Columnist Marty Nathan: Urgent battle for the environment

  • In this Aug. 30, 2011, photo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive, smile during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. President-elect Donald Trump selected Tillerson to lead the State Department.  AP FILE PHOTO 

Published: 1/2/2017 7:28:22 PM

“This is one of those hinge moments in human history, and, actually, in planetary history, too. I’m not sure there’s ever been one quite like it.” — Bill McKibben

Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry and Ryan Zinke: what do they have in common?

First, of course, they have all been chosen by Donald Trump as Cabinet members in his administration. Second, they all benefit from gas, oil and coal company largesse. Third, not surprisingly, all are climate change deniers or minimizers. And fourth, they constitute major players in a fossil fuel coup d’etat that threatens the survival of life on Earth.

Early on it looked like the worst possible Trump cabinet pick from an environmental standpoint was Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who received $318,000 from the energy industry since 2002, says “scientists disagree” about climate change.

With fossil fuel companies and other Republican state attorneys general, Pruitt has sued the Obama administration’s EPA for its Clean Power Plan and other rules intended to fight global warming. Unable to get a Republican-controlled Congress to address climate change, Obama had crafted EPA regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, mainly by power plants.

Pruitt is so close to the fossil fuel industry that he has been caught allowing energy lobbyists to write letters to the federal government on his official stationery. In return, Harold Hamm, the chief executive of Continental Energy, became co-chairman of Mr. Pruitt’s 2013 re-election campaign. Continental supplies the oil that is intended to run through the Dakota Access Pipeline, now blocked by protests led by the Lakota Sioux.

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump reiterated his desire to eliminate the EPA. Scott Pruitt is known as a smart lawyer and he seems to be the man who can do it. As EPA head, it is not unlikely that he will eviscerate it and devolve its powers to the states, many of which, like Oklahoma, have cozy relationships to the companies who drill and dig.

Pruitt seemed the poster child for corporate corruption of U.S. energy policy. But even the most cynical critics could not have predicted the nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson is the fossil fuel industry, the head of the largest producer of oil and gas in the world. Exxon scientists had studied global warming in the 1970s and ‘80s and then, recognizing its corporate self-interest, launched a climate change denial operation that stymied for decades the movement to cut carbon emissions.

Tillerson himself does not outright deny human-caused climate change, but, in the interest of political expediency, has said that we should not move “too fast” to stop emissions.

Tillerson himself authored a grand deal between Exxon and Vladimir Putin’s state oil company Rosneft, worth $500 billion, the largest energy deal in history. Exxon was to drill and pump oil and gas from under 64 million acres of the Russian Arctic, an area larger than all the Exxon leases in the United States.

The problem is, it was developed before the American and international sanctions that greeted Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014. The deal was nixed, a big blow to both Exxon and Putin.

But as of Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be able to lift the American sanctions burdening his Russian friends. Rex Tillerson will be deal-maker-in-chief, able to reach out and pressure countries around the world to drop their sanctions and, just perhaps, buy his company’s Russian oil.

The nominations of ex-Texas Governor Rick Perry as energy secretary and, most recently, Montana freshman Congressman Ryan Zinke only reinforce the theme.

Perry has taken over $13 million from big oil and gas over the course of his career and, of course, for him, human-caused climate change is “a contrived, phony mess.” He sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners that is building the protested Dakota Access Pipeline.

He will head an agency that he has said should be eliminated, that among other things oversees federal renewable energy programs. He said in 2015 he opposed extending the federal tax credit for wind power. Add Perry’s positions to the Trump transition team’s questionnaire to Energy Department employees about attendance at meetings about climate change and money spent on loan-guarantee programs for renewable energy, and there arises a convincing argument that renewables will not be the purview of the new Energy Department.

Zinke, the pick for interior secretary, has already received over $300,000 from fossil fuel interests in his short career. He states that climate change is “not proven science,” supports logging and coal mining on federal lands and opposes the Endangered Species Act.

Leading environmentalists have described our struggle to prevent the coming heat, drought, rising seas, and megastorms of climate cataclysm as a “war.” Some find the analogy uncomfortable, but it conveys the urgency of the work at hand to avoid the major tipping points in release of greenhouse gases that will proceed independent of all our efforts.

At least 80 percent of the fossil fuels now in the ground must be left there, and we must make a massive energy conversion to conservation and renewable energy in the next decade.

Following the war analogy, the Trump Administration’s coup d’etat has substituted enemy generals to lead our troops, men dedicated instead to drilling and burning every single carbon molecule now resting under land or sea around the world.

We, the soldiers, now must use every means at hand to prevent the disaster that they are forging. We must work together on the local and state level to convert our energy system to conservation and renewables, and in the process cleaning our air and creating jobs.

We must come together as the massive national majority we are to reject every means to exploit and pollute the commons — land, water and air — for private profit.

Specifically, there must be no more drilling or mining on public lands or offshore, no more new fossil fuel infrastructure like the DAPL and KXL pipelines.

The task is more difficult now, but it must be done, and the doing will create a movement that renews our democracy and our commitment to each other.

Marty Nathan, MD, is a mother and grandmother who lives in Northampton and works at Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield’s North End. She is a steering committee member of Climate Action NOW.

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