presidential approval, but then somehow mysteriously got it anyway) -- attention shifted to the Obama/Romney race, and KXL arguably became a regional issue again.
But: It’s a big region. The Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, which the pipeline passes through, supplies drinking water to 60 counties in Texas. This summer, people living along the path of the pipeline noticed that segments that had been completed and buried six months ago were being dug up and replaced. The replacements were impelled by “an abundance of caution” at Transcanada, a spokesperson said. TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling called it “the safest oil pipeline built in America to date.” DaSilva has her doubts.
How does real political change happen? Jeanne Rizzo has spent decades figuring that out -- but not along any typical route. First a psychiatric nurse, then a concert hall manager and film, music, and theater producer, she gradually became more and more involved in the Breast Cancer Fund -- a national nonprofit that is unusual in focusing on investigating what causes breast cancer rather than how to cure it.
Recently, Rizzo spoke to me about how a music producer gets pulled into the world of legislative politics -- and how she figures out what to do when she gets there.
Q.You ran the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and worked as a music and film producer. How did you go from that to President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund?
A. Right -- that’s a progression you wouldn’t expect to see on a resume. I started out as a nurse. I always did some pro bono volunteer work. I did a lot of work around AIDS. I held benefits at the Great American Music Hall. Later, many of the women who stepped up and volunteered to help with the AIDS epidemic began getting breast cancer diagnoses, so I began to work around that too.
Andrea Martin, who founded the Breast Cancer Fund, asked me to be on the board, and while I was there I did things like get the fund to go on the road with Lilith Fair. The whole time I was learning more, getting more into the science around breast cancer. I kept my nursing license up. Science doesn’t scare me. I know how to read a study.
Then, in 2001, I was at a board meeting and Andrea, the founder -- something clearly wasn’t right. I took her to the hospital and it was a brain tumor. She lived for another two years, but she was never able to work again.
I told the board, I will stay on and manage this for three months, and then you have to find someone else. Then I said, “Okay. I’ll stay for 18 months. After 18 months I won’t be here anymore." We had a lot of missions back then. I cut out most of them and focused ours on the environment -- the possible causes of cancer. To me it was obvious that we ought to be investing more in prevention.
Back in the olden days of 2011, when America was young and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” was a song that not everyone had gotten sick of yet, one of the most compelling criticisms leveled against the Keystone XL pipeline protesters went like this: There is oil in the Alberta tar sands. Pretty cheap stuff – about $30 less a barrel than what you can buy overseas. There are people in the U.S., which is not far from this oil, who will pay money for it so they can drive to their jobs or the grocery store or wherever else they …
Back in December, I wrote about the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (a.k.a. the TPP), a trade agreement whose passage is both a firmly stated goal of the Obama administration, and a great nightmare of environmentalists and civil liberties types, for a whole smorgasbord of reasons. Now there's a new development: A leaked draft of the environmental chapter of the TPP appeared Wednesday on Wikileaks.
The main environmental critique of the TPP up until this point was that it would open up the U.S. to lawsuits from companies that had investments in American companies. Under the terms of a draft of the investments chapter, which was leaked back in 2011, any company that did business with the U.S. could argue, under the terms of the treaty, that our environmental laws were interfering with its ability to make money. The lawsuits, which are judged by special treaty-tribunal, don't allow for any sort of appeal, and the records are not available to the public.
Just about every treaty since NAFTA has had an agreement like this, but the U.S. has largely been insulated from its effects -- in the past, it always entered into these treaties with countries that were either too poor to have American investments or just not interested in them. The TPP would include Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand, Brunei, and possibly China. So it would shift a power balance that has, however unfairly, been tilted in the U.S.'s favor.
People had hopes, if not especially high ones, for the environmental chapter. The Obama administration had claimed that it would address some cutting-edge environmental issues. It was also thought to be a fairly pragmatic rehash of a Bush-era bipartisan trade deal drawn up between the U.S., Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Korea. That deal established a mutual agreement between all countries to work together to stop illegal logging, trade in endangered species, and overfishing, and to subject anyone found in violation to trade sanctions until they came into compliance.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grassroots movement rarely catches the attention of the media until a car is on fire.
There were several cars on fire on Oct. 17, 2013, and for a few days the world was interested in what was happening in a remote part of New Brunswick. Media attention moved on, as it does, but the story it left behind is worth revisiting.
Partly, it's just a great tale -- of how a small First Nations tribe allied with locals and faraway sympathizers to throw a major wrench into a big energy company's plans to explore for natural gas. Beyond that, it's also representative of a host of new regional battles over pipelines, rail networks, and refineries across the U.S. and Canada. They're being fought by small bands of people who, in may cases, do not even consider themselves environmentalists. Together, they have large implications for global energy markets and climate change.
In 2013, the effort to remove flame retardant chemicals from most of the furniture we sit on scored a big environmental win. But the road to victory was anything but direct. In fact, just two years ago, it looked like we'd never get there.
In the spring of 2011, on what was just another day in the life of the California Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development, a band of scientists, politicians, activists, and policy wonks showed up at a hearing, once again, on the matter of changing California’s 1970s-era fire safety standards. Their argument: Eliminating the requirement that every sofa be treated with toxic flame retardant was not a ploy to make more fires, but one to make babies less stupid.
Since 1975, any furniture sold in California has had to be filled with material that, when exposed to an open flame, resists catching fire for a minimum of 12 seconds. While there were some stuffings, like wool, that passed the test on their own, they were so expensive that most people wanted to do things like wear them on their bodies instead of put them into furniture and sit on them. The polyurethane foam that forms the padding of most sofas did not pass the test. It needed a little help. Specifically, it needed to be soaked in flame retardant.
That is the story of how nearly every sofa sold in California came to contain between four and five pounds of flame-retardant chemicals, many of which had already been banned for other uses. Since California is the 12th largest economy in the world, this is also the story of how almost all furniture intended for sale in the U.S. came to be made in compliance with California standards, whether it wound up there or not.
Predicting the future is a tricky business. In 1873, the Decatur Republican predicted that we would all be frozen to death by the year 2011. In 1906, the New Zealand Star wrote that in 2006, "people will be so avid of every moment of life, life will be so full of busy delight, that ... we shall be impatient of the minor tasks of every day. The bath of the next century will lave the body speedily with oxgenated water, delivered with a force that will render rubbing unnecessary." I grew up around people who were convinced that the world would end in the year 2000. Some of them have never fully recovered from that tremendous disappointment.