They’re All Doing It

The Bi-Partisan Politics of Oil: Crude Alliance

Soon after John Kerry had sewed up the delegates needed to seize the Democratic nomination for president in the spring of 2004, he huddled for two hours with James Hoffa, Jr., the noxious boss of the Teamsters union. The topic was oil. The Teamsters wanted more of it at cheaper prices. They had suspicions about Kerry. After all, the senator had already won the backing of the Sierra Club, who touted him as the most environmentally enlightened member of the US senate.

Hoffa emerged from the meeting sporting a shark-like grin. Hoffa and the Teamsters have long pushed for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and for the construction of a natural gas pipeline to cut across some of the wildest land in North America from the tundra of Alaska to Chicago. “Kerry says, look, I am against drilling in ANWR, but I am going to put that pipeline in, and we’re going to drill like never before,” Hoffa reported. “They are going to drill all over, according to him. And he says, we’re going to be drilling all over the United States.”

Kerry didn’t stop to comment. He slipped out the door and into a waiting SUV. Don’t worry, Kerry later assured worried greens, it’s not his gas-guzzling, hydro-carbon belching behemoth. It belongs to his…family. (Apparently, this means he can’t take out a loan on the vehicle for his campaign.) Still, the senator’s not a total hypocrite on this count. After all, Kerry voted against ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming.

The Bush administration has been aptly pegged as a petroarchy. It isn’t so-much under the sway of Big Oil as it is, well, infested top to bottom with oil operatives, starting with the president and vice president. Eight cabinet members and the National Security Advisor directly from executive jobs in the oil industry, as did 32 other Bush-appointed officials in the Office of Management and Budget, Pentagon, State Department, and the departments of Energy, Agriculture and, most crucially in terms of opening up what remains of the American wilderness to the drillers, Interior.

The point man in the Bush’s administration’s oil raid on the public estate was Steve J. Griles, Gale Norton’s top lieutenant at the Interior Department and an intimate of the super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. As Deputy Secretary of Interior, Griles was the man who held the keys to the nation’s oil and mineral reserves. Since he landed this prized position, he used those keys to unlock nearly every legal barrier to exploitation, opening the public lands to a carnival of corporate plunder. He became the toast of Texas. But now Griles is hiding out from reporters and congressional investigators after accounts of his ongoing sleazy relationships with his former associates in big oil have begun to ooze out into the open.

From the time he took his oath of office, Griles was a congressional investigation waiting to happen. The former coal industry flack was one of Bush’s most outrageous appointments, an arrogant booster of the very energy cartel he was meant to regulate. His track record could not be given even the slightest green gloss. A veteran of the Reagan administration, Griles schemed closely with disgraced Interior Secretary James Watt to open the public lands of the West to unfettered access by oil and mining companies, many of whom funded Watt’s strange outpost of divinely-inspired environmental exploitation, the Mountain States Legal Center.

As Deputy Director of Surface Mining, Griles gutted strip-mining regulations and was a relentless booster of the oil-shale scheme, one of the most outlandish giveaways and environmental blunders of the last century. He also pushed to overturn the popular moratorium on off shore oil drilling on the Pacific Coast, a move of such extreme zealotry in the service of big oil that it even caught Reagan off guard.

After leaving public office, Griles quickly cashed in on his iniquitous tenure in government by launching a DC lobbying firm called J. Stephen Griles and Associations. He soon drummed up a list of clients including Arch Coal, the American Gas Association, National Mining Association, Occidental Petroleum, Pittston Coal and more than 40 other gas, mining and energy concerns, big and small, foreign and domestic.

Then Griles was tapped as Gale Norton’s chief deputy at Interior. After contentious senate hearings that exposed his various and lucrative entanglements with the oil and gas industry, Griles was finally confirmed to office on July 7, 2001. He later signed two separate statements agreeing to recuse himself from direct involvement any Interior Deparment matters that might involve his former clients. He has since flouted both of those agreements, as disclosed by his own calendar of meetings, liberated through a Freedom of Information Act filing made by Friends of the Earth.

As the calendar and meeting notes reveal, Griles has used the cover of the 9/11 attacks and the war on Iraq to advance his wholesale looting of the public domain for the benefit of some of his former clients and business cronies. He has pushed for rollbacks in environmental standards for air and water; advocated increased oil and gas drilling on public lands; tried to exempt the oil industry from royalty payments; and sought to create new loopholes in regulations governing stripmining.

Griles wasted no time compiling a wish list from his pals. Within days of assuming office, Griles convened a series of parleys between his former clients and Interior Department officials to chart a gameplan for accelerating mining, oil leasing and coal-methane extraction from public lands. Between August of 2001 and January 2004, Griles met at least 7 times with former clients; 15 times with companies represented by his former client the National Mining Association; on at least 16 occasions he arranged meetings between himself, former clients, and other administration officials to discuss rollback of air pollution standards for power plants, oil refineries and industrial boilers; on 12 occasions he arranged similar meetings between regulators and former clients regarding coal mining.

But it now turns out that not only was Griles shilling for his former clients, he was also pushing policies that will also plump up his own pocketbook. Griles was an ownership partner in a DC lobbying firm called National Environmental Strategies, a polluter’s lobby founded in 1990 by Marc Himmelstein and Haley Barbour. Barbour soon left the firm to become head of the Republican National Committee. Griles moved in.

When he was nominated as deputy secretary of Interior, Griles was forced to sell his interest in the firm for $1.1 million , and he fixed up aq deal with Himmelstein, a friend and Republican powerbroker. Instead of paying Griles off in a lump sum, Himmelstein will pay the Bush official $284,000 each year over the next four years. Griles claimed he arranged this kind of payment plan so as not to leave NES “strapped for cash.”

But in effect Griles remained financially tied to the health of Himmelstein’s firm. And, in fact, Himmelstein has admitted that from 2002 to 2004 he and Griles had gotten together several times over beers and dinner.

As these pungent episodes from Grile’s tenure at Interior reveal, the Bush administration’s fatal flaw has been its inclination to over-reach, such as when the Interior Department, at the prodding of politically tone-deaf Dick Cheney, unveiled a plan to offer oil leases off the coast of Florida. The president’s brother, Jeb, shot the plan down. A similar blunder occurred in California, where new off-shore leasing had been banned since the oil spills of the 1970s. The Bush administration floated a plan for new leases off the coast of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. The backed down after the scheme met with resistance from the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still these should be viewed as probbing raids, testing the tenacity of the opposition, while the real opportunities for plunder were being pursued in more compliant terrain, where the door had already been opened by the Clinton administration.

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