Truthout Stories Sun, 05 Jul 2015 19:18:02 -0400 en-gb US Caravan to Cuba Carries on History of Solidarity Across the Black Diaspora

A car dashboard of a cuban taxi with a taxi libre sign and a US flag in Havana, Cuba.A car dashboard of a cuban taxi with a "taxi libre" sign and a US flag in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: dubes sonego /“We act not just in defiance of our government, but in obedience to our conscience,” declared Rev. Lucius Walker, founder of IFCO, the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization and initiator of the group’s shipments of medical supplies to Cuba. This year’s Friendshipment Cuba Caravan is once again defying the US embargo of the island that “has produced one of the healthiest and most educated communities across the globe.”

This interview took place at the historic Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC.  I interviewed Gail Walker, Executive Director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace during the official launch of the 26th Friendshipment Cuba Caravan.  The Caravan, with volunteers (called caravanistas) and material support for Cuba will travel throughout the United States en route to Cuba. In Cuba, the caravanistas will engage in community support activities and provide material support to aid Cuba’s health and education sectors.  In this two-part interview, I explore the role of Ms. Walker’s father, the late Reverend Lucius Walker, Jr., a monumental figure in both the US and Latin America human rights movements. I also explored the history of IFCO and Pastors for Peace. 

Marsha Coleman-AdebayoWhat was the impetus for the creation of IFCO – the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization /Pastors for Peace?

Gail Walker:  IFCO, as an organization, got its start in 1967. It was organized by faith leaders and community activists interested in fighting for social justice. It was organized by people motivated by their faith, people of conscience who felt that there must be ways that people could creatively respond to injustice. Community organizing is in its name and the organization is focused on mobilizing the community to respond to inequity. 

Pastors for Peace is a project of IFCO that began in 1988 when IFCO organized a study delegation to Nicaragua that was attacked by Nicaraguan Contra. In that attack the Director of the organization, my father, Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., was one of 29 people that were wounded.  He conceived of the Pastors for Peace project as a way to respond to that act of terrorism. He began to organize caravans that would allow the people of the US to collect and deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Nicaragua and to serve as an alternative people’s foreign policy. We began to organize the caravan for Nicaragua and ultimately, in 1992, we began to work in Cuba.  Our work in Cuba is similar to the work we did in Nicaragua because of the long-standing embargo or blockade that was in effect.  But the Pastors for Peace program had its early start in 1988 and it continues today.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo Why is IFCO important to African-Americans?

Gail Walker: IFCO has always been an organization concerned about the plight of Black people in the diaspora, whether that is in the US or globally.  People of color are often victims of social inequity/social injustice and that is something that IFCO has been historically concerned about. It’s the first national organization that was led by people of color that organized to fight against social injustice so this has always been a part of IFCO’s mission – its reason for being. It’s very much at the center of much of the work that we do.

Marsha Coleman-AdebayoDoes Pastors for Peace only operate in Cuba or does your work extend to other Latin American countries?

Gail Walker: IFCO works on the local, national and international levels. We continue to operate on all of those various levels. We not only work in Cuba but in various parts of Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean and we continue to look at ways of expanding our mission.  IFCO is prepared to recognize ways in which we might be supportive of the fight against injustice wherever it might be. 

Marsha Coleman-AdebayoHow does the Caravan work across the country and what is the political importance of connecting communities in the US?

Gail Walker:  IFCO has organized the Caravans as a way to work with various communities across different parts of the country.  The Caravans travel along different routes from the north to the south, stopping in different communities, talking about whatever the issue of the day might be and collecting people and aid in an effort to allow people to speak directly to the impact of their work related to Cuba.  For example, the work of the folks in New York may be different than the work of the people in LA or Atlanta. It’s a way to allow local activists to express their own solidarity with Cuba in a way that resonates with the work and issues that are most prevalent in those communities.  So we don’t dictate to communities how to support the caravan initiative but we hope that there are ways in which they make connections between the issues that they are concerned with and the ways that Cuba has provided an example of how to address.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo Why did the United States government, in 1960, decide to blockade Cuba?  After all, the US government has created different modalities in China, Russia and other countries?

Gail Walker: There are so many ways to address this question.  Cuba is certainly not a threat to the US government. It’s often said that Cuba is the threat of a good idea.  Cuba is a nation that has shown, through its example, how to address the issue of health disparity, how to address the issue of illiteracy – ways that we might look at the environment and how we can be good stewards of the earth.  There are countless ways that Cuba has put forth ways to think differently about these various issues.  Cuba, from its inception had determined that it was a revolution that had a socialist perspective and they weren’t afraid to name it that.

There was a resistance to Cuba’s self-identification as socialist and that became a flashpoint for some people within the US government.  I think we also have to look at the fact, that at the same time, there were claims that Cuba was directing missiles towards the US, during the so-called US-Cuba missile crisis.  There were missiles that the US was directing towards Turkey, so it was a time during the cold war when tensions were high.  But, often we only hear one side of that story. But, all of that has led the US government to punish Cuba and the US blockade of Cuba has become the longest and most abusive form of collective punishment. We are grateful that there is finally a shift, a sea change, a rethinking of the best ways for there to be relations between the US and Cuba.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo How has the blockade impacted the public health sector in Cuba?

Gail Walker:  The blockade has prevented the ability of Cuba to have a free exchange of services.  As a result of the blockade there is a loss of income and these are resources that could have been used to enhance Cuba in the areas of health or education. But, remarkably, in spite of the longest and most egregious blockade in history Cuba has been able to withstand all of those pressures and continue to put an emphasis on health and education and has produced one of the healthiest and most educated communities across the globe. 

Marsha Coleman-AdebayoWe wish you a productive and safe mission to Cuba.  We hope that communities across the country will provide the Caravan with the necessary material support to demonstrate our solidarity with ending the blockade in Cuba.


Part II of this interview will explore the US-funded contra attack on an IFCO mission to Nicaragua as well as Pastors for Peace work with the Latin American School of Medicine.  The Caravan will leave Sunday, July 5th to travel across the country on its way to Cuba.  Please see Caravan route link below and support this effort.

For more information and to contribute to the work of IFCO and Pastors for Peace, please see:

to see caravan routes:

See a documentary on Cuba’s health system -  Salud!:

News Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Can the 2016 Election Be About Making It Work for US Families?

As election season heats up, it’s encouraging to see not only education policy in general, but early childhood education, in particular, getting serious attention. With New York City leading the way, and cities from Boston to Seattle and San Antonio working toward universal pre-k, it’s becoming clear that it is, indeed, possible to scale up quality prekindergarten programs fairly quickly. We must anticipate bumps in the road, and pay close attention to ensure sustained quality. But the bottom line is that these public investments are both wise and workable.

Given the rapid changes in our country’s demographics in recent years, however, and shockingly high rates of child and community poverty, conversations about early childhood investments need to be ratcheted up a few notches.

Millions of parents in states across the country work jobs that provide no time off at all to take care of their new babies. It is hard to fathom how this lays the foundation for healthy child development, let alone stable family life. Others who are searching for jobs at a time when there are five, ten, or even fifty people applying for an open position are hampered by their inability to pay for the child care that makes job hunting feasible. And if they do get the job, it is unlikely to pay enough to cover the cost of that care, which in some states now exceeds in-state college tuition rates. Not to mention the trade-offs among such basics as food, clothing, and rent that those families will be forced to make because wages are so far behind the cost of living.

In other words, as President Obama and Hillary Clinton hint, and Bernie Sanders loudly proclaims, the United States has spent the past few decades gradually becoming the least family- and child-friendly nation in the Western world. Indeed, findings from a study of a recent cohort of kindergarten entrants – children who began school in 2010-2011, and who spent their formative early years in the throes of the Great Recession – provide stark evidence of that sobering reality. When children step foot into their kindergarten classrooms for the first time, gaps in both reading and math skills between those in the highest and lowest social class quintiles are already a full standard deviation in size. To get a sense of how enormous those gaps are, the What Works Clearinghouse estimates that it would take at least four independent, highly effective interventions to close them. Before school even starts.

This election must be about changing that reality and giving our children and their families a real future.

One initiative that is out to do just that is the Make it Work Campaign. Recognizing the depth and breadth of the day-to-day struggles millions of working American families face, Make it Work developed a three-pronged, evidence-based policy agenda to help put our country back on the right public policy footing, laying the foundations to rebuild the middle class we’ve been systematically chipping away at since the early 1980s.

Together, the campaign’s three policy buckets – Equal Pay, Caregiving, and Work and Family – would provide a web of supports that enable parents to live dignified, productive lives, including caring for their children well. In particular, Make it Work’s ambitious goals of affordable child care and accessible high-quality pre-kindergarten for all children, bolstered by living wages for the providers and educators who work with them, alleviate critical stressors for working parents and ensure that all kids get the help they need to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.

While the main focus of this election must be on raising the floor for everyone, however, we can make smart, targeted investments that start to boost those with the greatest needs today. Educare Schools, which now number 18 across 14 states and Washington, DC, offer valuable lessons on how to build comprehensive birth-to-five systems of care and supports for children and their families. From Omaha, where it got its start, to Silicon Valley, where the newest Center opens later this year, Educare “[e]mpowers some of our poorest, most vulnerable children and families to succeed through a coordinated system of home visits, high-quality care and pre-kindergarten, health and nutrition supports, and parent engagement, all centered within those families’ communities.”

And these investments pay off in a big way. Research shows that children who experience Educare for a full five-year course enter elementary school with far more extensive vocabularies and stronger social skills, including self-confidence, persistence, and self-regulation, than their peers. Less touted but also critical are the benefits for parents. As one couple in Omaha described Educare to the filmmakers who produced Ready for Kindergarten, “This place is not just day care. It’s an educational palace. … They are providing a glimpse of hope for us to stand on our own. And one day, we will provide that same help.”

These ingredients – a strong early start for children, sensitive and well-targeted supports for struggling parents, and new hope, with reason to believe in it — are key to reviving the middle class that is the basis for a thriving democracy. As we enter this election season, we must stand with candidates who call out the policies and policymakers that have devastated that middle class for too long. We must urge them to Make it Work for all of us. And we must insist on more investments in programs like Educare. Anything less would constitute a loss before the first vote is cast.

Opinion Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Delivering on Housing Vouchers' Potential to Give Families Real Choice

The Supreme Court decision maintaining the Fair Housing Act's power to combat housing segregation and discrimination reinforces that public policy can give more families real choice over where they live. That's also a critical challenge for the Housing Choice Voucher program, the nation's largest rental assistance program for low-income families.

Vouchers prevent homelessness, reduce housing instability and crowding, and lift more than a million people out of poverty. But they haven't realized their potential to give families access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, as Alana Semuels noted in The Atlantic. A quarter of a million children in voucher households live in high-poverty neighborhoods despite the better options that a voucher should give them.

Two recent, groundbreaking studies show that children whose families move to better neighborhoods have lower teenage birth rates, higher college attendance and marriage rates, and larger earnings gains as adults, relative to children who remain in less advantageous neighborhoods.

Our major report documented the voucher program's disappointing performance in this area and outlined federal, state, and local actions to help more families with vouchers live in places with better schools and less crime and where more families have adequate incomes. Fortunately, policymakers have begun to take some positive steps, but much work remains to finalize key policy changes by the end of 2016.

One key step is basing voucher subsidies on rents in a given neighborhood rather than the entire metropolitan area, as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) plans to do by regulation in metro areas where voucher users are most concentrated in poor neighborhoods. As we've explained, this will broaden housing opportunities for voucher holders and won't require new funding. In fact, it will likely save money, freeing up funds that could help families now on voucher waiting lists.

In another key step, HUD is expected soon to issue a final rule detailing how state and local housing agencies that administer the voucher program and other HUD programs can meet their legal obligation under the Fair Housing Act to not only fight discrimination but also affirmatively promote fair housing.

But HUD can make other important changes without new authority from Congress or more funding, such as:

  • requiring housing agencies to provide lists of landlords in diverse neighborhoods who may be willing to rent to voucher holders;
  • streamlining "portability" procedures that enable families to use a voucher issued by one agency to rent a unit in another agency's jurisdiction; and
  • rewarding agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas by giving them added administrative fees.

States and localities also have important roles to play. Today's Supreme Court decision may encourage states to use more of their federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to expand low-income families' housing options in safe neighborhoods with good schools. That would broaden opportunities for voucher holders, since properties supported by these tax credits can't discriminate against voucher holders.

States and localities also could adopt and enforce anti-discrimination laws to protect voucher holders. Only 13 states (including the District of Columbia) have such laws.

Opinion Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Corrupted Idealism: Bolivia's Compromise Between Development and the Environment

Bolivian President Evo Morales in Cochambamba, Bolivia, April 22, 2010.Bolivian President Evo Morales in Cochambamba, Bolivia, April 22, 2010. (Photo: The City Project)

June 8 marked a decisive policy shift for Bolivian President Evo Morales' government: lawmakers passed legislation allowing for increased hydrocarbon exploration in the country's few remaining "protected areas," most notably the Madidi National Park.[1] Transnational and foreign petroleum concessions already overlap 75 percent of Madidi National Park, prompting fears over increased environmental degradation in the country.[2] The controversial implications of such a law have precipitated a debate over whether President Morales has prioritized economic growth over a previous emphasis on environmental and indigenous preservation.

The unprecedented growth and stability under the administration of Morales and his party, Movement for Socialism (MAS), give legitimacy and support for such environmentally dangerous legislation. Most noteworthy, extreme poverty has shrunk from 35 percent of the population to just 18 percent since Morales took office in 2006.[3] Still, his conflicting economic and environmental policies have led to devastating environmental consequences for Bolivia. A policy both environmentally sustainable and economically promising may be challenging to implement, but is by no means impossible and by all means necessary.

The (Almost) Championing of Mother Earth

Bolivia–President Morales in particular—used to be a beacon of environmental activism. At the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, Morales arose as a much-needed voice for environmentalists worldwide, making ardent calls to limit temperature increases in the next century to just 1°C.[4] Furthermore, Morales demanded that an international court on climate change be established–one whose primary function would be to prosecute the "greatest" criminals against the environment.[5] Moreover, in 2010, Bolivia's proposal to make access to water a universal right was approved by the United Nations (UN), situating Bolivia as a model of environmental activism.[6] The UN General Assembly went so far as to name Morales the "World Hero of Mother Earth," a grandiose title that precipitated the 2010 "Law of Mother Earth," a historic bill passed by Morales' government guaranteeing rights for the Earth itself.[7] The law specifically enshrines seven rights to Mother Earth: life, environmental diversity, water, clean air, equilibrium (or the right to a natural balance in the ecosystem), restoration, and pollution-free living.[8] Perhaps most groundbreaking is the right of an individual to bring forth an issue to court on behalf of Mother Earth.[9] However, the track record for this innovative legislation is less than stellar, making the so-called "World Hero of Mother Earth" an inconsistent environmental champion.

Immediate Noncompliance: A Consequence of Economic Development?

Bold rhetoric on the international stage and unprecedented domestic laws only have gone so far in the implementation of environmentally sustainable economic growth for Bolivia. The Law of Mother Earth, seen initially as a heroic "win" for environmentalism, has been challenging to solidify in an extraction-based economy. Franz Chávez, a Bolivian correspondent for Inter Press Service, explains that without "quantifiable targets that would make it possible to assess [the Law of Mother Earth's] implementation," little stands in the way of dangerous extraction operations in the country's most vulnerable areas.[10] Lawyer Victor Quispe explains that companies involved in extraction typically lack high regard for environmental protection measures, and furthermore, understand that the Law on Mother Nature lacks explicit requirements.[11]

Perhaps most alarming is the Morales administration's support of environmentally destructive projects. In 2010, the same year that the Bolivian legislature passed the Law on Mother Nature, Morales firmly supported the construction of a highway that would cut through Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS), a project universally condemned by local indigenous tribes and urban populations alike.[12] Later that year, the government supported bids to build dams, explore petroleum resources, and increase settlement in Madidi National Park, which at the time could have affected at least 80% of the region's biodiversity.[13] The typical response to these hypocrisies by MAS government officials has been pragmatic with a "national twist," says TIME correspondent Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, because though environmental degradation occurs in projects under the nationalized sectors, money is directly funding education and health programs.[14] However, not only has the government disregarded its own environmental regulations, it has also ignored the voice of the indigenous community so critical to its election and popularity. Despite the obvious challenges of economic development without negative environmental impacts, the inconsistencies in Morales's policies are troubling, and pose dangerous implications.

Increasing Degradation, Increasing GDP: Growing Mutual Exclusivity

Under the Morales Administration, Bolivia enjoys an expanding and stable economy. A May 2015 study shows that GDP is increasing at above 5 percent, up $34 billion USD from 2014.[15] Poverty has been slashed during Morales' presidency and a significant bump in the minimum wage has helped increase the GDP per capita.[16] Officials base these improvements on its socialist policies such as the 2006 nationalization of the petroleum industry, whose six billion dollar revenues were funneled into the public sector.[17] Now, one in three Bolivians receives government assistance, ranging from educational scholarships to medical assistance.[18] With such economic and social improvements, it is difficult to see the tragic repercussions of these environmentally destructive policies. The great expense at which environmental and social policies have been sacrificed demonstrates a reckless shift in the Morales Administration.

The law permitting hydrocarbon operations in Madidi National Park is just one of many examples of actions contrary to the now largely symbolic Law of Mother Earth. In the name of economic expansion, the Madidi National Park, as well as 10 other national parks (over 77,000 acres in all), is being targeted for hydrocarbon explorations by foreign companies.[19] Though the government requires that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) be performed in any "protected area," these assessments have become simple formalities heavily influenced by government policy.[20] Greatly troubling is that environmental destruction is not exclusive to Madidi National Park. Already, 90 percent of Inao National Park and 85 percent of Pilan National Park overlap with oil concessions of foreign companies ranging from Brazilian oil giant Petrobras to Russian Gazprom.[21] In an interview with COHA, prominent Bolivian environmentalist Teresa Flores listed fifteen dangerous government proposals –all with radical alterations of the environment.[22] The construction of the Cachuela Esperanza Dam, which would flood all of the low-lying Beni region, is just one of numerous government projects intended to attract development, but at the cost of severe alterations to local communities and the environment alike.[23] Additionally, Mongabay writer Alexandra Ellerback reported earlier this month on a recent agricultural summit, where farmers gained support for a measure that expanded legal deforestation from 12 acres to 49.[24] A researcher at the Center for Investigation and Promotion of the Farmworker believes that this seemingly modest measure could deforest an astonishing 6.2 million acres.[25]

Government policy under President Morales reaches beyond the environmental realm and diffuses into the more complex Bolivarian political climate. Morales' political ascent was marked by his unwavering commitment to ideals. Fearless rhetoric made him the voice of an unremittingly disenfranchised people. However, economic growth became the priority, and eclipsing original ideals of sustainable growth and cultural preservation. First, President Morales disregarded the unanimous rejection by indigenous communities of a highway constructed through TIPNIS, a startling departure from his Aymara roots and original leadership style.[26] Then, a 2013 policy infamously known as the "Big Pardon" exempted landowners from being punished for illegal clearing of lands before 2011.[27] Recently, the government has shown support for the fracking industry, a practice universally condemned for its dangerous consequences on water sources.[28] This is, not to mention, coming in the wake of regulations permitting increased hydrocarbon operations throughout the country. Moreover, environmentalists and indigenous groups' pleas often go unnoticed by the government. A controversial 2013 law on legal personality, enforced on unfair and vague terms, bars NGOs from freedom of formation if they cannot declare their "contribution to economic and social development."[29] Flores explains that the result of such actions is that "people fear to criticize the government," a terrifying sign of a breach in civil liberties.[30] All of this evidence points towards government inconsistencies and, more troubling, violations of the government's landmark Law on Mother Nature, the very legislation intended to protect such actions against the environment.

A More Environmentally Stable Growth

The unfortunate truth for Bolivia is that economic growth has been in large part due to its wealth of natural resources that have been made available for exploitation. Bolivia has seen stability, both economically and socially, that is largely unprecedented in its modern history, rendering the loss of some environmental and cultural idealism acceptable. As Linda Farthing, a journalist with a focus on Bolivia, explains, "Morales' administration provides a cautionary tale about the difficulty of achieving sustainability and genuine grassroots democracy in a country with a legacy of environmentally destructive natural-resource extraction and political instability."[31] Yet the societal improvements –including cash payments to children who stay in school and the mass construction of health clinics—come in conjunction with toxic runoff into natural water sources, as well as "alarmingly high" rates of mining accidents.[32]

A middle ground in such an economy is difficult to find, but other countries have found solutions that Bolivia could look to as a guide. Peru's recently-announced Climate Action Plan, the first of its kind in South America, calls for a 31 percent cut in emissions through 58 distinct mitigation projects designed to address large sources of pollution such as waste management and deforestation.[33] Because of the detailed and innovative plan created by Peru, Chris Wright, an Inter Press News correspondent, believes funding for such a Climate Action Plan will be attainable and furthermore, and serves as a model for other Latin American countries facing challenges in developing sustainably.[34] A similar Climate Action Plan in Bolivia meant to encourage foreign aid would promote environmentally friendly infrastructure. However, Bolivia also needs an economy less reliant on contamination-ridden extraction industries to sustain its growth. A 2009 World Bank study on Bolivia emphasizes that "nonrenewable resources" such as those obtained in the extraction industry "are fated to diminish over time since they cannot be replenished."[35] Agreeing with this statement, Teresa Flores suggests investing in the economic potential of Bolivia's biodiversity, but avoiding such destructive activities. Instead, she advocates investment into greater production of the native Bolivian livestock and food typically neglected of government resources in the past –industries whose marginalization have resulted in widespread failures like the death of over 10,000 llamas in 2014.[36] Flores' suggestions are viable and pragmatic alternatives to impractical and environmentally destructive industries dominating Bolivia today.

Granted, these policies and suggestions are easier said than done. However, that does not mean Bolivia should continue economic growth at the expense of environmental and, to a lesser extent, social degradation. Morales entered office as a champion of the masses, advocating against heartless capitalism that destroyed cultural identity and the environment in the name of economic growth. But with rising standards of living and increasing GDP, he has sacrificed the exact qualities that made him so revolutionary at the advent of his presidency. By reintroducing his roots into economic policy, he and his administration could better implement sustainable economic growth.



[1] Hill, David. "Bolivia opens up national parks to oil and gas firms." The Guardian, June 5, 2015. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] "A new top regional economy has emerged." The Worldfolio, June 2015. 

[4] Vidal, John. "Evo Morales stuns Copenhagen with demand to limit temperature rise to 1C." The Guardian, December 15, 2009. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Friedman-Rudovsky, Jean. "Is Bolivia's Evo Morales Really an Environmental Hero?" Time, August 6, 2010.,8599,2009004,00.html 

[7] Fromherz, Nicholas. "The Rise and Fall of Bolivia's Evo Morales." Foreign Affairs, October 18, 2011.

[8] Buxton, Nick. "The Law of Mother Earth: Behind Bolivia's historic bill." Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. 

[9] Ibid.

[10] Chávez, Franz. "Bolivia's Mother Earth Law Hard to Implement." Inter Press Service, May 19, 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Fromherz, Nicholas. "The Rise and Fall of Bolivia's Evo Morales." Foreign Affairs, October 18, 2011. 

[13] Chávez, Franz. "Madidi National Park and the Curse of Petroleum." Inter Press Service, December 9, 2010.

[14] Friedman-Rudovsky, Jean. "Is Bolivia's Evo Morales Really an Environmental Hero?" Time, August 6, 2010.,8599,2009004,00.html 

[15] "A new top regional economy has emerged." The Worldfolio, June 2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Friedman-Rudovsky, Jean. "Is Bolivia's Evo Morales Really an Environmental Hero?" Time, August 6, 2010.,8599,2009004,00.html 

[18] "A new top regional economy has emerged." The Worldfolio, June 2015. 

[19] Hill, David. "Bolivia opens up national parks to oil and gas firms." The Guardian, June 5, 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Flores, Teresa. Interview with Council on Hemispheric Affairs. E-mail. June 17-19, 2015.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ellerbeck, Alexandra. "Bolivia's aggressive agricultural development plan threatens forests." Mongabay, June 8, 2015. 

[25] Ibid.

[26] Fromherz, Nicholas. "The Rise and Fall of Bolivia's Evo Morales." Foreign Affairs, October 18, 2011.

[27] Flores, Teresa. Interview with Council on Hemispheric Affairs. E-mail. June 17-19, 2015.

[28] Hill, David. "Is Bolivia Really Going to Frack 'Mother Earth'?" The Guardian, February 23, 2015.

[29] "Bolivia: Special Rapporteur Files Amicus Brief Challenging Ngo Regulations." United Nations Special Rapporteur, May 22, 2015. 

[30] Flores, Teresa. Interview with Council on Hemispheric Affairs. E-mail. June 17-19, 2015.

[31] Farthing, Linda. "The Two Faces of Evo." In These Times, April 27, 2015. 

[32] Ibid.

[33] Wright, Chris. "Peru a Shining Example for South America's Climate Action Plans." Inter Press Service, June 12, 2015. 

[34] Ibid.

[35] "Strengthening Bolivian Competitiveness: Export Diversification and Inclusive Growth." The World Bank, 2009. 

[36] Flores, Teresa. Interview with Council on Hemispheric Affairs. E-mail. June 17-19, 2015.

News Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
It's Over

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Art Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Are Utility Companies Changing Their Strategy to Fight Obama Power Plan?

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaking in Indianapolis, May 15, 2014. Pence has stated that Indiana will not comply with the EPA's Clean Power Plan. (Photo: A.J. Mast/The New York Times) Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaking in Indianapolis, May 15, 2014. Pence has stated that Indiana will not comply with the EPA's Clean Power Plan. (Photo: A.J. Mast/The New York Times)

In a letter sent to President Obama last month, Indiana Governor Mike Pence said that the State of Indiana “will not comply” with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan unless the plan is “demonstrably and significantly improved.”

Gov. Pence also stated that Indiana will “reserve the right to use any legal means available to block the rule from being implemented.” According to Utility Dive, Oklahoma is so far the only state to have outright stated that it will not comply with the EPA.

Indiana had joined Oklahoma and 12 other states, Peabody Energy, and the Utility Air Regulatory Group in the Murray Energy/West Virginia v. E.P.A. lawsuit, which challenged the agency’s proposed rule this past year. The lawsuit Indiana joined was unprecedented for a court to review because the rules had yet to be finalized. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit therefore dismissed it earlier this month.  But West Virginia and Murray Energy said they look forward to challenging the rule again when it is finalized. Other states have also made similar comments.

The utility industry’s strategy to contest the Clean Power Plan has been to work with Hunton & Williams’ Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG) to sue the EPA claiming the Clean Power Plan is illegal. Yet this is in addition to utilities working with state agencies so that the State Implementation Plan (SIP) submitted to the EPA is to their liking – just in case their lawsuit fails. This reasoning is rooted in the belief that adhering to a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) will perhaps be less accommodating and even more costly to comply than the submitted SIP.

But Gov. Pence’s letter, along with the actions taken by Oklahoma Governor Fallin, sheds light on what may be another part of the utility industry’s plan: sue the EPA again when it begins to enforce the FIP for states that do not comply with the Clean Power Plan.

Mario Loyola, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, wrote in The Atlantic last month about the constitutional problem with a federal plan imposed on a state, specifically the Tenth Amendment. It’s important to note that TPPF is a member of the State Policy Network and is in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which includes many utility companies as members along with their trade association – the Edison Electric Institute.

Loyola writes,

Normally, when the EPA threatens to impose a federal plan, it actually has the statutory authority to do what it’s asking the states to do. The coercion (or “encouragement” as the Supreme Court prefers to call it) occurs within a field of concurrent federal-state jurisdiction. But the Clean Power Plan is missing that essential ingredient… And the implied coercive threat of leaving states unable to meet their needs for electricity might well lead federal courts to find “a gun to the head” of state governments in the EPA’s proposal.

I reached out to the electric utility companies operating in Indiana to get their reactions to Gov. Pence’s letter to the president, and to possibly discuss whether or not they are indeed considering suing the EPA if a FIP is imposed on Indiana.

Duke Energy directed me to the Indiana Energy Association (IEA), whose president, Mark Maassel, said, “It’s hard to predict the form of the legal challenges as to its whether it is one issue or two issues. But as the governor wisely indicated, he will aggressively pursue all those issue. We just wont know what those issues are until the plan is promulgated.”

Maassel also said that at this time they have not had any conversation with the state’s attorney general or Gov. Pence about how any legal pursuits will proceed.

Brian Bergsma, Director of Communications & Government Affairs at Indiana Michigan Power – an American Electric Power subsidiary, said in an email, “I&M supports the State of Indiana taking all appropriate legal actions to challenge the rule to protect the economy of our state, our customers and the reliability of the electric grid.”

Bergsma did not respond to further questions.

These comments might not be surprising to some, but it does suggest that the utility industry is preparing to do everything it can to prevent the Clean Power Plan from being enforced in the states.

And this strategy could begin to spread. The Edison Electric Institute just made AEP’s President and CEO Nicholas Akins its new chairman. It might not be a coincidence that in addition to Indiana, AEP also operates in Oklahoma and West Virginia.

AES Corporation’s Indianapolis Power & Light, Northern Indiana Power Service Company, and Vectren did not respond to my questions.


Republic Report is an investigative news blog dedicated uncovering the corrupting influence of money in politics.

News Sun, 05 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
What's Good About Guaranteed Basic Income

Writing check(Image: Writing check via Shutterstock)If conservatives really want to do away with "wasteful" and "overly bureaucratic" social services in the US - services like Medicaid, Social Security and foodstamps - there's an easy alternative.

It's simple. It encourages personal responsibility. And it will do away with our current mess of programs that make up our social safety net.

All we have to do is guarantee every person a universal, and unconditional, minimum income.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

It sounds unusual. It sounds like we'd just be paying people not to work. And why would anyone choose to work if they're receiving FREE money already?

That's the knee-jerk response - but it doesn't hold up in real-world experiments.

A paper published in 2013 looked at two groups in Uganda: one group that received a no-strings attached grant equal to their annual income - about 380 dollars per person - and a control group that received no grant.

What did the unemployed youth do when they were "paid not to work"?

The group that received the grant worked on average an extra 17 hours in comparison to the control group. They showed a 41 percent increase in earnings four years after receiving the grant.

They invested in skills and businesses. Individuals were 65 percent more likely to practice a skilled trade two years after receiving the grants.

Researchers have seen similar results from other experiments with unconditional income. In Kenya incomes increased by 33 percent and assets increased by 58 percent just one year after people received an unconditional $513 grant.

Those researchers also found that the grant reduced hunger and that the recipients were better off in terms of psychological well-being.

Which just makes sense. A guaranteed income lets households make a real budget and frees people from focusing only on where their next meal will come from.

Those are numbers that show that a guaranteed minimum income promotes economic productivity and real growth from the base of the market.

But those are just examples in the developing world. What about evidence from the world's developed countries?

Well, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands will run its own experiment with basic minimum incomes.

Starting at the end of the summer, the city of Utrecht and University College Utrecht will give some welfare recipients a living income instead.

Instead of receiving welfare, individuals will receive a 900 euro monthly check, and a couple or a family will receive up to 1,300 euros.

According to the Alderman for Work and Income, Victor Everhardt, the questions at the core of the experiment are: "What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sit passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?"

Based on what we've seen in similar experiments in Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa and Mexico: People will develop themselves and contribute to real economic growth and the wealth of the nation.

People want to contribute. They want to be productive members of society.

The problem in the US, and in many other parts of the world, is that the majority of workers have to work just to survive.

And again, the knee-jerk reactions is that that's how it should be, or at least that's what billionaires who inherited their fortunes say!

But that mentality goes against the core notion of having an inalienable right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

When are individuals supposed to pursue happiness in a society where both parents in a household have to work two or three jobs with constantly changing schedules - just to pay the rent and keep the water running?

How are people supposed to start businesses based on their own talents and innovation if they are working dead-end jobs that require and teach no skills - just to keep food on the table?

How can anyone invest their hard earned money into a start-up business or just into savings - if every cent of their income goes to just the bare essentials?

Providing a guaranteed minimum income makes people freer and more able to participate in society. And that translates to a freer market where more people are able and willing to participate.

"Where does the money come from?!" the conservatives will shriek.

Why don't we ask Sarah Palin and the good people of Alaska?

Alaska collects royalties on oil that's extracted within the state, those royalties go to the state's Permanent Fund, and then that fund pays out about $1,800 a year to every man, woman and child in the state.

So a good start would be to charge fossil fuel companies royalties for extracting resources on federal and state land, and to close the loopholes that companies use to avoid paying those royalties right now.

Then you cut the $52 billion that we give out to those companies in subsidies, and there's a real basis for a US permanent fund.

Combine that basis with the savings from eliminating the rest of the social safety net, and there's more than enough money for every man woman and child to not just survive - but to contribute meaningfully to our economy and society.

So the next time a conservative tells you about government waste and fraud with Medicaid and foodstamps, just remind them.

We could eliminate every single social welfare program and streamline our social safety net if we simply set up a guaranteed minimum income based on living wages around the country.

Opinion Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:16:31 -0400
Slavery, Genocide, Abuse: The Dark Side of Asia's "Tiger Economies"

A few years ago, Southeast Asia's rapidly growing "tiger economies" were the envy of the world. Today, the area is better known for a trio of maladies: ethnic cleansing, burgeoning inequality, and super-exploited labor.

The sorry state of human rights and labor protections in the region has been driven home by three events that captured the world's attention.

On the high seas, thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar found themselves stranded and desperate when neighboring states refused to accept them. In Indonesia, investigators discovered illegal fish factories run by captive migrant laborers. And last May in the Philippines, 72 workers perished in a horrific factory fire.

As the Association of Southeast Asian States, or ASEAN, prepares to integrate the region's economies by the end of 2015, it's worth asking what it is these countries will be combining - their markets or their deep-seated social problems?

Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

The plight of the Rohingya is the culmination of three years of riots and violent attacks directed at Burma's Muslim minority, who make up over 30 percent of the population in the state of Rakhine.

Tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority have been building for years. With the easing of military control as the country makes its jerky transition to democracy, friction has given way to violence, oftentimes sparked by wild allegations of Rohingya men raping Buddhist women.

Burmese authorities officially consider the 1.3 million Rohingya to be stateless intruders from neighboring Bangladesh, largely abandoning them to the tender mercies of Buddhist mobs often led by monks. The result has been the region's worst case of ethnic cleansing in modern memory.

To escape brutal persecution, many Rohingya have increasingly resorted to flight, contracting smugglers and traffickers to bring them by sea and land to other countries. This option has turned out to be as perilous as staying. Traffickers have sold many Rohingya, along with other Burmese, as forced labor to the notorious Thai fishing industry. Others are met with hostile receptions from neighboring countries.

Last month, an estimated 7,000 Rohingya refugees crammed into fragile boats bound for friendlier shores. Yet they were repelled by the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies and left floating aimlessly in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea.

Under pressure from the United Nations and other international bodies, Myanmar's neighbors eventually softened their stance toward the refugees. The Philippines opened its borders to some. And after heavy criticism, so did Malaysia and Indonesia - if only grudgingly. Thailand, however, made clear it would not offer asylum to any of them, a hardline stance also adopted by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Voices from all over the globe, including the United Nations General Assembly, have called on the Myanmar government to end the ethnic cleansing and give citizenship rights to the Rohingya. One voice, however, has been notably silent: Nobel Prize laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

Never in the last three years has the famed pro-democracy advocate spoken on behalf of the Rohingya, even if only to ask her Buddhist compatriots to stop persecuting them. Owing to international pressure, her party, the National League for Democracy, has - finally and grudgingly - called for citizenship for the Rohingya. But the statement was not issued in her name.

Observers speculate that Suu Kyi hopes to avoid offending the country's Buddhist majority, whose votes her party needs in Burma's coming electoral contests - and which she herself will need if she runs for president. But the longer "Daw Suu" stays silent, the more people will conclude that she doesn't believe the Rohingya deserve to be citizens either - and the more this global moral icon will be regarded as complicit in genocide.

Slave Labor in Thailand's Fishing Industry

This March, a superb Associated Press report on forced labor on the Indonesian island of Benjina called the world's attention to one of Southeast Asia's unspoken dirty secrets: the dependence of the Thai fishing industry on slavery. Over 500 workers were found imprisoned on the island.

The resort to slave labor, according to a report by the International Labor Organization and Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, comes as profits are being squeezed by smaller catches, higher fuel costs, and the reluctance of Thai nationals to work in a low-paying, hazardous industry involving long periods at sea.

So Thai fishing and canning factories have turned to foreign workers - especially from Burma and Cambodia, where smuggling networks have sprung up to recruit workers. Deception is almost invariably involved, with prospective workers promised higher-paying construction or agriculture jobs only to be sold to fishing vessels, where they work for a pittance or nothing at all.

The traffickers treat these undocumented workers with extreme brutality. Recently discovered mass graves - reportedly containing the remains of hundreds of people along smuggling routes in Thailand and Malaysia - bear mute testimony to what happens to those who get sick, suffer accidents, or resist.

Government officials are often worse than useless. As the ILO-Chulalongkorn report notes, "The direct involvement and/or facilitation of law enforcement officials in these crimes is a significant problem that has remained inadequately addressed. Although authorities reportedly investigated several cases of complicity by law enforcement officials during 2011-2012, no prosecutions or convictions were carried through." Not surprisingly, "rather than seeking out protection for abuses or filing complaints to the proper authorities, many migrant fishers will choose to keep quiet out of fear of blacklisting, arrest, or deportation."

The highly publicized recent arrest of a three-star Thai general for human trafficking underlines how deeply government officials are involved in the business. Yet few anticipate that he'll be successfully prosecuted.

A Decimated Working Class in the Philippines

Government complicity was also instrumental in the Philippines' worst-ever factory fire last May.

In interviews with some 30 survivors, I learned that both national and local authorities had issued safety clearances for the Kentex footwear factory, despite the fact that it had no emergency exits, the windows were barred, no fire drills were conducted, and no serious fire inspections were carried out. The obviously lax enforcement of safety regulations is not accidental. Kentex incarnates the Philippine government's lenient treatment of the capitalist enterprises it sees as a source of growth, wealth, and jobs.

According to the survivors, some 20 percent of the workforce at the factory consisted of casual workers or "pakyawan," including some minors brought in by their mothers to earn some extra money for the family over the summer. They received about $4.50 for a day's work, or less than half the current minimum wage for the national capital region.

Another 40 to 60 percent were contractual workers recruited by a "manpower agency," an organization devised to allow employers to avoid regularizing workers who might otherwise vote to form a union. While these non-unionized workers received the minimum daily wage, the agency skimmed off the required social security, health, and housing benefits provided by the employer. "They don't pay our monthly installments," one survivor angrily told me.

At the most, 20 percent of the workers were regular employees who belonged to a union. But as one of the union members himself volunteered cynically, "We are a company union."

A Secret No Longer

Kentex is a microcosm of labor-capital relations in Southeast Asia today.

The trend toward contractualization - pushed by local and foreign investors, accommodated by governments, and legitimized by economists - has led to the disorganization and de-unionization of the labor force, which in turn makes rights abuses and disasters all the more likely. Today, only about 10 percent of the Philippine work force is organized, with one prominent labor leader admitting, "Ironically, labor unions are not as politically strong today as during the dictatorial regime of President Marcos."

In his "State of the Nation" address last year, President Benigno Aquino III boasted that there were only two worker strikes in 2013 and just one in 2014. That the president considered this news positive only showed how detached from reality he was, for the radical reduction of the number of strikes doesn't come from improving living standards but from the weakening of labor's bargaining power. It comes from pro-management government policies, a widespread failure to enforce labor laws, and aggressive union-busting by employers.

Some labor leaders see a silver lining in the Kentex tragedy. "The 72 lives lost were a terrible, terrible loss," said Josua Mata, secretary general of the labor federation Sentro. "But if this tragedy brings to the national consciousness the unacceptable state to which management and government have reduced our workers and inaugurates an era of reform, then their sacrifice might not be in vain."

That remains to be seen. But when it comes to declining workers' rights, violent labor trafficking, and ethnic cleansing, no one can say the dark underbelly of the "tiger economies" is a secret any longer.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:27:45 -0400
John Repp on the Promise of Public Banking in Seattle

In 2008, dismayed by the role played by large, private banks in the financial meltdown, a group of Washington state residents began advocating for a state-sponsored public bank like the only state-owned bank in the United States, the Bank of North Dakota. When their movement failed to gain traction in the state legislature, they shifted their focus to Seattle. Today, the Seattle Public Bank Coalition educates local policymakers and the public about the capacity of public banks to provide robust banking services while returning profits to the community.

John Repp has been active in the campaign to start a Seattle municipal bank from the beginning. Last month I spoke to him via Skype about the benefits of public banking, the nature of local debate on the subject, and the state of the public banking movement in Seattle. Our discussion revealed what a practical solution public banking is for Seattle and other cash-strapped cities.

Tell me about the Seattle Public Bank Coalition.

In December 2008, I read an article in YES! Magazine by Ellen Brown, who had been writing about and leading the public banking effort in this country. My wife and I were members of a study group called Just Sustainable Economy. I talked to the group about it, and wrote letters to state officials. At that time, we were focusing on the state of Washington.

About a year later, I talked to Bob Hasegawa. He is a state representative from the 11th District. He already knew about the Bank of North Dakota, and knew about public banking. He asked me to write a bill - that was kind of scary. But I got a copy of the legislation that established the Bank of North Dakota, and I had some help from people in the national public banking [movement].

For five years we had bills in the Washington state legislature. The second year, I think, we had 44 co-sponsors, including the support of the Speaker of the House. But we couldn't get it through the committee. The chair of the committee was a centrist Democrat, and he wouldn't let it through.

So after five years - and with Hasegawa's okay - we decided to focus on Seattle and the Seattle City Council. There are nine [councilmembers], so we only had to convince five - instead of 51. There, we found Nick Licata to be our champion. He's been working with us for about a year. That's where we are now.

We've had different people in and out of our group over the last seven years. Some of the people who are not in Seattle have peeled away for now. But in the progressive community, [public banking] is a very popular idea.

I might add that one of the pieces of literature we circulate is from a group in California who puts out "Occucards." The cards talk about issues like climate change and debt. Interestingly, their public banking card - number 20 - is the only one that focuses on a positive proposal.

And our local Occupy movement: when they realized that Seattle was banking with Wells Fargo, they went to the city council and put some pressure on them to at least more tightly regulate what the bank does with the city's money.

Why public banking?

As you well know, the private banking system, based in Wall Street, nearly collapsed the world economy in 2008. A study of the economic history of Europe and the United States shows that this type of economic crisis happens at least once every generation. Actually, the longest time we didn't have one was after the New Deal, when our banking system was very tightly regulated. It was when they got rid of Glass-Steagall during the Clinton administration that the problems began.

That's the big background. I've been interested in the economy for a long time, but I didn't really understand the central role [played by] banking, and how it worked, and the possible abuses under the private system when not tightly regulated. And, of course, I think the banking system now is almost 20 percent of our economy. That's too big. Manufacturing used to be a lot bigger; now it's smaller, since we've exported jobs.

Forty percent of the banking around the world is done through public banking. We had a forum in December - you'll see some press reports from the forum on our website. [Thomas Keidel] came over from Germany and talked about the public banking system they have there, the Sparkasse savings banks. They're a full-service bank, where people can come and get savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans. They're a retail bank.

Our model, the Bank of North Dakota, is a banker's bank. One of our biggest [challenges is that] we've not been able [to convince] the community banking system that this would be a good thing for them. If they would look at the Bank of North Dakota, they would see that the Bank of North Dakota is like a Federal Reserve for the community banking system. It backs them up. [The community banks] are the ones that actually make most of the loans. Then the Bank of North Dakota either writes letters of credit, or buys the loans so that the community bank, which knows the customers better, can make more loans.

We want our bank to be run by bankers. It's not meant to be a lender of last resort. It's not meant to be a place where politicians get their favorite projects funded. It's meant to be a bank that would fund, for lower interest, projects for which the big banks would be happy to carry the loan.

Why is a public bank a good fit for Seattle, in particular?

JR: Seattle, like other cities, is strapped for money. We're the fastest-growing city in the country, and we need to build infrastructure to support that growth. We would  also like to build more affordable housing, and create good family-wage jobs.

We are close to our debt limit. Because Seattle and Washington state have the most regressive tax systems, we're constantly having to go to the levy system to get more money, or borrow it. We've borrowed [billions of] dollars. Big banks, mostly, have bought those bonds - they loaned the money to us.

So even though Seattle is prosperous compared to Detroit, or Baltimore, it still has a lot of needs.

How would a Seattle public bank work?

To start a public bank in Seattle, we would need a capital investment. We see that coming from the investments that Seattle already makes, mostly in savings treasury bonds and CDs. I think [they are valued at] about $800 million. We're only getting 0.67 percent [interest] on those investments right now - that's not much of a return.

We're thinking some of that investment money [could be used to start the bank]. It takes at least $100 million - but the more robust, the better. We could get a much higher rate of return through our own bank.

That makes the politicians a bit nervous. Our biggest opponent at the state level was the State Treasurer, whose job is to invest the money not immediately needed by the state. If there were a state bank, his office would shrink to a few employees, because the [public] bank would be doing that. He didn't like that. But that's not the reason he said that he was against it.

[It represents] a reorganization of how the city uses its finances. So the people involved in the way it's done now don't want to make the change, even though the arguments [in favor of a public bank] are pretty strong.

The deposits at the bank are the taxes and fees that come into the [city]. And, of course, Seattle has business-type activities. They have the water, and the utilities; they have a downtown garage, they have affordable housing. So the Seattle public bank would be another business-type activity.

It would be regulated by the state. The employees of the bank would be civil service employees - they would not be getting bonuses like the private bankers do. And it would be tightly regulated.

[Here's] the interesting thing about the Bank of North Dakota. People hardly believe this, but North Dakota did not suffer from the credit crisis. Their unemployment rate was about two percent during the worst part of the crisis. Of course, people now think it was the oil boom. But the oil boom came after the crash.

The [real] reason is that the Bank of North Dakota was standing behind the community banks. The Bank of North Dakota has been in business for ninety-some years. They were focused on old-fashioned conservative banking: loaning money to businesses that had a good plan; loaning money to farmers who needed to buy seed and fertilizer in the spring; loaning money to people to buy houses; and loaning money to students.

Old-fashioned stuff. They weren't involved in any of the derivatives, or credit default swaps, that Wall Street was pushing all over the country. And if you think about it, we don't want our bankers to be creative. We want them to be conservative. It's a conservative state, and it's a conservative model.

Even though we're seen by some of the politicians as radicals or reformers, we actually want the system to be more old-fashioned, more conservative.

Another thing: the loan portfolio of the bank. It could be done through the community banking system. It could be done through loaning money to other jurisdictions, like Seattle City Light or the water department, just like the bonds are done now. You put out the loan, and then the principal and interest comes back. The interest would be the profit of the bank. That would go either to expand the bank, or it could go back into the Seattle General Fund.

[For] the last few years the Bank of North Dakota has not returned money to the general fund of North Dakota. But from 1998 to 2008, it did return $300 million to the general fund. [Since 2008] - I believe because their infrastructure needs are so great, with the oil boom - the Bank of North Dakota has kept the profits, and expanded quite a bit. [It's become] one of the most profitable banks in the country.

We've talked to retired Bank of North Dakota bankers. And we talked to people from North Dakota who got their education [loans] through the bank - the Bank of North Dakota was one of the first that loaned money to students.

I'd like to hear more about the local debate regarding a municipal public bank.

At one point, Bob Hasegawa said, "When I talk to ordinary people, after a few sentences describing this idea, they say, 'That's great!'" And there are a fair amount of people from North Dakota living in this area, so they know about it.

But when you talk to politicians or policymakers, their eyes glaze over. We think it's because they know who the real power in society is: it's the bankers and the large corporations. They don't want to buck that power.

[Recently] I was at a city council candidates' forum for the two at-large positions. They were asked if they would support a Seattle municipal bank, and they all said yes - except the incumbent, Tim Burgess. He said he didn't know anything about the Bank of North Dakota. So we have some work to do with him.

What we are doing as SPBC right now is to try to get all the candidates for city council to learn about the bank, and endorse the idea. After our December 2014 forum, Nick Licata said the next step would be a request to Seattle City Council to get some money to study this. [But] that's been stopped. [Licata] told us that the legal department has some questions about it - whether this was legal.

So now they're working on the idea of Seattle taking some of its investment money and putting it in a fund to loan out to build affordable housing. But that would be what they call a revolving fund, and it would not have the leverage of a bank.

Among other things, the legal question [has to do with] three clauses in the Washington state constitution that say that the state cannot lend its credit - they don't say lend its money, they say lend its credit - to private parties. The case law on those three clauses [indicates that] if it's in the public interest, then it can be done.

The state and the city already loan money out to private parties, through the revolving funds. Again, they're not banks. But if you think about it, the bank would be loaning out the principal, and then receiving back the principal and interest - so it is in the public interest. Not to mention the jobs that would be created, the new businesses that could be created.

We think there's a strong case [in favor of a public bank being legal]. A former [Washington] Supreme Court justice agrees with us. (He's in private practice now, so he doesn't want to write a brief to that effect). We think the city or the state should go ahead and establish a public bank. There's going to be a challenge anyway, from the opponents. The private banking system really doesn't want any competition.

So that's where we are. The city council candidates are quite open, and if they don't know much about it, they'll ask, and be willing to learn. We have people in most of the districts who are showing up at the forums, and we have communicated with all of the candidates, and gotten some replies.

Are you doing any outreach to the general public?

At the beginning, we went to a lot of Democratic Party district meetings, and we went to some church meetings. We even went to a Rotary meeting once. At some public events we leaflet and talk to people. It's pretty well-known among the progressive community, but that's a small community, unfortunately.

Other than our website, and leaflets, we don't have a lot of resources. We're not a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4), we don't have a lot of [resources]. It's an ad hoc network.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

There's a lot of residual anger about what happened to our economy, caused by the banks. And the fact that they were bailed out, and the people weren't. They convinced the president that the only solution was shoring up these banks, when that was not the only solution.

They could have nationalized these banks, they could have broken up these banks, they could have taken a lot of that money to start rebuilding our infrastructure, and start pushing us in the direction of getting off of fossil fuels. Of course, there was a lot of pushback from the banks and the oil companies.

But that's really where I'd like to see our country go, and the sooner the better. A public bank could help fund a green and sustainable economy. In Germany, they've made so much progress on rooftop solar. And they did it because of two things. One, you could get a mortgage to do that. Second, you would have an agreement with the local utility to buy back your power for twenty years at a certain price. So it actually costs you nothing; you end up making money right away.

That kind of situation could happen here, and a public bank could be part of that effort. The German manufacturing sector, which is very vital, has not exported its jobs all over the world. A lot of [the manufacturing companies] are smaller family businesses. From time to time they need credit, and they go to the [public banks]. We hear about Siemens, we hear about Mercedes Benz - the big companies. But the heart of German manufacturing is smaller businesses. And they have been able to survive, and to resist offers to sell to bigger corporations, because they have a public bank standing behind them.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:27:20 -0400
EPA's New Fracking Study: A Close Look at the Numbers Buried in the Fine Print

When EPA's long-awaited draft assessment on fracking and drinking water supplies was released, the oil and gas industry triumphantly focused on a headline-making sentence: "We did not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

But for fracking's backers, a sense of victory may prove to be fleeting.

EPA's draft assessment made one thing clear: fracking has repeatedly contaminated drinking water supplies (a fact that the industry has long aggressively denied).

Indeed, the federal government's recognition that fracking can contaminate drinking water supplies may prove to have opened the floodgates, especially since EPA called attention to major gaps in the official record, due in part to gag orders for landowners who settle contamination claims and in part because there simply hasn't been enough testing to know how widespread problems have become.

And although it's been less than a month since EPA's draft assessment was released, the evidence on fracking's impacts has continued to roll in.

A study in Texas' Barnett shale found high levels of pollutants - volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and known carcinogens - in many people's drinking water, based on testing from over 500 water wells. The contaminants found were associated with the shale drilling industry, but the researchers cautioned it was too soon to say whether the industry actually caused the contamination.

But the association was strong, the researchers said. "In the counties where there is more unconventional oil and gas development, the chemicals are worse," lead researcher Zachariah Hildenbrand told Inside Climate News. "They're in water in higher concentrations and more prevalent among the wells. As you get away from the drilling, water quality gets better. There's no doubt about it."

Those who might have hoped that EPA's national study would help resolve questions swirling around fracking were largely disappointed, saying that EPA's new draft assessment is largely a review of the current literature. EPA also heavily relied on data that was self-reported by drillers to FracFocus or to various states, leaving open questions about whether the accident rates they found are in fact under-stated.

Historically, the executive summary from EPA's assessments on the oil and gas industry has provided a much rosier picture than the details included in the body of the report. And a close look at EPA's new draft assessment reveals some striking results that haven't made headlines.

EPA couldn't say with certainty how many fracked wells there are in the US, nor could it say how much wastewater was produced from fracking. They could say that overall, the oil and gas industry is producing billions of gallons of wastewater a day - hundreds of billions of gallons per year - but couldn't say how much of that was tied to fracking.

Roughly a third of America's newly fracked wells that EPA could find were drilled in densely populated areas - either metropolitan areas or what the EPA calls "micropolitan" centers, where over ten thousand people live close together (p. 109).

Wells have been fracked as little as 0.01 miles away from a public drinking water supply, which supplies homes that do not use well water (p. 111) But despite how close fracking is to people's homes and public drinking water supplies, the EPA admitted it knows shockingly little about how risky the chemicals used are to human health (p. 38).

Meanwhile, accidents keep on happening, both above-ground and under, by the hundreds or thousands. One in a dozen spills by drillers wasn't contained before it hit drinking water sources - and the spills that hit water supplies tended to be much larger spills than those that didn't (p. 38). Although gas wells are generally depicted as having numerous layers of concrete and steel casings to prevent the gas, wastewater and chemicals inside the well from interacting with the environment outside it, two thirds of wells had no cement along some portions of their bores (p. 275), an EPA review found. And conditions underground, which can leave wells under high pressure, high temperatures or in "corrosive environments" sometimes caused well casings to have "life expectancies" that run out in under a decade (p. 281) - but the oil and gas industry has told investors that shale wells are expected to keep pumping for 30 years or more.

Here's a look at more of the evidence that's buried in the fine print on the EPA's study.

First and foremost, fracked wells can contaminate underground drinking water supplies and there are multiple documented cases where that has occurred. The EPA's assessment, for example, concluded that in Pennsylvania, "in some cases, the methane [found in drinking water wells] appears to have originated from deeper layers such as those where the Marcellus Shale is found." The agency also cited cases of water contamination tied to the Vermejo coalbeds in Colorado's Raton basin. (See p. 284-5 of the report). 

In fact, at the five sites EPA selected for its retrospective studies, they found problems everywhere and most of the time, the only available explanation was fracking. An aquifer was contaminated with wastewater and tert-butyl alcohol in North Dakota and EPA concluded that the only possible cause was a blow-out during fracking; in Northeastern PA, where gas is often naturally found in water supplies, 9 out of the 36 wells EPA analyzed were newly contaminated due to fracking activities (25%); salty groundwater contamination in Southwestern PA likely came from a fracking wastewater pit; in two of the drinking wells EPA studied in Wise County, TX, the only explanation consistent with the EPA found contamination was brines from fracked rock layers and a third drinking well may have also been similarly polluted; and in Raton Basin, CO, EPA found pollution but couldn't "definitively" link it to the coalbed fracking done in the area.

The agency also cited examples of lesser-known problems elsewhere in the US. For example, "[i]n Bainbridge, Ohio, inadequately cemented casing in a hydraulically fractured well contributed to the buildup of natural gas and high pressures along the outside of a production well," EPA said (p. 40-41). "This ultimately resulted in movement of natural gas into local drinking water aquifers."

At least 12.2 million people live or drink water from within a mile of a fracked well, but that is almost certainly an under-count because EPA couldn't locate all the wells that were fracked. (p. 31-32; 116) Tens of thousands of new wells are drilled and fracked every year, EPA found, and half of the states in the country have now been fracked. So even if problems occur a small percent of the time, vast numbers of individual people could be impacted.

And companies have been allowed to frack using over a thousand different chemicals nationwide even though scientists have a very poor understanding of the ways that they affect people (p. 176). Little is known about the human health effects for the vast majority of the chemicals used in fracking, a problem that EPA labeled "a significant data gap for hazard identification." The risks of long-term exposure were not know for 92% of the chemicals used during fracking (p. 38). Much also remains unknown about the health risks associated with 38-48 percent of the naturally-occurring materials that get mixed in with injected fluids underground, though more is known about these than the chemicals deliberately used by drillers.

The few chemicals whose health risks have been studied can have severe impacts on people's bodies, causing cancer, kidney, brain and liver problems, and pose harm to developing fetuses and babies (though EPA cautioned that so little is known about the more commonly used chemicals that it wasn't clear what risks an average well might pose) (p. 39).

This means that people whose health is harmed could have a hard time tying their ailments to fracking in court, because the science has lagged so far behind. It also makes it hard for regulators to know what chemicals are riskier or how best to prevent people from getting sick.

Although the oil and gas industry often focuses on "best practices" in describing how the modern shale rush has used emerging technology, even basic precautions are not routinely taken. Roughly 3 percent of fracked wells in one part of North Dakota - in other words, hundreds of wells per year - were deliberately built short on the well casings that are designed to protect drinking water supplies. And without enough casing, the risk of contamination spikes 1,000- fold, EPA noted (p. 39).

Much has been made of the long distances that fracking chemicals would have to travel to move from shale layers buried sometimes thousands of feet below the surface to the depths that people's drinking water wells reach. But it turns out that twenty percent of fracked wells are considered "shallow," which means that fracking happens much closer to drinking water supplies, EPA found (p. 41).

And, in a practice that has gotten very little attention, drilling companies are sometimes deliberately fracking directly into drinking water supplies. "The practice of injecting fracturing fluids into a formation that also contains a drinking water resource directly affects the quality of that water, since some of the fluid likely remains in the formation following hydraulic fracturing," EPA wrote. "Hydraulic fracturing in a drinking water resource is a concern in the short-term (should there be people currently using these zones as a drinking water supply) and the long-term (if drought or other conditions necessitate the future use of these zones for drinking water" (p. 41).

Of course, it's not just problems underground that cause contamination.

No one knows how much wastewater from fracking is produced nationwide, EPA reported, because states don't consistently track the industry's waste. This means there is no reliable way of knowing what percentage of wastewater winds up injected, dumped, spilled, deliberately evaporated in evaporation ponds, sent to treatment plants, sprayed on roads, or otherwise handled or mishandled. The amount of wastewater from a given well can be millions of gallons - sometimes even more than companies pumped in, or sometimes up to 90 percent of what's inject remains below ground, EPA said.

Sewage treatment plants cannot handle fracking wastewater, and there is no evidence proving that commercial wastewater treatment plants can handle it either (p. 46).

Hundreds or thousands of chemical or wastewater spills can be expected annually, and an average spill is over 400 gallons (picture eight 50-gallon drums), EPA found, despite limited reporting. About one in ten spills reached surface waters, and nearly two thirds soaked into the ground. "These spills tended to be of greater volume than spills that did not reach a water body," EPA noted (p.45).

Unlined wastewater storage pits can create "plumes" in underground water supplies, when fluids seep down through the soil into aquifers, and those plumes can create problems for a very long time and even reach nearby lakes, rivers or streams, EPA reported (p. 45).

And as droughts extend across much of the US, the sheer amount of water consumed by fracking - often permanently removed from the water cycle - also impacts America's drinking water supplies. In some counties, fracking consumes more than half of all the water that is used annually, based on the industry's own self-reporting, EPA noted (p. 35).

Problems underground have also dogged the fracking industry, and evidence is growing despite the complex and expensive technical problems that confront investigators into specific incidents.

Modern fracking techniques, where 10 or more wells are drilled from the same pad, may increase the risks of groundwater contamination, EPA found. In some parts of Oklahoma, fractures from two different wells accidentally crossed each other nearly half of the time. When this happens, fluids pumped down into one well can erupt out of a different well, causing fracking-fluid spills at ground-level (p. 42).

These risks are especially high if one of the over 1 million wells that were drilled and abandoned "prior to a formal regulatory structure" turns out to have been nearby (but that's hard to anticipate because "the status and location of many of these wells are unknown" (p. 42).

About 1,380 wells over a decade old were fracked in 2009 and 2010, despite concerns that older wells were not tested to withstand modern fracking techniques. "The EPA estimated that 6% of 23,000 oil and gas production wells were drilled more than 10 years before being hydraulically fractured in 2009 or 2010. Although new wells can be designed to withstand the stresses associated with hydraulic fracturing operations, older wells may not have been built or tested to the same specifications and their reuse for this purpose could be of concern. Moreover, aging and use of the well can contribute to casing degradation, which can be accelerated by exposure to corrosive chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide, carbonic acid, and brines." (p. 41)

While all of this shows EPA's baseline for talking about fracking's impacts, there are many reasons to believe that the agency's numbers represent just the tip of the iceberg. In its executive summary, EPA acknowledged that its numbers "may be an underestimate as a result of several factors," citing a lack of available data (p. 50).

EPA's study also took a narrow approach and left out many issues related to fracking, including problems that emerge during drilling or constructing well pads (even at sites where fracking is necessary to get the well to begin producing oil and gas), the impacts of mining of sand used as proppant, and what happens to wells once they stop producing oil and gas and are abandoned. Early plans to study air emissions and other effects were also dropped.

And of course, since the assessment is only a draft, it is still open for public comment. Public meetings and teleconferences to discuss EPA's findings are scheduled for this fall.

News Fri, 03 Jul 2015 11:19:48 -0400