February 7, 2008 | By:

Peeking beneath the Governors robes

Guest post by Dr. Brian L. Horejsi

I suspect that too few Montanans are aware of the activities of their governor, particularly when he ventures beyond state borders. Very recently he popped up in Calgary, Alberta, to glad hand with the oil and gas industry. Now we’ve all heard that ignorance is bliss, and while it worries me that too many people feel that’s OK, I prefer to know what my elected and appointed government, and its officials, are up to. Montanans are exceptionally fortunate in this respect: you have a constitution that says you have the right to know and the right to participate; powerful stuff! In other words, not only do you have a citizens responsibility, but you have a legal avenue to tune in and keep both a sharp eye and a tight rein on government.

There are few industries, lobbyists and promoters with a record of causing, and potential to cause, greater environmental, social, democratic or economic disruption and corruption than the oil and gas industry. In Alberta they wield ruthless control over the political agenda and every day workings of government. For a society that values freedom, transparency, fairness and honesty, as Montanans are inclined to say they do, courting the oil and gas industry is a bit like inviting the Mafia into your inner circle.

In Alberta a Royalty Review Panel (you call royalties severance taxes), consisting of various industry bigwigs recently arrived at the startling determination that the oil and gas industry, in cahoots with a fundamentalist conservative government, has short changed Albertans to the tune of between two and four billion dollars a year. That is not what you call chump money, in fact it equates to a conservative seven million public dollars a day shunted into industry pockets. What’s startling is not that our society is getting shafted by the industry – hundreds of thousands of Albertans have known that for decades; what shocked everyone was that this panel and its analysis “got away” from the oil and gas lobby and control machine. Imagine, 50 billion dollars weaseled away behind closed doors in recent decades and for 20 years not a peep from government or media! It ranks as one of the greatest financial scandals in Canadian history.

The oil and gas industry are part of an Alberta energy industry colossus, including captive regulatory agencies led by the Energy Utilities Board (roughly the equivalent of your oil and gas commission), which licenses oil and gas wells and is 60% funded directly from oil and gas industry coffers. Industry and conservatives like to call this an “independent regulator”! This outfit recently got caught infiltrating public groups and meetings with paid spies in order to find out what those dangerous ingrates – citizens like you and I – were thinking about their schemes to ram another industrial project down our throats. They have corrupted the regulatory structure so that no formal legal process for environmental impact analysis exists; how better to drill 99.99% of 15,000 to 20,000 wells licensed annually, no matter where or when industry chooses to drill? Many of you have heard of the ecological, social and economic avalanche known as global warming now barreling down on all of us like a semi approaching a packed school crosswalk at full speed. It began with, and continues because of uncontrolled, mindless exploitation of fossil fuels orchestrated almost exclusively by an oil and gas (and coal) industry that successfully subverted scientific, legal, democratic and social checks and balances.

Montanans ought to be alarmed that Gov. Schweitzer is travelling into North Americas corporate oil and gas heartland with his briefcase full of snake oil. The oil and gas industry is very, very good at some things. One of these is sending its tentacles into the heart of government, paralyzing and corrupting the legislative and regulatory process, what people more commonly refer to as the backbone and superstructure of democracy. The industry normally attacks the legislative structure of democratic process, as has recently happened in Washington during the Cheney command; where that “structure” is weak or non existent, as is the case in Alberta, they aggressively subvert public and social – activist efforts to develop and implement any legal structure to protect the public and our resources. Their goal, remember, is to divorce you from your government and your resources (a.k.a, money). A critical part of this legal and democratic vacuum is to indoctrinate and effectively paralyze the people who we traditionally view as the keepers of our democratic process; resource management and conservation agencies and elected officials at every level of government, from town to county to state. Very quickly citizens, should they dare venture into the public realm, find themselves isolated, divided, and having to beg for their rights.

The oil and gas industries primary objective is to insert its tentacles into the public purse; The latter, of course, is the “big prize” – it is, as the industry well knows, the biggest pot of money in existence. No one knows better how to convert public wealth into private riches than big oil and big gas.

Having a optimally large public purse is what a democratic government should do; after all, virtually every one of you get most of your services – school buses and teachers, roads and snow plows, policemen and court rooms, or parks and conservation officers – from some version of government. That slurping” sound you hear, however, is your money, and your services, being sucked into the oil and gas industries profit column. As your money gets diverted, campaign donations skyrocket for politicians that make the “right” calls, as in “there is no money for that” public service, law enforcement or educational services quickly become a “luxury” government can’t afford, and conservation of land and water is quickly labeled “red tape”, an impediment to the unrestricted growth of greed. The oil and gas industry then uses your money to sway local officials with simpleton diversions like “donating” new swings for the town campground, a new handicap bus (always gets front page coverage), and new TVs at the local high school. These are services that should and could be paid for by an independent government if it were collecting fair severance earnings. To add salt to the wound, the media then aggrandizes the big oil CEO as a hero for his generous community support! Soon the media succumbs to industry stroking and a constant flow of false propaganda about achieving the energy nirvana of independence and extolling the virtues of “free” enterprise begins. It’s a propaganda stranglehold that ultimately turns many citizens and businesses into zombies. No more ugly example exists than Alberta.

A governor bearing gifts of regulatory breakdown and tax giveaways, now that is a birds nest on the ground to the money and resource gobbling oil and gas industry. And your resources, land, water, and wildlife, along with the legislation you use to protect yourself, are the eggs in the nest. Montana sells itself as “the last best place”, and I fully agree that it is such a place (even if it is not the last such place), but if governor Schweitzer carries on with these dangerous antics, you will loose “the best” and citizens and taxpayers will come up last.

Is he striving for more oil and gas development, more extensive landscape destruction, more fossil fuel consumption, and accelerated global warming? That’s the chain of happenings. Here’s how the rabid oil and gas media advocates in Alberta, the Calgary Herald, reported his hi-jinks; Montanas “tax rate and regulatory environment is better” than Albertas. I can only speculate at what Schweitzer intends to give away, but we’ve been bilked out of at least 50 billion dollars over the last decade or so! Alberta have no Environmental Impact Assessment legislation, no wilderness Act, and precious little wilderness; don’t suppose the two could be related, do you? Coal bed methane wells are defined as “experimental”, a neat new category for which companies do not have to publicly disclose gas production or water consumption, and as icing on the cake, industry and government have decided no royalties – severance taxes – shall be paid on CBM! Legislation forced down the throat of Albertans in spite of elected and public opposition in December of last year has finally eliminated the ability of Albertans to earn legal standing at public hearings into oil and gas industry “projects” unless government labels them as “directly” affected. This is what Schweitzer wants Montana to emulate?

According to Schwetizer, some Montana residents “would welcome new refineries shunned by others”. We know oil and gas refining and processing degrades environmental quality, consumes massive amounts of the worlds most valuable resource – water, spews toxins into water and air by the ton, accelerates the world wide shroud of global warming, sickens people and animals, and corrupts the tax, economic and social structure of a region, but can Governor Schweitzer think this is a good thing? Benefits for a few, expense for many! And big oil and gas will get a break because you already “have a tax holiday”; “our taxes are already lower” he crows!

Is this the man that ran for governor occasionally wearing a green gown, claiming he was environmentally tuned in and there to serve the people? Sorry Governor, this is a package; no matter how you spin this, you cant be one without the other.

Nothing strikes fear into the oil and gas industry, or for that matter into politicians, more than the voice and involvement of the people. Big Gas and Big Oil, along with the timber and coal industries, spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to kill or manipulate the will and vision of citizens. Democracy, on the other hand, functions only if there is strong and consistent resistance to corporatism and political tyranny of the sort we have seen rise in America over the past decade. The fact is, the stronger citizens resistance, the more powerful your democracy. Only people like you can provide that resistance.

Montanans, with the assistance of people from across North America, provided one of modern histories most remarkable displays of democratic force to defeat the threat when the oil and gas industry made a grab for the fabulous ecosystems of the East Front of the Rocky Mountains. You have honest government when first the people and science define what life giving attributes and landscapes are important to you, and you then use democratic process including the law, to defend what’s important to you, your friends and family and the society you will have to live within. Then, when you have laws that protect society and the ecological integrity of the land firmly entrenched, and only then, might you open the door part ways to a closely regulated oil and gas industry.

I suggest to Montanans that they strip off the emperors clothes. As painful as it might be, take a hard look at the Governors grandiose ideas! There appear to be some unpleasant brown stains hiding under the those robes. You may not like what you see but you’d best know now before you find yourself with a ring in your nose and the oil and gas industry jerking the chain.

Dr. Brian L. Horejsi

Wildlife Scientist

Calgary, Alberta

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