Post-Katrina, more giveaways to energy industry

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2005 was already shaping up to be a banner year for energy companies, and the human tragedy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita served as an excuse for even more profiteering.

The season of gift-giving began in the summer, when Congress passed an energy bill that had previously failed four years in a row. It includes huge subsidies for the nuclear, oil, coal and gas industries. It exempts them from provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Safe Drinking Water acts. It undermines the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements on impact reviews for projects on federal land, including Indian country. It gives carte blanche to the gasoline additive MTBE, which pollutes groundwater, and allows for underwater oil exploration using explosives that injure dolphins, whales and other ocean dwellers.

But worst of all — and almost unreported in the mainstream media — this legislation repealed the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act, which formerly limited speculation in utility companies. The inevitable deluge of acquisitions, unless checked, will sweep publicly owned utilities, and reasonable consumer prices, off the map.

It was the partial repeal of this act during the oil industry deregulation of the 1990s that opened the door to Enron’s shadow companies, “energy crisis” price-fixing in California, and bankruptcy.

Only a month after passage of the new energy bill, the hurricanes hit, and gasoline prices skyrocketed nationwide. Sure enough, the politicians discovered that energy companies were still oppressed by ecological and consumer safeguards. They alleged that a crisis of low refinery capacity was due to onerous environmental laws. (Actually, oil companies deliberately closed refineries throughout the 1990s in order to jack up profits!)

Bush immediately used the crisis to proselytize for nuclear power and to waive pollution controls on fuel additives. Congress went to work on a new bill to exempt energy facilities from pollution control upgrades, allow cities to skip cleanup deadlines, take refinery-permitting authority away from states, repeal just instituted diesel fuel standards, and permit the siting of refineries on public land.

That’s not all. The plan to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling has been dropped for now in the House of Representatives, thanks to intense outrage, but is still part of the Senate version of the budget bill. Reconciliation of the two budget versions is upcoming.

For the energy moguls, disaster is just another road to profits.

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