Save the Birds, Kill the Planet: Interior Attacks Wind Turbines in Push for Fossil Fuels

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While pledging the administration’s dedication to the fossil fuel industry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made the inaccurate but oft-cited claim that turbines kill 750,000 birds a year. Scott Edwards of Food & Water Watch discusses the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and states’ efforts to pass climate regulations in the absence of federal laws

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a conference with thousands of oil executives that the Interior Department should not be in the business of being an adversary. Instead, it should be in the business of being a partner. He also said that wind turbines kill as many as 750,000 birds a year, a criticism that seems to have become a Trump administration talking point, and he also argued that wind turbine production and transportation contributes to global warming. Facts that have been checked and refuted by Axiom Media and many others. While Zinke is threatening to open up more land and offshore drilling including environmentally vulnerable Alaskan regions, he did recently cancel an oil and gas lease sale scheduled for his home state of Montana due to local pressure.

Meanwhile, a carbon tax bill has failed to gather enough votes to pass the Washington state Senate and an Oregon cap-and-trade bill is increasingly in danger of failing. Those are good signs. Here to discuss these issues of fossil fuel infrastructure plans of the Trump administration, I’m joined by Scott Edwards, he’s the co-director of Food and Water Justice and co-director at Climate and Energy at Food and Water watch. I thank you so much for joining us Scott.

SCOTT EDWARDS: Thanks for having me on. Pleasure to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Scott, the interior department manages 500,000 million acres, which is a fifth of the total United states land mass. They also apparently handle leasing for offshore areas of oil drilling. Now, combined, that’s a lot of responsibility for oil drilling under this administration. Would you say that the Trump administration is rapidly expanding their plans to give out more leases for oil and gas drilling? If so, if the plans are there, are they successfully implementing this at this time?

SCOTT EDWARDS: Yeah. This is certainly a priority for this administration, for Trump, for Pruitt, for Zinke, for his entire cast of cabinet members and his energy policy. He wants to as he said, create energy dominance in the United states and for him, that means rapidly expanding all of our fossil fuel, not renewable of course, but our fossil fuel development and infrastructure throughout the country and offshore and we will see over the next year, a rapid expansion of actual projects being approved, leases being given and lands opening up under the current administration.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Zinke’s speech that he gave to these oil executives came a day after the Department of Interior postponed the leasing of a chunk of land in South Central Montana for oil and gas drilling as well as delaying leases of the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Tell us how these delays came about. Was there lot’s of resistance to them from local communities or where is the pressure coming from?

SCOTT EDWARDS: Yeah, in the case of Montana it was local pressure and again, as you pointed out, it’s Zinke’s home area and certainly, I think he is more willing to listen to folks in his immediate area and for political reasons, reconsider that lease. In the case of Chaco Canyon, that proposed lease was absolutely irresponsible to begin with given the impact it was going to have on native lands and sacred sites and there was a lot of local and local-political pressure placed on the Department of Interior to not rush ahead.

Now, these are delays in these leases. I’m not convinced that Zinke will not eventually and the Department of Interior will not eventually approve drilling in places like Chaco Canyon but certainly the postponement of the lease was good news and it gives time for opponents to really mobilize and start to fight these things off but make no mistake about it, Zinke and the rest of this administration is determined to open up as much land as possible for fossil fuel extraction and this is an administration that’s very much in bed with the fossil fuel industry and wants to allow them to do whatever they want to do in terms of drilling.

SHARMINI PERIES: Scott, tell us about the Washington state’s carbon tax bill. Has it gathered enough votes to pass the state senate or is it expected to fail? And what are the reasons behind it?

SCOTT EDWARDS: Well, I think it was on a sort of a 50/50 chance going in whether this bill could pass the legislature. We were hearing from folks on the ground in Washington that it didn’t stand a good chance going in. They are now looking to do it via a ballot initiative, although it’s dead in the legislature, it’s still a chance that it will pass through other measures, through this ballot initiative measure but we at Food and Water Watch, for us carbon taxes are another pricing mechanism for carbon that we don’t think are the real solution to our climate problems, akin to cap and trade, another pricing mechanism that we are troubled without.

SHARMINI PERIES: In response to a lot of this, Food and Water Watch is calling for a bill more like the ones that have been introduced in New York, in New Jersey and Maryland. Tell us what are the attractive things for Food and Water Watch in those bills that we should try to be replicating in other states?

SCOTT EDWARDS: Well, what’s important about the bills we support and have been working on and at the federal level through Tulsi Gabbard’s OFF Act, it is mandated reductions in carbon. Not pricing systems. Back in the ’60s, ’50s when we were on the verge of another environmental crisis in this country in terms of water and air quality, congress in the ’70s knew how to deal with it. They enacted a series of laws, the clean air act, the clean water act. It didn’t say to polluters, “Okay, if you want to pay some money, you can continue to put cadmium and mercury and other pollutants into our water ways and our air sheds.” They said, “Here are your new permit limits and they’re going to ratchet down and you need to comply with them and we’re going to clean up our environment.”

We have seen a shift in this country to the right, such an extreme shift that these pricing systems that Washington is considering as Carbon Tax in Oregon, it was a cap-and-trade program. California has a cap-and-trade program but they’re all premised on the same thing that you can pollute as long as you’re willing to pay some kind of a price to do so. Those concepts are not progressive concepts, those are ideas that came out of conservatives and industry decades ago and we’ve seen such a political shift in this country that we now have people who consider themselves to be progressives, clinging on to these old conservative ideals to address climate and they’ve never been shown to reduce climate emissions or carbon emissions. They haven’t been shown to be successful at all anywhere.

For us, these are not the right approaches. We know how to control pollution, it’s through mandated reductions, not through these market-based systems.

SHARMINI PERIES: Scott, we saw around the Paris Agreement discussions shortly after the Trump administration had come to Washington, a number of cities and states taking actions to counter what may or may not come about in Washington in terms of climate action. Do you feel that those initiatives are gaining ground across the country?

SCOTT EDWARDS: I think absolutely. I think local governments, not just states but as it turns out cities and the mayors of cities, local municipalities, we’re seeing a ground swell of local efforts to address climate chaos that we’re now facing and it’s not in recognition to the fact that our federal government is for now and hopefully that will change shortly but for now is not going to do anything to fix our climate problem and so we are seeing a number of initiatives, local resolutions, state bills, state efforts to address climate and as you pointed out, some mayors are now endorsing and embracing the Paris Accord on their own without the Federal Government having to do so.

It’s very much something that needs to happen on the local level and is happening on the local level. After all, a lot of what’s happening with fossil fuel infrastructure where there’s pipelines and pressure stations and drilling is happening where local governments do have some say over permitting, over sighting and so they do have some authority to come in there and try to make a difference.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alright and when you look across the country Scott, point us at some examples that you think are really innovative and is taking root and having some effect, to give our audience some hope.

SCOTT EDWARDS: Well, we’re certainly seeing … again, as you pointed out in the beginning in states like Maryland and Virginia, New York, efforts to pass very aggressive climate legislation like the OFF Act where they are putting in mandated carbon reductions, aggressive mandated carbon reductions and those are certainly hopeful signs. We’re seeing some states, not many, starting to talk about improving their renewable portfolio standards to be more stringent. Again, our states are lagging way far behind where they need to be on that but there’s been some talk about that. We are seeing states like New York and hopefully others become more aggressive in terms of their role in fossil fuel infrastructure. New York has used its Clean Water Act authority a couple of times in the last year to reject natural gas pipelines coming through the state through what is called their 401 process and saying, “We’re not allowing this fossil fuel infrastructure because of the impacts on water ways.”

We’re seeing some efforts on oil and gas infrastructure around eminent domain, and states and localities stepping up and saying to these fossil fuel companies that, “We’re not going to allow you to take away the property rights of local citizens so you can put in your infrastructure. It’s just not going to happen.” We’re seeing a combination of efforts. I certainly think that there is a good awareness in this country now about climate change and the role that fossil fuel plays in it and I think local governments are being somewhat responsive to the demands of their residents but we need to do a lot more given where we are on the federal level.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alright. Scott, I thank you so much for joining us today and I think the next time we have a conversation, we should actually debate the issue of cap-and-trade or pay-to-pollute kind of proposals that are out there and I’d love to have you back for that.

SCOTT EDWARDS: Yeah, I’d look forward to that. It’s certainly an important issue and I’d love to have the discussion some time.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, and thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.