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White Houses, Right Whales and Moby Dick Cheney

by Michael Winship

As the candidates engage in an ultimately pointless, fruitless debate over whether or not to give the gasoline tax a summer holiday, the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney secretly has been developing a quaintly 19th century solution to the energy crisis.

Whaling.

At least, that's one possible conclusion you might draw from last week's report out of California Congressman Henry Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

According to documents leaked to and released by the committee, for more than a year Cheney's office and the White House Council of Economic Advisors, coordinating with the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, have been holding up a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rule that would protect the North American right whale, one of the most endangered animals in the world.

The rule would require vessels moving across certain Eastern seaboard shipping lanes at certain times of year to lower their speed to ten knots or less, reducing the chance of colliding with the whales. There are fewer than 400 left alive, placidly swimming the waters of the planet.

NOAA has stated unequivocally, "There is a direct relationship between speed and death/serious injury... at vessel speeds at or below 10 knots the probability of death/serious injury is greatly reduced."

In a letter to Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Susan E. Dudley, Rep. Waxman writes, "Collisions with ships currently are the leading cause of right whale mortality in the western North Atlantic. Ship strikes have caused at least 19 deaths since 1986, with more suspected but unreported...

"NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] says that 'no mortality or serious injury for this [whale] can be considered insignificant' and that the death of even a single whale, particularly of a breeding female, 'may contribute to the extinction of the species.'"

(Readers may recall that Ms. Dudley holds what Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell called "one of the most obscure yet powerful jobs in Washington... The person in this position can, largely without public scrutiny, interfere with actions of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and become a conduit for industries seeking to avoid federal health, environmental and safety standards." This she has done.)

Waxman's report cites an internal document showing that "officials working for the Vice President... raised spurious objections to the science... While I appreciate the value of vigorous scientific debate," the congressman continues, "I question why... the Vice President's staff is challenging the conclusions of the government's scientific experts. The appearance is that the White House rejects the conclusions of its own scientists and peer-reviewed scientific studies because it does not like the policy implications of the data. This is not how the review process is supposed to work."

So why all the interest on the part of our great white veep and his minions? If you buy into the premise of my lead, and taking into consideration Cheney's antediluvian thought processes, I believe he's planning to take the whales knocked off by the ships and use their oil to fuel our lamps. Energy crisis solved!

But seriously, folks, the real reason would seem to be, as the Washington Post reported last Thursday, "Some shipping companies have opposed the NOAA proposal, saying slowing their vessels will cost the industry money." The World Shipping Council, the lead Washington lobby organization for the international cargo and container ship industry, actively has opposed the rule and in a 2007 report claimed potential losses as high as $100 million a year.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the shipping industry has made close to $30 million in political contributions in the United States, with about 58% going to Republican candidates (63% in 2004, Bush's reelection year). Do the math.

More broadly, as the Associated Press reported, "The revelations surrounding the right whale regulation come amid criticism from members of Congress and conservation groups of alleged White House interference in the work of government scientists involved in a wide range of areas from regulating toxic chemicals to climate change and protecting endangered species."

Just this weekend, the Post noted the resignation "under pressure from the Bush administration" of Mary Gade, head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Midwest office. She had "fought for months with Dow [Chemical] over plans to address dioxin contaminated soil and sediment in Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron stemming from the chemical giant's Midland, Mich., plant. Dioxin, which at low levels of exposure has been found to cause cancer as well as immune and reproductive system problems, is a byproduct in the production of Agent Orange and other chemical products."

Speaking from the floor of the US Senate Friday morning, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse said, "We do not yet know all the details of Ms. Gade's firing or everything that may have gone on between EPA and Dow Chemical. But from all we have heard and seen, Mary Gade's story seems like déjà vu all over again from an administration that values compliance with a political agenda over the best interests of the American people."

Save the whales? Hell, save ourselves.

Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

copyright 2008 Michael Winship

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