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February 27, 2014

West Virginia Government: It is past time to lead or get out of the way!

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Baseball is just a game. Yet when the story broke of widespread steroid use among professional players the nation was outraged and demanded changes. We discovered when the best players were cheating then other players would cheat to be the best. The game was rigged. If performance is valued above everything, even the health of the player, then those who play by the rules are at a disadvantage. The nation responded. Laws were passed, testing implemented, enforcement was stepped up and they even threw some athletes and doctors in prison. It worked. Americans are now satisfied that they have a clean and reliable supply of baseball.

 

Clean water is more important than clean baseball.

 

In most states, under law, the water belongs to the people. But the mineral wealth belongs to those few who own the mineral rights. Those rights were acquired before the technology to mine or drill beneath the surface were developed, and purchased by unscrupulous agents who preyed upon poor rural farmers at the close of the Civil War. The current fracking boom continues this tradition as farmers sign contracts that not only allow the companies to take control over and pollute their lands but provide little of the promised profits from the well head.

 

These farmers were bamboozled by the same carpet baggers who for a few dollars and a bottle of booze were able to amass the vast mineral wealth of a nation. Under any rational legal system, this would constitute fraud and theft but under our system these are but the spoils of war, because in the mad rush to enrich themselves these speculators have declared war on the planet. This is nothing less than the scorched Earth policy of a hostile invader.

 

In their hundred year plus history the coal, gas and oil industry have been beyond the law, and in many cases today they are the law. Along with the mineral rights they also own the media and through an almost unlimited infusion of cash, they own the courts and the politicians. This corruption is so engrained in our political culture that it has become like the air we breathe, and few can imagine it ever being any different. Yet isn’t it past time that we looked at the necessity of seeing fossil fuels as something that belong to all of us, and something that needs to be left in the ground in order to save our species?

 

In a country that values property rights as much as the US, how could this be done?

 

First, I would argue that we must assume a war footing, and not in the sense of a conventional war. Fossil fuels are a weapon of mass distraction, and those who are dumping billions of tons of carbon into our already saturated atmosphere are nothing more than criminals. Yet it is very unlikely we would ever be able to arrest and prosecute even the worst offenders without declaring martial law.

 

How then could we proceed?

 

One simple way would be for the US government to print ten trillion dollars in new money, and do two things with it; First, buy out all of the existing mineral rights in the US; and purchase all of the infrastructure that extracts, processes and delivers it. If the President so orders, the US Mint has the power to do this. In fact, Nobel Prize winning economists Paul Krugman recently entertained the idea of minting a trillion dollar coin as a way to pay off the national debt.  A bold move like this would take an emergency declaration from the President and the support of the people.

 

All of this new money would be backed by the combined assets of the newly nationalized energy sector. Stockholders who receive the buyout must reinvest in clean energy or other climate change mitigation. These are both profitable sectors and profits and taxes could offset any loss of value from to the government from ending fossil fuel extraction. And, any profits from this program would be taxed. Both the taxpayers and investors would get their money back and the distortion of the market from printing so much new currency would be less than happened when 7 trillion dollars in value “disappeared” during the collapse of the housing bubble.

 

With public control of our carbon sinks, we could begin the long process of cleaning up the mess we’ve made this last hundred years and prepare for the terrible effects of climate change.

 

Unfortunately a bold plan like this would require that a national consensus was reached and our government was ready to lead. The public is still not convinced that climate change requires immediate and urgent action. It is not  yet seen as an emergency but that day is quickly approaching.

 

In the months leading up to the first World War, President Woodrow Wilson assumed unheard of executive power and took control of every aspect of US heavy industry. A new industrial infrastructure was built almost overnight. While Wilson stands accused of abusing this power it does nonetheless provide a historical precedent.

 

Presently spills, derailments, blowouts and explosions are happening at an alarming rate across this country because we are producing record amounts of dirty energy. We need a strong national effort to reduce carbon emissions now. We don’t need any more excuses for why it cannot be done. We don’t need new pipes, tanks and scrubbers, we need a whole new energy policy, one that eliminates fossil fuels altogether. We need to declare an emergency.

 

In the past, emergencies were declared to prepare for war or to respond to disasters. We must now prepare for weather related disasters. It makes no sense to spend billions on disaster relief without taking into account why these disasters are happening. Instead of another threat coming from another country, we face an enemy that has already invaded and taken control of every aspect of our civil life. Ungoverned and ungovernable, it has loyalty to neither country or individual, has no creed, philosophy or even ideology. It seeks only profits.

 

As long as the wealth of the nation is in the possession of an amoral and irresponsible few we will be speeding into a uncertain future that may not support human life. When ball players cheat only the game and their bodies are at risk. When fossil fuel and chemical companies cheat it is our rivers and our lives that are at risk. Congress sought to address this with the Clean Water Act and other laws but there was never enough enforcement in places that needed it most, the places where fossil fuels are extracted, processed and exported. Here in West Virginia citizens and community organizations have for decades been demanding enforcement of federal laws.

 

It took the federal government to come in and clean up baseball and to break up the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South. In 1931, Gov. Ross Sterling even ordered the National Guard into the East Texas fields, which he placed under martial law in order to control output and stabilize prices. There are plenty of historical precedents for declaring an emergency and taking control of broad sectors of the economy. What is missing by our government is any sense of urgency and this must change.

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February 27, 2014

The sad state of West Virginia’s politics …

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January 24, 2014

Poor West Virginia? Think again.

 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.  -Psalm 23.4

The chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia has once again put Appalachia on the map. This is what it usually takes.  People have to not just die at the hands of the coal and chemical industry, they have to die dramatically. The long slow death spiral West Virginia has been in for over a hundred years is not news unless they do. The Charleston spill did not kill anyone, at least not yet, but it did affect a large number of people. It was very dramatic, much more so then the suffering that goes on each and every day here, which is killing people, which is permanently ruining streams and rivers and removing mountains.

 

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After all, if the chemical had not leaked accidentally, they would have brought it up the Coal River and dumped it into the aquifer on purpose, and it would have gone to Charleston and down to New Orleans anyway. When a story like this breaks we hear once again the cries of “Poor West Virginia!” They  are sacrificed in the name of corporate greed. A wave of pity will wash over the country, and almost every one will look down the on the hollers once again and count their blessings, and then go to bed believing that they live in a place where this shit don’t happen. It is happening somewhere else to someone else, and is someone else’s fault.

 For the record, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, grew up next to a DuPont chemical plant, and we did this too. This sense of otherness that West Virginians have is reflected in the way others often see them, and treat them. I was raised to believe that country people were not like us. We were better. That is what a lot of people must be  thinking right now. As for the West Virginians, well, they have always seen themselves as being different, and much of that, if not all of that, is due to the unique history, geography, geology and biology of Appalachia. Timber, salt, coal, oil, gas and limestone, the richest deposits in all the world, surrounded the city of Charleston, and the Kenawah River and eventually the railroad provided a way to get these to markets around the world.

The upper 80 miles of Kenawah is called Chemical Valley and for over a century has been home to the highest concentration of chemical companies in the U.S. The mineral wealth of Appalachia literally built this country as we know it today, powered its mills and factories and made the belching smokestack a symbol of prosperity. It was the deciding factor in both world wars. Indeed it was the WW1 that created Chemical Valley as federal dollars rolled in to replace our almost total dependence on chemicals from Germany, which supplied almost all of the world’s industrial chemicals in use at the time. Soon Chemical Valley could make the same claim, and while the last few decades other countries have reduced its market share, Charleston is still the world’s leader in the manufacture of chemicals, and by proxy, in the poisoning of the world’s water. If you ate a fish caught any place in the world, you have chemicals from Charleston in your body.

The fact that most of the people in this state remained poor while the huge fortunes of the Gilded Era were being amassed has not evaded the occupants of the land that contained this wealth.  And while not passively accepting this grim fate they have at least come to expect it. Mountaineers have a brave history of fighting and winning historic struggles against all sorts of invaders, yet the result were always the same. Things did not change for the better. They usually got worse.

So what of the rest of the country? Are any of us really that different? Isn’t their fate in the hands of the same Toxic Overlords as is our own? The answers are obvious. We face a global crisis, and solutions need to be global. Yet there is reason to keep our attention on Charleston, and on mountain top removal, because this is where much of the chemicals released into the global environment originate. It is also where much of our fresh water originates. It was the birthplace of the labor movement where the poor and disposed did rise up, and for a while at least, made things better.

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There are many people on the ground in West Virginia fighting this industry. They have been warning for decades about the threats that coal and chemicals pose to our water. The idea that Appalachians are not standing up for themselves is a false one, and the comparisons are made to make us all feel better, as if we too had not been poisoned and dispossessed. The attention of the world is once again on West Virginia, and there is a reason for this.  Chemical Valley is the Valley of Death.

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The movement to end coal mining is larger and stronger in West Virginia then in most other places I’ve been, and since this is where the industry is concentrated, where it holds absolute political power, it is not surprising that making progress is difficult to impossible. Victory can be achieved only if the nation stands together and demands real change. I has to start here.

Mike Roselle