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 V.13 No.20 | May 13 - 19, 2004 

News Interview

In Search of a Free Market

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., laments today's corporate crony capitalism

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Tim McGivern
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is not your garden-variety environmental organization. Meaning, the organization isn't just working to inform the public about the usually dreadful direction our natural world is headed thanks to tons of pollution we humans create every year. NRDC, by their website's own account, is in fact "the nation's most effective environmental action organization." The imperative word here is action, as in legal action. Last week, one of the organization's most famous lawyers, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., spoke to an exuberant crowd of supporters at the National Hispanic Cultural Center lamenting our current state of environmental affairs. Afterward, the Alibi sat down with Mr. Kennedy to get his opinion on the way environmental policy works these days.

You say there is no difference between conservation and economic policy. Explain what you mean.

Good environmental policy 100 percent of the time is identical to good economic policy if we aim to measure the economy, and this is how we ought to be measuring it, based on how it increases jobs and the dignity of jobs. The White House policy is like business liquidation—convert our natural resources to cash and have a few years of pollution-based prosperity.

We can generate instantaneous cash flow and an illusion of a prosperous economy by eliminating environmental protections. But our children will have to pay for our joyride, and they are going to pay for it with poor health and huge clean-up costs.

You also said environmental issues are rarely covered by the mainstream media.

Yeah, I can explain why that is. How much time do you have? Time for a quick sound bite? The quick sound bite is that environmental issues are complex and they are not fast breaking. Reporters don't have time for them. You know we've had a huge consolidation of the media in our country. We have 11 companies, major corporations, that now control the majority of radio stations, newspapers and TV stations, and the news departments have now become word process centers. And they are playing gossip and pornography, Michael Jackson, the Super Bowl and J-Lo, etc. They really don't have time to look into issues that are having catastrophic impacts on the day to day lives of the average Americans, on our health and our economy, our ability to have our livelihood.

For example, the EPA constructed a panel that was made up of industry representatives, state governments, and representatives of the environmental and public health community to determine what the best available technology for removing mercury (emissions from coal power plants) was. The law doesn't say you have to reduce it to a certain level, the law says you have to use the best available technology. The best available technology is defined as the technology that's already in use at least 12 percent of the existing plants. What this panel determined is that the best available technology could remove 90 percent of the mercury and it could do it at a cost of less than 1 percent of the value of the power plant and that's good for all plants.

Representatives from the coal-burning utilities say the industry discharges 40 percent of the mercury emissions in America, but it's much less than that if you compare it to what's discharged around the world. The industry's been saying for years that, therefore, even if they clean up, it's not going to have any impact on fish in our backyard, which is the primary factor for human contamination. However, there's now a $40 million study in Florida that shows that when you shut down a mercury-producing incinerator, that within five years the mercury levels immediately downstream drop to almost zero. So, we now know that the mercury in our fish is not coming from Asia. It's coming from our own coal-burning power plants and we know that if these plants reduce mercury we're going to get immediate benefits to our human health in this country.

How do you explain why the United States is the only industrialized nation that is still debating whether mercury contamination, or say global climate change, is truly happening?

Because industry has put billions of dollars over the last 20 years into a very aggressive public relations campaign to try and deceive the public. It's called green washing—and they have big PR firms out there that do this, dedicate millions of dollars every year, firms like Burson-Marsteller, that create phony front groups and phony think-tanks and they stock them with the average scientists that we call biostitutes or confusionists whose job is to simply continue to slow down information about global warming.

If you look at the mainstream scientific community, there are no skeptics left, there's a virtual consensus. The world meteorological organization's findings show that industrial emissions are causing dramatic global warming worldwide. There's no legitimate scientists out there that are still feeling doubts about global warming. But within this country—and you're right, it's the only country in the world that's like this—there's still a political debate, where politicians, you know, can get up and say ’Well we still have doubts about global warming.'

We have a president in the White House who doesn't believe in evolution, so what kind of scientific evidence are we going to need to persuade him that global warming is actually happening?

We also call this "tobacco science," because it mimics what the tobacco industry did in this country with the Tobacco Institute. Four years ago, the heads of all these tobacco companies were able to go up in front of Congress and swear under oath that they did not believe that cigarettes cause health injuries and the reason they were able to do that is because they had been for years generating phony scientific reports when every single doctor in this country can tell you that cigarettes cause cancer. This is an industry that kills one out of every five of its customers that use the product as directed. Everybody knows that, nobody has any doubts about that, it's on every cigarette box, but they still were able to prevent regulation of their industry.

They had a lot less profits at stake than the coal industry and the utilities do. So the coal industry and the utilities are using the same kind of tactics to deceive the public and create confusion in a way to paralyze the regulatory process. They have successfully done it and they have people like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that say global warming is the biggest hoax on the American public in history. These people are given cover by this massive public relations campaign that has been funded by the utilities.

Discuss Bush's disbelief in evolution and treating the U.S. like business liquidation. Do you think this has to do with the evangelical belief in Armageddon?

You know, I don't know. There are a lot of people in this administration that embrace a Christian heresy, known as dominion theology. It was promoted by James Watt (former Secretary of Interior under Ronald Reagan). It says we should use up all our environmental resources because the Lord is coming soon and that's what he told them. We shouldn't preserve things for future generations, and there are a lot of those characters spread through this administration. But I think most of it is driven by something much more banal, like enrich our friends, enrich our campaign contributors, and it seems to me by watching what's happening on a day to day basis on Capitol Hill, this is driven mainly by industry which is making a lot of money polluting our air and water, and threatening our children.

At the Western Governor's Association meeting recently in Albuquerque, Gov. Bill Owens from Colorado in his keynote speech said the air and water has gotten cleaner largely due to the efforts of industry—that the news for the past 30 years is all good news for the environment.

It is true that our air and water have gotten better because of strong environmental laws, not because the industry chose to do it. Industry has resisted, the trade associations have resisted, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming (to comply). So now we have an administration that is weakening those laws. So, I would agree that we've gotten better, but science now is so clear that we need to do a lot better.

One out of every 12 American women of childbearing years has so much mercury in her blood that it's dangerous for her to have children. My own mercury levels are 11 parts to the billion, which is double the normal levels. I've been told by the National Authority on Mercury Contamination, if a woman had my levels her child would have permanent cognitive impairment, permanent IQ loss. We know this and 40-50 percent of this mercury comes from coal-burning power plants.

The Clinton administration reacted to that science by ordering plants to remove mercury within three and a half years. But the Bush administration six weeks ago, in order to please the political contributors, got rid of that regulation and replaced it with a regulation that will require them to never have to remove the mercury. According to the National Academy of Scientists, this will kill 30,000 Americans a year. There's no scientific debate on this, what they're doing is illegal and against science.

Republicans in Congress, most of them except the moderates mostly from the Northeast, are against environmental regulations. But the rank and file voters around the country in a Gallup Poll showed that 81percent of Americans—and there's no difference between the parties—want stronger environmental laws and stricter enforcement.

So, the Bush administration (prepared) this famous report which we actually obtained and released that says if we want to dismantle the environmental laws we've got to do that secretly and; therefore, when we do something bad, we should call it something good, like the Clear Skies Initiative and Healthy Forests Initiative, and so on.

If you could tell Sen. Pete Domenici anything about the energy bill he sponsored that hasn't made it through the Senate, but he's still hell-bent on getting passed, if you could somehow become his policy advisor, what would you say?

I'd say let's restore free market capitalism in this country. We need to have a free market and let's get rid of these subsidies. That bill is the most obscene collection of subsidies of any bill that has ever been passed by both Houses in the history of the United States. Billions of dollars in subsidies to the oil industry and almost nothing for conservation. So, if we want to improve quality of life in America, if we want to improve our economy and foreign relations, the best thing to do is to reduce our need for oil and the cheapest, most efficient way of doing that is through a fuel efficient economy. We waste 50 percent of the fuel that we have in this country. If we raise fuel efficiency by one mile per gallon we would generate two Arctic wildlife refuges full of oil. If we raise it by 2.6 miles a gallon, we would generate more oil than is in Iraq and Kuwait combined. If we raise fuel efficiency by 7.6 miles per gallon, we eliminate 100 percent of our gulf oil imports. Imagine that. Imagine if we could do that. What better foreign policy could we have than disconnecting the umbilical cord that we have now to the Mid-East? And yet there's nothing in that bill on fuel efficiency standards and almost nothing about fuel economy. It's all just big gifts to big polluters.

I have a bottled water company that I own, I'm a small businessman, and my bottled water is now threatened because of MTBE (a chemical gasoline additive) which oil companies started putting into gasoline decades ago. Domenici has in that bill a provision that excuses the industry of liability for ruining businesses like mine.

What do you think is the desired effect of that provision?

I think he's trying to protect the oil industry, the political contributors in the oil industry. I don't think there's any doubt about it. I mean, you know, you ask him, why would he put that protection in there? You know what, sometimes they lie and say it was the EPA that ordered them to put MTBE into the gasoline, but that's totally not true. The oil industry forced it down the EPA's throat and the law today does not require MTBE to be added to gasoline. It's a free product to them because it's a byproduct of the refinery process. The EPA did not want to use it, and the oil companies, Exxon, Texaco, Shell, concealed from them their own reports that show that this was going to get into our water supply and cause cancer.

If you were in charge of Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force what would you do?

Our objective should be energy independence and a clean environment in this country and the quickest way to get there is by making fuel economy the number one objective.

Why do these oil and coal companies need subsidies? Aren't they profitable?

Of course, they're profitable. Exxon tripled its profits last year over the already record previous year. Since 1999, they've quintupled profits, so they are already hugely profitable and yet we're giving them $65 million a year in subsidies plus I would argue that the entire war in Iraq is a subsidy to the oil companies. That's $87 billion a year that really ought to be reflected in our oil prices 'cause that's the taxpayers paying to protect our relationships with these oil kings, oil sheiks over there. But we give millions of dollars a year in direct subsidies to Exxon and, of course, that distorts the entire marketplace. Subsidies distort the market and they enable pollution. If you have a free market, you have efficiency. Efficiency means the elimination of waste which is the elimination of pollution.

So, if it's not a free market, what would you call it?

I'd call it corporate crony capitalism and there's a huge difference between free market capitalism and corporate crony capitalism, which is as antithetical to democracy in America as it is in Nigeria. I mean, there's no market left in agriculture. You can't raise pigs in this country and then take them to a slaughterhouse and then to market. You know, the farms, the factory farms, now owned by a few giant companies. The slaughterhouses are owned by them. The retailers are owned by them. The small farms are producing it a lot cheaper than those big factory farms yet they can't sell their product because the free market's been eliminated.

You know, these consolidations that are being encouraged by the Bush administration affect so many industries. Your newspaper may be independent, but it's one of the few independents. They're all, you know, being bought up by the big chains and so they consolidate the news departments and they fire the reporters and the consumer also gets less choice. You get an end to coverage of important issues. I can't get on television and talk about most of this stuff. I talked about this on the Charles Grodin show which was the best talk show on TV and they fired him for having me on the show. It was General Electric (owns NBC) who owned the show and I talked about GE polluting the Hudson.

When I go on the O'Reilly Factor (on Fox News channel) which I do often, there's a whole list of requirements like I'm not allowed to criticize the president. We tried to ...

You're not allowed to criticize the president? Do your First Amendment rights stop at the steps of FOX studios?

What they say is ’We will allow you on the show as long as you don't criticize the president and we're going to do a pre-interview to make sure you can talk about these issues without criticizing the president.' Now they won't even let me on live. They record the show so if I go off the reservation on TV then they can cancel that episode.

I'll tell you how bad it is. We produced an advertisement that was critical of SUVs and of the lack of fuel efficiency standards. Actually, it's a beautiful ad. It looks like an automobile ad. It's all professionally done. It cost, you know, half a million dollars to make this ad. And it's a car that's covered by a blanket and it says "imagine if you had a car that got 40 miles to the gallon like an SUV that could get you to work in the morning ... and they rip off the blanket and there's nothing there. And it says, "We do have this car but Detroit won't make it." And that's it. It's a beautiful ad. We went to the networks with money, we weren't asking for PSA (free public service announcement) time. I went to all three networks with Laurie David.

Who's that?

Wife of Larry David. He wrote “Seinfeld” and he has that show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and he's a huge environmental supporter and he helped finance these ads. And we went to the networks, all three networks, and they all refused to air the ad. We went through the bureaucracy and they said, "No we're not going to air an ad that's critical of the automobile industry." And finally we went to the head of ABC, met with him and he just laughed us out of his office and said, "Look, I have three buying offices, One in New York, one in L.A., one in Detroit. There is no way this network is putting anything on TV that is critical of the automobile industry."

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