Number 552 April 27, 2014

This Week: A Little O' This, A Little O' That

"Quote" of the Week: "Large oil spills are never cleaned up."
Energy Costs Outside of "The Market"
The "Grand Bargain" is Dead!
Seeing is Not Believing in Ukraine


This week it's a little o' this, a little o' that. Catching up a bit. I'm working on a piece about the privatization of science, drug patents, and stuff like that. Coming soon.

Welcome to the new readers this week! Please let me know what you think. I count on feedback from readers.



"Quote" of the Week: "Large oil spills are never cleaned up."

On April 26th my local paper the Star Tribune of Minneapolis published (in the Business Section) an interview with a retired member of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Willis Mattison, who "recently began helping the Friends of the Headwaters, a newly formed citizens group, as a technical adviser on the proposed Enbridge Energy Sandpiper pipeline."

Mattison spoke of a 1979 crude oil leak in Pinewood Minnesota, when a quarter million gallons leaked from a pipeline owned by Enbridge (that wasn't its name at the time) . The Star Trib asked "Did that spill get cleaned up?" Here's what Mattison said [I added the emphasis.]:

"Large oil spills are never cleaned up. As is evidenced by Pinewood, we are 40 years downrange and that site is still being monitored for residual oil in the ground. That's what the public doesn't understand about the cleanups promised by pipeline companies. You recover what you can and then you largely end up monitoring what's left. This site has become a national study site of the U.S. Geological Survey with regular symposiums on the fate, transport and degradation of oil in the ground."

Indigenous people are leading the fight against this pipeline, and other ones. And, for that matter, against the entire extractive economy which provides the institutional and ideological framework that attempts to justify all of this madness. For the big picture, check out the Honor The Earth website and what they have to say on the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline.


Energy Costs Outside of "The Market"

Stories about climate change and environmental activism are found all over the place, not only in official climate change reports. Consider a recent, and tiny, story of an environmental victory that appeared recently in my local paper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

This story was buried, as so many important stories are, in the Business Section, and it was headlined "Minnesota Regulators to Study Power-sector Pollution Costs." Variations of this news item have been popping up for a while now, but the story in the December 19th Star Tribune told of an increasing momentum toward an official acknowledgment that "the Market" doesn't accurately calculate the real costs of energy production. This move away from a market analysis and towards a systems analysis—if it spreads and grows—could be a game-changer in regard to energy, pollution, and the carbon-based economy.

The Star Tribune reported that "Minnesota utility regulators on Thursday agreed to take a fresh look at whether the price of pollution is accurately reflected in the cost of electrical generating plants. The 4-1 vote by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) sets in motion a lengthy and technical process to better calculate the social cost of smokestack emissions linked to climate change and human illnesses."

[The PUC regulates Minnesota's electricity, natural gas and telephone industries which—for reasons I won't go into—are in the hands of private corporations. Then they are "regulated" by the PUC, whose "mission is to create and maintain a regulatory environment that ensures safe, reliable and efficient utility services at fair and reasonable rates," according to statute. Ask your elected representative why in the world your community's utilities are not publicly-controlled, not-for-profit organizations. Then tell me what she/he says.]

The Star Tribune continues: "The outcome could have significant consequences for the power generating industry, improving the economics of cleaner energy sources like wind and solar vs. coal-fired power plants."

"[Republican] PUC Commissioner Betsy Wergin opposed the study, saying it could drive up utility prices. 'We are completely ignoring the ratepayer,' she said."

Adds the Star Tribune, "The emissions to be studied include carbon dioxide, which is linked to climate change, and those that affect health—sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and small airborne particles." This is important, since "ratepayers" are also human beings, about whose health the market cares not.

Exactly what will happen with this is not clear, as the energy industry has a history of getting away with slipshod safety practices. (The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year cited Minnesota's electric utility, Xcel Energy, for inadequate catastrophic flood planning, for example.) But, in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster three years ago and the growing awareness of the ecological effects of carbon-based energy production, popular resistance to "energy at any cost" is growing, as the recent PUC decision shows. Another small victory for those of us who breathe. Too bad it was buried in the "Business" Section.


The "Grand Bargain" is Dead!

Amidst all the confused reporting on recently-proposed federal budgets was a major piece of good news: A People's Victory on a major issue of concern to all of us: Social Security.

One wouldn't know it was a major victory, since it only appeared on the inside pages of the nation's newspapers, but some of the basic facts were reported. When it comes to Social Security, I think the best summary comes from a piece I found recently in (of all places!) Insurance News Net, a trade publication of the insurance industry. The original story appeared in the magazine In These Times a month ago, with the headline "How Social Security Was Saved." Here are the first few paragraphs:

"Progressive groups and their allies in Congress win one for the people.

"The release of the White Houses 2014 budget in April 2013 was a stomach-churning occasion for American seniors who depend on Social Security.

"In an effort to woo the austerity-now crowd, President Barack Obama included in last year's proposal a new formula to calculate Social Security cost-of-living adjustments [COLAs]: the chained consumer price index, or chained CPI. Presented as a harmless technocratic fix, chained CPI would have hit America's retirees in the pocketbook by reducing their Social Security cost-of-living increases.

"At the time, much of Washington was fixated on the 'grand bargain'—a long-term bipartisan budget deal. To centrist Democrats, chained CPI seemed like the ideal bargaining chip to nudge Republicans into accepting modest tax increases on the wealthy.

"This year, Obama's 2015 budget includes no mention of chained CPI—a victory that can be attributed to progressive organizers working inside and outside the halls of Congress."

The larger victory here is that the entire idea of trading cuts in Social Security for increased taxes on the rich—the so-called Grand Bargain—has gone by the wayside.

The victory goes beyond "not losing." What has been for years a fundamentally defensive fight has now evolved into an offensive one, including the introduction in both the House and the Senate of bills that would actually strengthen and expand Social Security. There are various versions, but the Senate version, introduced by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, would:

• Change the method by which Social Security calculates Social Security benefits, boosting benefits for all beneficiaries by $70 per month;

• Adjust the COLA by using the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E); and

• Phase out the current taxable cap of $113,700 so that payroll taxes apply fairly to every dollar of wages.

The Demise of the Grand Bargain—and the growing power of grassroots progressivism—is a People's Victory, and should be on front pages everywhere.


Seeing is Not Believing in Ukraine

Back in 1982 the Reagan administration produced "sensitive intelligence... on the continuing Nicaraguan military buildup." It featured "reconnaissance photography" that "intelligence officials said proved Nicaragua, with Cuban and Soviet assistance, was assembling the largest military force in Central America." The New York Times dutifully reported the propaganda in an article headlined "U.S. Offers Photos of Bases to Prove Nicaragua Threat." The article featured the comments of John T. Hughes, "the premier photo interpreter in the U.S. intelligence community." The deputy CIA director at the time, Adm. Bobby R. Inman, trumpeted the propaganda campaign to the Times, saying that "It's time to get some concern in this country about [Nicaragua's] military buildup. It's vastly beyond any defensive need." (These words, it's worth noting, were spoken by a high official of the country whose actions were dramatically increasing Nicaragua's "defensive need." Yet, he wasn't joking.)

"Mr. Hughes," reported the Times, "presented a photograph of a recently completed garrison at Villa Nueva. [Ed. Note: A garrison is a military post.] He said that the configuration of the garrison, including the style and placement of the barracks, vehicle storage areas and training fields and obstacle course, closely resembled garrisons in Cuba and the Soviet Union. 'This is the pattern we see time and time again in Nicaragua,' he said. 'It's the pattern we've seen time and time again in Cuba.'"

We all know about the various military attacks that Cuba has launched against the United States. And Nicaragua under the Sandinistas posed a similar military threat to the United States. That is: None. These photos of a supposed "garrison" could have been taken anywhere, and the patterns they revealed could have had any meaning that anyone wanted to give them. In hindsight, it's amazing that anyone gave any credence to such obvious propaganda. But that's how it is when the population of a "democratic" nation is being asked to support a war.

That Was 1982. Now It's 2014.

Some things never change. On April 20th of this year—32 years after the photos of a Cuban-style garrison were used to justify a U.S. war against Nicaragua—the New York Times ran an article headlined "Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia." The article was co-written by three Times reporters, including the infamous Michael Gordon (author of previous war-hysteria articles from Iraq to Syria. See "Another NYT-Michael Gordon Special?" at This Gordon article began,

"For two weeks, the mysteriously well-armed, professional gunmen known as 'green men' have seized Ukrainian government sites in town after town, igniting a brush fire of separatist unrest across eastern Ukraine... Now, photographs and descriptions from eastern Ukraine endorsed by the Obama administration on Sunday suggest that many of the green men are indeed Russian military and intelligence forces—equipped in the same fashion as Russian special operations troops involved in annexing the Crimea region in February. Some of the men photographed in Ukraine have been identified in other photos clearly taken among Russian troops in other settings.

"The Ukrainian government provided these photographs last week to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna. Ukraine says the photographs document that the armed men who have taken over government buildings in eastern Ukraine are Russian combatants. The State Department, which has also alleged Russian interference, says that the Ukrainian evidence is convincing."

It was a little less convincing after the Times ran an article just two days later headlined "Scrutiny Over Photos Said to Tie Russia Units to Ukraine." The Times politely reported that the group of photos that they had published "has come under scrutiny," by which they meant that they're not what they were claimed to be. For example, the man who actually took one of the photos that was said to have been taken in Russia—Maxim Dondyuk—"said that he had taken the group photograph [in Ukraine] and posted it on his Instagram account. 'It was taken in Slovyansk,' he said in a telephone interview. 'Nobody asked my permission to use this photograph.'"

The Times checked back with the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, who had made the original claims about the group photo a couple of days earlier. She "acknowledged that the assertion that the photograph in the American briefing materials had been taken in Russia was incorrect." But who cares about the facts? Not Ms. Psaki, who now tells the Times, "We don't have a shadow of a doubt about the connection... between the Russians and the armed militants" in eastern Ukraine. And to back up our claims we'll doctor as many photographs as we need to!

Everything about these photos shouts "Propaganda!"

The Times reports that the Ukrainian government—which represents one side in a multi-sided dispute—"provided these photographs," which were "endorsed by the Obama administration." The eleven grainy photos published by the Times came complete with circles, arrows, and captions to help us get the propaganda points. The NATO chief is quoted saying that all the unrest in eastern Ukraine "is being carried out at the direction of Russia," but even the Times had to note that "His evidence, however, was mostly circumstantial..."

Photo propaganda has been around as long as photos have been around, and in the age of Photoshop and instantaneous Internet distribution it's easier than ever to use photographic "evidence" to support any point one wishes to make. That's why headlines like "Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia" should not only be kept off the front page, they should be kept out of the daily news flow entirely.

I began this piece by reminding readers that mysterious photos—supposedly from Nicaragua—were used in the 1980s to whip up fears in the U.S. population that were then manipulated to build support for a criminal war. These current photos from Ukraine are being put forward to scare us again, but this time the stakes are even higher, as the escalating conflict between Russia and the U.S. involves two huge powers, both of which are heavily armed with nuclear weapons. No country in the Western Hemisphere (other than our own) has nuclear weapons. So, while the U.S. attack on "Communism" in Central America was a living hell for the people in that region, an escalation of the current crisis would threaten not only the people in the region, but would pose enormous threats to the global economy and environment, as well.

Whether or not the residents of Ukraine are better off being allied with Europe or with Russia, what is clear is that the response by U.S. leaders to either decision could make things much better or much worse. So far, the U.S. response to the crisis appears to be to demonize Russia and to emphasize a military response. Much propaganda is being deployed to support this dangerous course. See Nygaard Notes #550 for ideas on how to resist the propaganda. And, when it comes to Ukraine, always remember that seeing is not believing.