24 Oct 2017

Adventures in Objectivity – It’s Just Business

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This is part 2 of a 2-part series. Click here to read both parts.

Part 2 of 2 – The Sacramento Bee Lifts the Curtain on Big Enviro NGOs

In Part 1 of this intended 5-part series, the PolicySmith stated, “Long lived success in commerce follows a simple axiom.  Deliver to the customer what is promised at a fair price with a reasonable margin for profit and business thrives.”  It is now prudent to add that gauging customer response and maintaining flexibility are additional critical elements.

Part 1 of this series set the table for parallel looks at journalist objectivity and what has been labeled in some quarters as “Environment, Inc.”  Tom Knudson, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Sacramento Bee dug deeply into the financing and practices of the organized environmental movement.  He produced a five-part series in 2001 that was a journalistic landmark.

So far so good.  But it became clear shortly after that essay was posted that five lengthy essays plumbing the depths of a nearly 20-year old journalistic venture was a flawed exercise.  The fact remains that this series in the Bee is a great read and worth the time.  Click here to access it.

Today, pieces of that series are as relevant and compelling as they were in 2001.  What originated as a movement of volunteers and true believers morphed into big organizations raising big bucks.  As Michael Corleone of Godfather fame said,

From the cutesy, cuddly catalogs to the cynicism of the “sue and settle” tactics, no stone is left unturned in fleecing the public and government’s treasury.

W.C. Fields nailed it when he titled his movie about a circus owner “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”  His kicker to that line in the movie is “…or smarten up a chump.”  The public is played the sucker with the catalogs, calendars and gimmicks claiming to “support the environment,” when in reality they’re lining the pockets of craven lawyers who’ve manipulated ordinary citizens and perverted the seemingly noble origins of environmentalism.

For only $99 to the National Wildlife Federation any victim can obtain a wall plaque certifying the owner’s backyard as “Wildlife Habitat.”  Only $125-150 gets any chump a plaque personalized with an address of said habitat.  Both of course are metal (which must be mined, and is not biodegradable!), Christmas ornaments, mugs, coasters, keychains, nightshirts and even goofy “collectible” endangered species toys can be had by those being had. There are nearly 10,000 items available for purchase on the NWF website.

This is part and parcel of Knudson’s indictment of the environmental “movement” in 2001.  His series elicited a response from the publisher of High Country News, a vehicle for a collection of self-styled he-men/outdoors advocates to potshot and sphincter clench over any development under the banner Writers on the Range.

These self-styled cowboy poets, poet cowboys, Marlboro men (kicked the smokes, converted to kale salad and celery juice) and handwringers over sagebrush, GMO anything, farm to table to gut, ad nauseum, crank out wistful and weepy tomes over the demise of the West as they sorta think they knew it back when.  Below is the take of their leader, Ed Marston:

“Tom Knudson has launched another series in the Bee, headlined “Environment, Inc.” This time he attacks the West’s and the nation’s environmental movement as overpaid, overzealous, and reckless in its desire to sue and ‘chaotic and shrill.’

If this were almost any other journalist, we could blow off the series. But this is Tom Knudson, and we should pay attention to what turned him from a journalist who has spent two decades muckraking environmentalism’s enemies to one who is muckraking environmentalism.

Judging by the emotional content of the series, he was most offended by environmentalism’s end-of-the-world, doomsday rhetoric in millions of pieces of direct (‘junk’) mail. Direct mail is the public face of environmentalism, and that face, he indicated, is often covered with angry red blotches. The letters are hysterical, overstated and, at times, flat-out wrong.

The takeaway from this is highly instructive.  Enviros are used to accommodating, fawning coverage by the press.  They dismiss out of hand “almost any other journalist.”  Typical of the enviro-activist, if you’re not one of them, you “don’t get it” and must be on the wrong side…of the issue, history, public opinion, the street, etc.

Marston quotes Knudson’s assertion “reckless in its desire to sue.”  Such suits have never been reckless, they are and have been calculated and purposeful fund-raising tactics aided and abetted by sympathetic bureaucrats in the Departments of Interior, Energy and Justice, the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Once again, the law of unintended consequences wreaks havoc.  When NEPA and the Endangered Species Act became law, attendant provisions in these laws gave the public the right to sue to assure future government actions would faithfully carry out the law’s provisions.

Early on suits were focused on misdeeds and gross oversights.  Then through the 1980s and 1990s attorneys hunting for fees caught on, and the blizzard of lawsuits was underway.  In the early 1990s Earthjustice (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) sought $5 million as a partial settlement for winning an endangered species lawsuit in Texas.  It was the largest fee request of the 1990s.  It was settled for $2 million.

In a 1996 ESA case, the Environmental Defense Center asked for more than $123,000 in a case that resulted in the red-legged frog being listed as “threatened.”  The original invoice, cut to less than $45,000 by the judge, charged for time talking to the news media, travel, and even time for adding up the legal bill!

Another Environmental Defense Fund suit in 1993 filed against the EPA claimed to have spent 73.45 hours preparing two letters to the EPA at a total billing of more than $17,700+.  The judges rejected the bill out of hand.

Fast forward through the Bush and Obama administrations and the sue and settle tactic has been honed to a fine art.  Green activists in the EPA and elsewhere in the federal family have invited suits by Environment, Inc.  It’s a win-win as the NGOs win the dollars in play in the suit and the agency activists get the policy they want but can’t get passed legislatively.

Businesses and their trade groups would protest, but EPA would claim it was powerless as its hands are tied by the settlement.  The Obama EPA alone imposed a record number of implementation plans under the Clean Air Act.  Even worse, EPA agreements since 2009 with litigious environmental groups have resulted in no fewer than 137 new Clean Air Act regulations, according to research by The Wall Street Journal.  Costs of some of the most onerous run into the billions of dollars.

Days ago, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt moved to dramatically diminish sue and settle suits.  He issued a directive that EPA no longer commit to specific agency outcomes in lawsuits, merely that EPA will review a provision or a rule in question.  In addition, proposed consent decrees will be open to public comment and states and industries affected will be invited to engage.

Extractive industries long ago learned the lack of precision in the writing of law is the turn in the road that leads nowhere but to endless litigation.  The more cynical of the electorate speculate that the attorneys in elected office, of which there are many, are purposeful in the vague language of legislation and the opacity of the “intent of Congress.”

Openings for interpretation are the bread and butter of the legal profession, and who (the cynic asks) are elected attorneys to not advance the earning opportunities of their brethren – be they corporate, enviro, trial, patent, SEC, FEC or the plethora of other legal practices?

A tip of the chapeau to Messrs. Knudson and Rodriguez, and the Sacramento Bee.  It is not to say that diversity and deep diving reportage do not exist, they do.  But it is a rare find indeed in today’s world – in a daily newspaper.  Too often, today’s writers for the daily fish wraps follow instructions of the kings of misdirection – “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

And, they don’t.



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