Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The Tillerson confirmation hearing reminded me at times of hearings for Supreme Court justices in that Tillerson refused to answer the vast majority of questions about his views or what he would do as Secretary of State. At the same time, he gave plenty of evidence that he would be a disastrous Secretary of State. Here are some specific pieces that jumped out:

1. Tillerson claimed that Exxon did not lobby against sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Sen. Corker interrupted to note that, actually, Tillerson had called him personally to discuss sanctions. When Sen. Menendez later confronted Tillerson with records showing that Exxon lobbied on the sanctions, Tillerson still claimed ignorance, saying he didn’t even know whether the company would have lobbied for or against the sanctions. This is damning for Tillerson because there are only two possibilities: Either he is lying, or he is a shockingly poor manager – someone who was unaware of his company’s position on an issue of enormous importance, sanctions that compromised a $500 billion oil exploration deal. AP did a good fact check on his statements.

2. On climate change:

Tillerson continued to dispute and deny settled climate science, claiming to Sen. Markey that it’s “inconclusive” that climate change makes extreme weather more likely.

Sen. Kaine set out to grill Tillerson on climate denial — and particularly allegations that Exxon knew fossil fuels cause global warming as early as the 1970s and yet to this day is funding groups that deny and cast doubt on climate science. He quickly hit a dead end because Tillerson simply refused to answer whether those allegations are true or false. His first line was that he no longer works for Exxon and the question would have to be put to them. When Sen. Kaine asked, “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Tillerson responded, “A little bit of both.”

Tillerson refused to say that the U.S. should be an international leader on climate. He said only that we should keep “a seat at the table.”

In response to Sen. Shaheen’s question about complying with international agreements to end subsidies for fossil fuels, Tillerson said he wasn’t aware of any U.S. fossil fuel subsidies. Only tax code provisions that apply to all industries. Another place he strangely lacks key knowledge about his own company and industry.

Tillerson told Sen. Markey that he doesn’t think climate change is an imminent security threat. That might be the most disqualifying thing he said all day. We can’t have a Secretary of State who doesn’t take seriously the most terrible threat to U.S. security.

3. Tillerson refused to answer countless questions about bad international actors — for example whether Putin is a war criminal for bombing civilians in Syria and whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s well-documented extrajudicial killings constitute human rights violations. He dodged every question, no matter how well-known the underlying facts, by saying he needed access to classified government information before he could render a judgment. I don’t recall a single instance in which Tillerson was willing to say that someone has engaged in human rights abuses or is war criminal. It’s not my area of expertise, but I thought he come across as ill-informed (if not simply unconcerned about serious problems in the world) and overly reliant on a pre-fabricated dodge that was often a poor fit for the question he was being asked.

Since President-elect Donald Trump announced his choice of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, people have been speculating about how Tillerson and Exxon might deal with an ethics problem: Tillerson has around $180 million worth of Exxon stock that will vest over the next decade. He can’t hold on to it if he becomes Secretary of State because that would create a clear conflict of interest: He’d have a strong interest in boosting Exxon’s stock value.

Yesterday, Exxon and Tillerson struck a deal that media outlets are characterizing as severing Tillerson’s ties with the company. The basic terms are that Tillerson’s non-vested stock will be cashed out and the money placed in an irrevocable trust, with a slight discount, from which Tillerson will receive payments over 10 years. If he goes back to work in the oil and gas industry within 10 years, he forfeits the remaining money and it goes to a charity of the trustee’s choosing. In other words, Tillerson gets payments over time that aren’t linked to Exxon’s performance, and he has a strong incentive not to go back to his industry, so he won’t favor it while in office.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

We found a discrepancy in the documents Exxon filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The filling contains two agreements, one between Exxon and Tillerson, and one between Exxon and Northern Trust Company, which will serve as the trustee. The contract between Exxon and Tillerson says the CEO will forfeit all remaining assets in the trust if he works for the oil and gas industry in the next 10 years. But Exxon’s agreement with the trustee says that Tillerson forfeits the trust assets if he engages in “competitive” employment in the oil and gas industry – in other words, employment with any company other than Exxon.

So which is it?

The difference matters. If, under the trust agreement’s terms, Tillerson can continue to receive payments if he returns to work for Exxon during the next ten years, but not if he works for any other oil or gas company, then he retains a strong interest in Exxon. Not only would he want Exxon to perform well during his tenure as secretary of state, he’d have an incentive to advance the interests of the only company in the field where he could work – and still receive the huge trust payments – over the next ten years. That’s a far cry from eliminating his interest in the company.

Senators should ask some tough questions about this deal at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.

 

Note: Under Exxon’s current policies, the company couldn’t re-hire Tillerson as an employee because it has a mandatory retirement age of 65. But the company presumably could hire him as a consultant or contractor.

While many Americans are signing up for a gym membership or vowing to read for fun, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is at it again with a slew of resolutions for the new year that, while they may line the pockets of Big Business and the very rich, promise nothing but trouble for the rest of us and the planet we call home. Without further ado, our list of the Chamber’s new year’s resolutions for 2017:

1. Shed those last few pounds regulations

 Now that several Chamber alums are occupying key spots on the transition team, the Chamber has set its sights on kicking off the new year with a rollback of federal regulations. The Chamber will continue to flex its dark money-fueled muscle in the hard-fought battle to pass the Midnight Rules Relief Act (MRAA). The MRAA would allow Congress to revoke a plethora of public protections under the Congressional Review Act with just one vote. This would have severe consequences for our health, safety and economic security and the Chamber’s support of the MRAA demonstrates once again that it sides with big corporations’ bottom lines over people’s well being. Also making the top of the Chamber’s resolution list is the passage of the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) which would add dozens of new requirements to the regulatory process and would allow non-expert judges to second-guess the decisions made by an agency’s technical experts, thereby giving industry additional opportunities to attack public protections. New year, same deceptively named legislation!

2. Get Outdoors While You Still Can

While we don’t know if 2017 will finally be the year the Chamber makes up its mind on the science of climate change, we do know that its list of resolutions includes killing the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Chamber is also advocating to undo the Clean Water Rule, designed to protect streams and wetlands, and by extension, our drinking water. And if that wasn’t enough, the Chamber is also fighting to reverse President Obama’s decision to close much of the Atlantic and Arctic basins to offshore drilling. If the Chamber gets its wish, the great outdoors may not be so great anymore.

3. Spend Less Money…On Workers

The Chamber has yet again resolved to stand up for the interests of very wealthy individuals at the expense of hardworking Americans. The Chamber will continue to oppose an increase in the minimum wage and implementation of the overtime rule that would make millions of middle income Americans eligible for overtime pay. The Chamber also intends to stiff hardworking Americans by asking for a repeal of several other Obama administration Executive Orders, including (but certainly not limited to!) the Establishing Paid Sick Leave for Federal Contractors EO, which provide workers at companies doing business with the federal government the opportunity to earn up to 7 days of paid sick leave per year. New year, but no new money in your paycheck!

4. Get Organized Unorganized

Just like some of us resolve every year to spend less money eating out or to stop smoking, the Chamber resolves every year to weaken unions and the protections they offer workers. In 2017, the Chamber has resolved to continue pushing laws weakening unions, seeking to build on “victories” in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. New year, same war against unions!

5. Party Like it’s 2007

Ain’t no party like a financial crisis party! In keeping with its role as a lobbyist for Wall Street, the Chamber will continue its fight to roll back the Dodd-Frank Act,  passed in the wake of the financial crisis as a way to prevent future financial crises. Dodd-Frank instituted a host of consumer protections as well as limits on reckless risk taking by banks. One important part of Dodd-Frank that the Chamber adamantly opposes is the Volcker Rule which prohibits big banks from using depositors’ funds for proprietary bets. The Chamber will also continue to oppose the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s efforts to combat unfair forced arbitration clauses and class action bans.  These “rip-off” clauses prevent consumers from having their day in court and offer big corporations another way to avoid accountability for corporate wrongdoing as the recent Wells Fargo scandal has shown. Another safeguard that the Chamber seeks to eliminate in 2017 is the fiduciary rule, which protects retirement savers from greedy financial advisors. New year, same defense of Wall Street greed!

So while many of us are wondering if we can really make it to the weekend without a drink or just how far into February our other resolutions will last, we should be more concerned that the Chamber is working to strip us of public protections, all while destroying the only planet we’ve got. Perhaps we should add a resolution to our list: oppose the U.S. Chamber’s harmful agenda.

If you’d like to learn more about the Chamber, you can always visit us on www.chamberofcommercewatch.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Each day this week we’ll be highlighting some of the anti-regulatory bills that Public Citizen and our allies have been pushing back against this fall.

Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act (or the “Stiff the Victims Act”) – passed on Sept. 7, 2016

Photo courtesy Johan Jonk Stenström/Flick under CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

After the 2008 financial crisis, one of the ways that big banks made amends was by providing funding to over 2,000 organizations that provide counseling on housing or legal aid to communities.

Letting third parties, like nonprofit organizations, provide relief is crucial when injured individuals are hard to identify or harm is difficult to monetize. This was certainly the case in the housing crisis and also common when there are ecological impacts or public health hazards caused by violations of environmental laws.

In an effort to shield industry from paying settlements that compensate injured parties, conservatives drafted the misnamed Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act (H.R. 5063). H.R. 5063 would cut off any kind of payment to third parties, other than direct forms of payment for “actual harm.” The bill aims to prohibit settlement agreements where the United States is a party from including certain payment terms to non-federal actors, also known as third-party payments. In order to make sure victims are properly compensated, settlement terms that result from a federal enforcement action sometimes include payments to third parties to advance programs that assist with recovery, benefits and relief for communities harmed by lawbreakers if a court finds that such payments further the objectives of the enforcement action.

H.R. 5063 would undermine law enforcement goals by reducing the availability of suitable remedies to address these kinds of injuries to the public caused by illegal conduct. This bill is a gift to industry lawbreakers that comes at the expense of families and communities impacted by injuries that cannot be addressed by direct payments but whose suffering still deserves compensation.

Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and several others are introducing a resolution that links the current denial of climate science to the campaigns by tobacco companies and chemical and lead companies to deny the now well-known harms of tobacco and lead products (primarily lead paint and leaded gasoline). Today and tomorrow, nineteen senators are taking to the Senate floor to speak out on the network of climate denial groups. Follow and support the effort with #WebofDenial and #TimetoCallOut.

You can become a citizen co-sponsor of the resolution here.

Here’s my statement on the effort:

We applaud Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and others who are calling attention to the web of denial surrounding the harms from fossil fuels. They are right to draw parallels between the campaign of deception on climate science and those on tobacco and lead products. Climate denial follows a script written by Big Tobacco and the chemical and lead industries: Fund a network of phony think tanks, research institutes and policy shops to sell lies and distortions, foster doubt and stall solutions to clear, immediate dangers to public health.

There is one major difference. If left unchecked, climate change will be far more terrible. Tobacco and lead products have killed or poisoned millions. Today’s climate deniers risk much more terrible harm: heat, drought, famine, disease, mass migration and violent conflict on a scale that threatens human civilization as we know it. If the deniers have their way, they even risk human extinction.

We wholly support senators who are calling out climate denial as the despicably immoral action that it is – and those who are working to mitigate catastrophic climate change by moving the U.S. quickly to a 21st century, zero-carbon energy infrastructure. That shift will create jobs, stimulate the economy, lower energy prices for consumers and, most important, help us preserve our own habitats and civilization.

There may be no greater patriotism in American today than fighting climate change, and no greater disservice than denying the problem and stalling solutions.

And here’s a shareable graphic from our patriotic friends at Desmogblog:

 

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