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Asking If the House of Cards Is Realistic Is the Wrong Question

By: spocko Tuesday March 3, 2015 8:21 pm

Sunday Night on Virtually Speaking Digby and I talked about the Leonard Nimoy’s passing and how fiction and fictional characters can shape people’s attitudes.  (podcast link here.)

Today some friends who work in the world of politics were discussing House of Cards. Some loved it, some hated it.  I don’t really move in those specific circles so before the discussion I wanted to know, “Is it realistic?”
A professional musician friend asked,

Does anyone really expect a TV show about politics to be a more realistic representation of that life and that process than the Monkees represented a life of trying to make it as a young band in theirs?

This seems like such an obvious point I realized that I was NOT asking the question that the producers and writers of the show were asking themselves, which is, “Is it entertaining?

Last night I watched a movie called “Harmontown” about the creator of Community, Dan Harmon. He talked about his deep desire to entertain people. He craved the satisfaction he got knowing his writing made people laugh, smile or feel better.

I watch a lot of fiction on tv. I also read a lot of fiction. I sometimes forget that my attitudes are shaped by people whose goal is to entertain.

If people think that it’s a “message movie” it will often turn them off. “I don’t want people to ram their message down my throat!” they say, even if they might agree with the message. When the question, “Is it entertaining?” is answered first, any message it might also have slides in more subtly and perhaps more effectively.

A message that writers of TV and movies have been sending for a long time is torture is effective. On tv and movies they show it is effective in getting non-false, new information in a short time.  They show the threat of torture is effective. It has become so ingrained in our thinking that when confronted with the reality of torture, reality is questioned, not the fiction.

The fiction that we see in our movies and TV shows are designed to be entertaining. Torture, and the threat of torture, serve the needs of the writers in these cases. It can make the story more dramatic, horrifying, gruesome, sexy and even funny. Its use serves a major goal of fiction, entertainment.

Torture’s use can move the story forward, show character traits, tap into viewer or readers empathy or fear.

When the Senate report on torture came out showing that actionable intelligence was not obtained by torture, it seemed to go against what we knew from fiction or what we read and heard about from the “real” world and “the dark side” that Cheney talked about.

This “non-fiction” about torture is coming from a media that gets their info from an entire group of people in the CIA whose job it was to push the lie that torture got them intel.

Interestingly for some media, torture not working goes against their “common sense.” A sense based on school yard experience and low tolerance for pain.

“I would totally spill the beans if I was tortured!” They might say. This assumes they knew about the beans in the first place.

“I would torture if we needed that bomb location.” They would say on their TV show. This assumes the person they are torturing knows the bomb location, is just like us and not someone who would rather die than “spill the beans.”

So the question is, if fiction better mirrored the reality of torture, would it still be entertaining? I don’t mean fun or likable, but entertaining in its broadest sense.

I haven’t seen American Sniper, but I understand that it is an entertaining movie. I think about another entertaining film from Clint Eastwood, one that had a killer as a lead character. A movie that helped change attitudes toward a fictional character we believed we knew.

The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever… how he’s dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.

Will Munny: It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.

Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

The fictional movies and TV shows that flip the idea of a “heroic torturer” and effectiveness of torture on its head might be out there, but they aren’t coming through with the same power as other fictions.

If these ideas do start showing up in our fiction, I believe the writers can make them as useful to their stories as their previous ideas on torture, and just as entertaining.


Republican Outrage at Democratic Personal Attacks

By: Synoia Tuesday March 3, 2015 7:59 pm

Republicans in Congress are united at denouncing the latest democratic attack on Republicans.

A statement from Speaker Buhner’s Office reads:

Democrats are using Onomatopoeia, alliteration, and bathos to attack prosaic yet grammarless Republicans. We believe this new attack slanders Republicans and especially mocks the Republican Tea Party base. This use of satire and humor is beyond all tenets of civilized debate, and we believe this foul behavior could even lead to a severe and continued attack of sarcasm.

Mining & Fracking World Whirl: 3 Mar 2015

By: KateCA Tuesday March 3, 2015 3:01 pm

Our sun over the past five years.

*Worldwide.  Destroying the world that feeds us:  shellfish are now threatened.   Ocean acidification (OA) is increasing as the oceans try to absorb all the carbon we produce, thus endangering much ocean life.  Most vulnerable US coastal areas affected are identified, along with OA “drivers and amplifiers” and how to reduce them.

*USA.  Go youth! Teens and young adults are turning to courts for help in combatting climate change.  “‘Every suit and every administrative petition filed in every state in the country and against the federal government asks . . . for the government . . . to bring down carbon emissions . . .  necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.”  Good videos.

*USA.  The bad news:  half of “the U.S.’s lakes, rivers and streams are unsafe” due to pollution.  The good news:  Americans submitted over 800,000 public comments in support of Clean Water Act provisions covering small waterways.  The challenge: Keeping Americans’ message about clean water front and center as big corps spend $$$s to ensure continued dumping of “206 million pounds of toxic materials” into those waterways annually.   Table shows 10 top polluters, the toxic tonnage released and how much they spend to keep at it.

*USA.  What timing.  “Two days before contract negotiations are schedule to resume between Royal Dutch Shell and the United Steelworkers’ oil union, the company announced plans to run its second-largest U.S. refinery without union labor.”

*USA.  While the US should produce about 9.27 million barrels per day of crude oil this year,  can US refineries process all of it?  Prolly not, since most are “configured for sour, high-sulfur imports from the Middle East.”  And the solution is . . . ?  Well, apparently not to stash it somewhere until later, since the US “is running out of places to put it”, indicating “even lower . . . prices . . . in the coming months.”

*USA33 oil rigs down by the end of last week, a decrease of 39% “since October, an unprecedented retreat.”  Do note, though, that “new efficiencies in U.S. drilling and pumping may make raw numbers of rigs . . . misleading.”  Accompanying chart is very interesting.

*USA.  Here they are: The 1998 Climate Change Denial Team, courtesy of Big Oil.  Who they are, what they did and where they are now, including a couple who apparently paid attention to evidence and subsequently moved on.

*USA.  Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) responds to the Senator with the Snowball.

*AK.  The Iñupiat village of Kivalino  must be moved since the thick sea ice that protected the 400 inhabitants has thinned dangerously.  No action, however:  the people have no funds for the relocation and Republicans in  Congress won’t appropriate funds to help.

*AK.  Tractor trailer “lost traction” in the ice and snow, overturned, releasing 3000 – 4000 gallons of diesel on the Dalton Highway.

*AK.  Fight over two natural gas pipelines from the North Slope,  the larger one  being built by the state and oil producers and the smaller one built solely by the state.  Gov. Bill Walker (I) wants the smaller one (bringing gas to Alaskans) to be on par with the larger one (taking gas to ports). House Speaker Mike Chenault (R) is opposed.

*CA.  It gets worse.  Kern County water “officials . . . discovered that oil producers have been dumping chemical-laden wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits that are operating without proper permits.”  300 “previously unidentified waste sites” identified thus far.

*CA.  And worse:  officials don’t know “who put the chemical-laden water [in those Kern County wastepits nor] how to remediate any potential environmental damage.”  Oh, but they’re working on it.

*CA.  Persistent drought translates into no federal water deliveries for 100s of farmers this year.

*FL.  Places like Miami are considering water pumping stations (cost around $32 million for Miami) to prevent sinking.  Water could rise 24” around Miami by 2060.

*Gulf Coast.  Heckuva run-down of what BP has avoided paying for the Deepwater Horizon blowout and subsequent damage.

*MT.  Sioux and Assiniboine tribes at Fort Peck are now officially opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline.  Reservation drinking water is a primary concern.

*ND.  Apartment rents have dropped by as much as 20% in Williston, center of the Bakken oil fracking boom, in response to “the plunge in crude oil prices”.

*ND.  The Bakken oil field boom has produced a meth and heroin boom in the MHA Nation (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara).  It’s such a scary mess, with ties to Central American gangs,  that “the three tribes flew Guatemalan gang experts” in late last year to instruct local law enforcement.  The FBI is setting up an office nearby.

*NE.  A York County judge “issued a temporary order to stop” land seizures by TransCanada for the Keystone XL pipeline.  Another stop order is in effect in Holt County.  TransCanada says it’ll halt other eminent domain actions until several pending lawsuits are resolved.

*NE.  Why are conservatives, usually vociferously defending private property, so silent about TransCanada seizing people’s land through eminent domain for the Keystone Xl pipeline?

*NJ.  “A long-fought legal battle to recover $8.9 billion in damages from Exxon Mobil Corporation for the contamination and loss of use of more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, marshes, meadows and waters in northern New Jersey has been quietly settled by the state for around $250 million.”  Update:  According to this source, Christie inserted his substantial self into the matter and it concluded right quick like, and at the much smaller amount.  Rachel’s on it.

*NV.  There’s now a $60 million agreement concluding the 25-year effort to obtain guaranteed water rights for the Shoshone-Paiute Duck Valley Reservation.

*NY.  Ira Rennert, worth some $6 billion, will have to cough up $118 million to pay for damages after a jury found he took money from now-defunct MagCorp magnesium mining company and used it to build a humongous house for himself in the Hamptons (which Kurt Vonnegut Jr. lampooned).

*VA.  “Since 1970, the sea level has risen eight inches in Norfolk.  By 2030, scientists expect the sea to rise another six inches.”

*WA.  All “Ayes” on the Vancouver City Council to extend its moratorium on crude oil facilities.

*WI.  Gogebic Taconite is now going to abandon their “huge and controversial [iron ore] mine in northern Wisconsin”.  They came roaring in, promising “jobs and $2.2 billion in investment.”  Their spokesman now has a nice new job in state government, courtesy of Gov. Scott Walker (R).

*WI.  Much demand for Wisconsin sand, with “thousands of acres now in mines”. What happens once the sand is all gone; what about negative air quality contributing to cardiovascular and pulmonary problems?  This is Scott Walker country where monitoring for sand mine pollutant PM 2.5 is not done.

*WI.  Gov. Scott Walker (R) to slash funding for state parks, land conservation, fish protection, recycling, removing road-kill deer, and also for “preventing manure and other materials from running off the land and polluting state waters.”

*WY.  Rejoice, children of Wyoming:  the legislature has passed a bill “that would allow the state board of education to consider the Next Generation Science Standards, which acknowledge man-made climate change.”

*Canada/Mexico.  Was Excellon Resources (Canadian mining company) aided by the Canadian Embassy in Mexico in achieving “high level connections that led to violent repression against” protesters?

*Canada.   Oil prices are half what they used to be, tar-sands oil companies have backed off new investments and are “axing jobs by the thousands”, the Canadian dollar is down, there’s a projected C$2.3 billion deficit, and Justin Trudeau is looking pretty good.  Stay tuned.

*Colombia.  The “newly elected president [of Colombia’s constitutional court is] accused . . . of having sought a $200,000 bribe . . . “ so Fidupetrol oil company wouldn’t have to pay $9 million in fines.

*Chile.  Hmmmm. “Chile isn’t as friendly a jurisdiction [toward miners] as it once was.”  Barrick Gold Corp. even had to suspend  work on a “massive” project in 2013 after aboriginal communities complained about violations of environmental standards. Pity.

*France.  A pipe in its oldest nuclear power plant developed a problem Saturday, so the entire facility is shut down.

*Poland.  Farmers protesting “GMO infiltration and land grabs by biotech and Big Ag corporations . . . blocked roadways and . . . [held] numerous demonstrations”.

*Greece.  Eldorado Gold Corp’s plan for a mine in Greece has been blocked, “prompting a furious response”.  Elections do have consequences.

*Russia.  Bad news.  That huge (100-ft diameter) sinkhole that appeared suddenly in Siberia has “unusually high concentrations of methane”.   Russia’s gas fields are nearby.

*South Africa. Great relief:  all 486 workers trapped by a fire in Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu mine have been safely rescued.

*Dubai.  From a new report for the National Bank of Abu Dhabi  “. . . renewables will be an established and significant part of the future energy mix . . . globally.”  Renewables will considerably lower energy costs and intense carbon generation.  More; check it out.

*Iran.  “Iran will be facing water shortage next year”.  Rainfall down 18%, “cross-country water flow” down 50% and snow down 40%.

*Japan.  Fukushima nuclear plant has leaked radioactive water since last May—and Tepco kept it quiet.

*Antarctica.  Big melt “going way faster than anyone [(scientist)] had thought.”  Very worrying.

Who’s A Bigger Threat To Your Freedom, ISIS Or The Federal Government?

By: Lloyd Chapman Tuesday March 3, 2015 10:18 am

I don’t know about most Americans, but I’m much more concerned about the NSA than I am ISIS.

You hear lot of talk about “freedom not being free” and young soldiers dying for freedom. I’m genuinely confused about what people are talking about. I’m not aware of any of my freedoms that are being threatened by ISIS or any other terrorist group.

You’re a thousand times more likely to be killed by a bee sting or a shark attack than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack.

The only freedoms I have lost during my lifetime were taken away by the federal government.

My freedom to carry a gun in my car when I go on a long trip has been taken away even though the second amendment gives me the right to bear arms. My ability to privately send an email, make a phone call or send a friend a text message has been taken away. The NSA has taken that freedom away from me and all my communications are tracked, recorded and permanently stored.  

I saw a story the other day where the Justice Department is now tracking our license plate numbers by using the network of traffic cameras around the country. Now your freedom to travel around without the federal government monitoring you has been taken away.

The revelations of Eric Snowden exposed the fact the federal government is tracking everything we say and do and everywhere we go. If I uncover federal employees committing fraud, violating federal law or violating the constitution, I don’t have the freedom to report that to the media without the fear of retaliation from the Justice Department or the IRS. The Obama Administration’s War on Whistleblowers has been well documented.

Government employees and private citizens that have exposed blatant violations to the constitution have faced harsh retribution by the federal government. If you uncover fraud or corruption by any branch of government you might find yourself the target of a predawn FBI raid on your home or a retaliatory IRS audit.

We have lost our freedom to see how our government operates. It has been widely reported the Obama Administration is the least transparent administration in history. I found that out first hand. Using the Freedom of Information Act I requested some seemingly benign government data on small business subcontracting. I have been in federal court for months because I simply asked for the government documents that would indicate what Pentagon prime contractor Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s small business subcontracting goal is. When a Federal District Court judge ruled in my favor the Office of Solicitor General intervened and now I’m on m way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just to obtain small business subcontracting data. Federal Judge William even accused the Pentagon of trying to “cover up” the data I was seeking. He also accused them of trying to “suppress the evidence”.

My freedom to search the Internet without the federal government knowing every website I view has been taken away.

I’m sure there are a number of other examples of freedoms we all used to enjoy that have now been taken away by the federal government.

What’s next? America is starting to resemble science fictions movies about the future where an oppressive and corrupt government rules the land.

I may be in the minority here but I would rather worry about terrorist attacks than to have the federal government monitoring my phone calls, emails, text messages and tracking my every move.

Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”.

I think he was right.

Subhankar Banerjee: Arctic Nightmares

By: Tom Engelhardt Tuesday March 3, 2015 10:11 am

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If Sarah Palin were president, we’d know just what it was: a drill-baby-drill administration.  Of course, there’s no mama grizzly in the White House, yet these last years have been a grizzly tale of the expansion of American oil and natural gas exploration and drilling from the fracking fields of Texas and North Dakota to the energy-rich Gulf of Mexico.  Most recently, the southern Atlantic seaboard, where there are an estimated untapped four billion barrels of oil and 37 trillion cubic feet of gas, was provisionally opened for future exploration and drilling.  So keep in mind that it wasn’t under Palin’s tutelage but Barack Obama’s that the United States experienced its staggering resurgence in the oil and gas sweepstakes, turning itself into “Saudi America.”

The math, which this president undoubtedly knows well, isn’t that complicated.  According to climate change scientists, of all the fossil fuel reserves believed to be left on the planet — and the ability of oil companies to successfully tap ever more extreme deposits has been a regular surprise in these years — scientists estimate that 80% must remain underground to prevent a planetary disaster.  And yet, it seems that ever fewer waters off ever fewer American coasts are now sacrosanct.  Back in the presidential campaign of 2008, Obama criticized his opponent, John McCain, for pushing the expansion of offshore drilling.  “It would have long-term consequences for our coastlines… When I’m president, I intend to keep in place the moratorium.”  And he was right that to expand significantly into coastal waters is indeed dangerous.  Sooner or later, it ensures more BP-style Gulf of Mexico environmental catastrophes, as well as the everyday cumulative disasters that, as marine biologist Carl Safina has written, simply come with oil company exploration and extraction efforts.

It’s true that a 2011 moratorium on new drilling and lease sales off the West Coast remains in place until 2018, but in addition to the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic, the most forbidding and dangerous waters off any American coast — those in the Arctic — are again in play.  You would think that this would be an open-and-shut no-go case for reasons that Subhankar Banerjee, leading Arctic photographer, environmentalist, and author of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, lays out vividly today. (Back in 2003, a show of his photos on Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History was scandalously all but cancelled at a moment when the Bush administration was eager to open that pristine wilderness area to exploitation.)

If you’re talking about extracting extreme fossil fuels from an incredibly rich environment that is utterly treacherous and would be the single most obvious reserve on the planet to simply keep in the ground, this has to be the place.  And yet the president has long shown a special interest in those Arctic waters and Royal Dutch Shell’s urge to drill in them.  Now, at a time that would seem inauspicious as well as unappealing, given the glut of new American oil on the market (and falling oil prices), the Obama administration, despite a recent bow to Arctic preservation, stands at the edge of once again green-lighting a Shell foray into Arctic waters. You explain it. Tom

To Drill or Not to Drill, That Is the Question
The Obama Administration, Shell, and the Fate of the Arctic Ocean
by Subhankar Banerjee

Here’s a Jeopardy!-style question for you: “Eight different species of whales can be seen in these two American seas.” Unless you’re an Iñupiaq, a marine biologist, or an Arctic enthusiast like me, it’s a pretty good guess that you can’t tell me what those seas are or what those whales are either. The answer: the Chukchi Sea and the adjacent Beaufort Sea, off Arctic Alaska, and you can commonly spot bowhead, beluga, and grey whales there, while fin whales, minkes, humpbacks, killer whales, and narwhals are all venturing into these seas ever more often as the Arctic and its waters continue to warm rapidly.

The problem, however, is that the major oil company Royal Dutch Shell wants to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer and that could, in the long term, spell doom for one of the last great, relatively untouched oceanic environments on the planet. Let me explain why Shell’s drilling ambitions are so dangerous. Just think of the way the blowout of one drilling platform, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, devastated the Gulf of Mexico.  Now, imagine the same thing happening without any clean-up help in sight.

You might have heard aboutthe sixth extinction,” the way at this moment species are blinking off at a historically unprecedented rate. The Arctic seas of Alaska, however, still are sanctuaries not only for tens of thousands of whales, but also hundreds of thousands of walruses and seals, millions of birds, thousands of polar bears, and innumerable fish from more than one hundred species, not to mention all the uncharismatic sub-sea life that eludes our eyes but makes up the food web — phytoplankton, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers, to name only a few. Think of the Arctic Ocean as among the last remaining marine ecological paradises on the planet.

Now for that oil. Looking for it in Arctic waters happens to be the most dangerous form of drilling imaginable, because no proven technology exists that could clean up a major oil spill in distant ice-choked seas in the cold and dark, under one of the harshest environments on Earth. Even during the brief “summer” open-water season, ice floes remain a constant threat as Shell found out in 2012 when one of its drill ships encountered a floe the size of Manhattan and was forced to disconnect from its seafloor anchor and temporarily halt its operations. Deep fog severely restricts visibility. Storms are not exceptions but the norm, and are becoming more frequent and violent in a rapidly warming region.

I’ve spent much time in the Arctic and, believe me, it’s a forbidding environment for outsiders.  In late September, as summer gives way to autumn, ice begins to form in the seas and darkness descends. Any spill that occurs late in the brief potential drilling season would remain untouched and unattended to until the ice melted the following summer. But even if such a blowout occurred in summer, there is no infrastructure in place to respond to a disaster. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away.  And keep in mind that a disaster of this sort would not remain conveniently contained in the Arctic. As a recent U.S. National Research Council study on responding to an Arctic offshore oil spill puts it, “The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic presents hazards for the Arctic nations and their neighbors.”

Add to this potential nightmare scenario another little fact: Shell has garnered a well-deserved reputation as “the company with the spottiest Arctic record.” In September 2012, it initiated exploration drilling in U.S. Arctic waters with a conditional permit from the Obama administration, only to end a disastrous year in which one of its two drill rigs, the Kulluk, was grounded in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year’s Eve. The other ship, Noble Discoverer, suffered damage after catching fire, while both were fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act, and the contractor Noble Drilling pleaded guilty in 2014 to all eight felony charges leveled against it for environmental violations and agreed to ante up $12.2 million in fines and community service payments. Because of the damage to its rigs, Shell was forced to give up its 2013 drilling plans. A court ruling in January 2014 in favor of local Iñupiat tribes and environmentalists forced the company not to drill that summer either.

Since then, the price of oil has plunged, sending a shock wave across the oil industry and deep-sixing all sorts of prospective plans planet-wide to drill in Arctic waters: Norway’s Statoil shelved its 2015 drilling plan in the Barents Sea off that country’s northern coast and handed back the three leases it had purchased in the Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland. Chevron put its plan to drill in Canada’s Beaufort Sea on indefinite hold. Following the Ukraine crisis and American sanctions on Russia, ExxonMobil was prohibited from working with the oil company Rosneft on a joint plan to drill in the Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic. Even had those sanctions not been in place, the low price of oil would have made such exploration a far less appetizing prospect for the moment.

“It is up to Shell then to keep the oil industry’s Arctic dreams alive,” one journalist suggested and indeed, on January 29th, that company announced that, after a two-year hiatus, it would drill this summer in the Chukchi Sea. Two weeks later, the Obama administration issued its final supplemental environmental impact statement on the site where the drilling would take place, the controversial Chukchi Lease Sale 193, bringing Shell’s plan one step closer to reality.

But before considering the politics of oil drilling there, let’s take a little dive into the Arctic Ocean and the history of its exploitation.

Who Owns the Arctic Ocean?

For more than four centuries, western nations have regarded the Arctic Ocean as an economic treasure chest. The oil harvested from Arctic whales helped fuel the economies of countries in Europe and North America and drove the magnificent bowhead whale to near extinction.

In February 1880, the future creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, then a 20-year-old medical student, interrupted his studies for a six-month voyage on the Arctic whaler, Hope, as the ship’s surgeon. From his diary we learn that the drive to profit trumped any concern about the possible extinction of the bowhead, or Greenland, whale.  “Price tends to rise steadily for the number of the creatures is diminishing,” he wrote, “probably not more than 300 of them left alive in the whole expanse of the Greenland seas.” On another day, he added that, “[T]he creatures…own those unsailed seas.” Of course, those seas were anything but “unsailed” as commercial ships were plying them to harvest whales, so consider that instead Doyle’s euphoric expression of how it felt to him to see the life in that ocean.

Today, to the extent that seas can be “owned,” governments own them and are selling pieces off to the highest bidders — oil companies. Ownership or territorial control for commercial exploitation is, however, only one side of the story of the Arctic Ocean. The magnificent and complex ecology of the northern seas is now being altered by three human-caused phenomena: climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution.

Arctic sea ice is vanishing at an astonishing rate thanks to climate change, which is having devastating impacts on the region’s polar bears and walruses. In the southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska and Arctic Canada, the polar bear population declined by 40% between 2001 and 2010. Meanwhile, in six of the last eight years, tens of thousands of Pacific walruses have hauled themselves out onto barrier islands and tundra along the Chukchi Sea because there was no sea ice left for them to rest on. Onshore, walruses are far from their food sources and young walruses are particularly susceptible to being trampled to death by the adults in the colony.

Commercial whaling in the region, which started in 1848, ended by about 1921, when petroleum supplanted whale oil as the fuel of choice. With no industrial activity in those waters for more than half a century, the bowhead population slowly began to recover. Whales don’t depend on sea ice the way polar bears and walruses do, so in 2011 the bowhead population in the U.S. Arctic was estimated at almost 17,000 and is increasing by 3.7% per year.

The half-century of commercial calm in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas ended, however, in the late 1970s, when oil exploration began. By the early 1990s, the expensive hunt for oil in Arctic seas had largely failed and almost all leases were relinquished. The second wave of U.S. Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration only started when George W. Bush took office. Between 2003 and 2008 leases were sold on more than three million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, while generating substantial controversy and court challenges from the tribal Iñupiat peoples and environmental groups. The persistence of this resistance to drilling, along with the recent price collapse, has marked the second boom-and-bust cycle in Arctic exploration.  The French company Total, for instance, simply walked away from the U.S. Arctic in 2012 pointing out that offshore drilling there could lead to a “disaster,” and other companies have put exploration on indefinite hold — but not Shell.

Inevitability and Rush

Historically, government-sponsored research on the U.S. Arctic has been driven not by that hallmark of science, curiosity, but by the desire to drill for oil and gas — by, that is, two impulses that are quite unscientific in nature. The first is an oil-company-inculcated urge to transform the decision to drill into a sense of inevitability and the second is an oil-company-sponsored urge to rush the process.

In fact, according to the National Research Council oil spill response study, systematic data collection in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas only began in the late 1970s — in other words, just as the first wave of Arctic offshore oil exploration was revving up. Onshore, the situation was the same: the initial comprehensive study of the flora and fauna of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge only took place in the mid-1980s, after the Reagan administration made a push to open it up to development — and (irony of ironies) the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was what saved the refuge from industrial exploitation.

While there have only been sporadic studies of the marine environments in question since then, no comprehensive benchmark study for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas has ever been done; nor is there any thorough understanding of how the marine food web works in those seas, or of the population sizes and distribution of any but the sentinel species (whales, polar bears, walruses, and seals). Even the data on them is considered “not reliable or precise enough to examine trends, evaluate influences from climate change, or estimate population-level damage in the event of an oil spill,” according to the National Research Council study.

The first benchmark study of the Hanna Shoal, one of the most biologically productive spots in the Chukchi Sea, only began in early August 2012. At the end of that month, the Obama administration gave Shell a conditional permit to begin drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In other words, Arctic science hasn’t been guiding public policy, but rushing to catch up with the extractivist agenda of Big Oil.

Under the circumstances and given the perils of such extreme drilling in such an environment, what’s curious is the rush to inevitability exhibited by two successive administrations. And despite the recent collapse of oil prices, which makes such Arctic drilling prohibitively expensive and unprofitable, it hasn’t ended yet.  On January 27th, the White House noted a conservation decision it had made with this reassuring headline at its website: “President Obama Protects Untouched Marine Wilderness in Alaska.” The president had indeed withdrawn 9.8 million acres of U.S. Arctic waters, including Hanna Shoal, from future oil and gas lease sales.  Just over two weeks later, however, the administration also issued the final supplemental environmental impact statement for Chukchi Lease Sale 193, which includes blocks of Arctic waters adjacent to and upstream from Hanna Shoal. In such waters generally, “protection” is an exaggeration in any case because, as one senior scientist from the Hanna Shoal study team put it in 2012, “anything that goes in the water at the drill sites may end up in this very productive region.”

Keeping Arctic Resources Underground

The leases the Bush administration sold in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Lease Sale 193 among them, generated substantial controversy and met with legal challenges.  A coalition of native Alaskan and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the leases, the government’s inadequate gathering of baseline scientific data, and its unwillingness to appropriately assess what a potential blowout would mean to the ecology of the regions and the life of indigenous cultures there.

As it turned out, the plaintiffs won twice, first in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in 2010, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2014. Following that ruling, the Department of Interior finally went back to the drawing board and, on October 31, 2014, released a new draft supplemental environmental impact statement that acknowledged some of the ecological realities of drilling in Arctic seas.  It suggested that there would be a 75% chance of one or more large oil spills (more than 1,000 barrels) if serious drilling began there and that any such spill could have catastrophic ecological consequences. The public comment period on the draft ended on December 22nd.

Nonetheless, this February, the Obama administration issued the final impact statement for Lease Sale 193 and sent the process forward. The Interior Department had by then taken less than two months, including the Christmas holiday season, to consider the more than 400,000 public comments it had received. “The analysis was rushed to cater to Shell’s desire to drill this summer,” Leah Donahey, Arctic Ocean senior campaign director with the Alaska Wilderness League, told me over the phone. Iñupiaq elder and conservationist Rosemary Ahtuangaruak emailed me this: “We are faced with a plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean — Our Ocean, Our Garden, Our Future. With a clean ocean we have our traditions and culture, and our life, health, and safety. We risk all of it with this decision.”

The question, of course, should be: in a country that has, in recent years, opened so many new drilling vistas from the Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico, creating what energy experts now call “Saudi America,” why is there still such a rush to industrialize the Arctic Ocean? Shell has a long history of trying to establish itself as a leader in Arctic exploration and drilling, and despite the inauspicious global situation for expensive forms of drilling, continues to push the process as fast as it can.

This, too, has long been the case.  In the fall of 2010, for instance, the company launched a “We have the technology, let’s go” multi-million-dollar ad campaign to pressure the Obama administration to green-light the necessary permits for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.  In 2012, having gotten the necessary permits, it had a thoroughly disastrous drilling season, proving beyond a doubt that it did not “have the technology” to deal with the far North. Knowing that, and knowing as well that there is no proven technology for cleaning up a major oil spill in the ice-choked, forbidding, mostly dark environment of the Arctic seas, Shell is nonetheless back again.

As part of an ongoing competition among the major oil companies, Shell is clearly trying to establish itself as quickly as possible as the dominant player in Arctic offshore drilling, just as BP did in the Gulf of Mexico — with results that we remember well from the Deepwater Horizon blowout of 2010. Nonetheless, the Gulf looks like Club Med compared to the Arctic.  To let Shell drill in the Chukchi Sea when the price of oil is low and its profits slumping would be a rash act indeed, given that a company under pressure elsewhere has a tendency to cut costs and compromise safety. Shell has already set a precedent. In 2012, the company’s decision to avoid Alaskan taxes resulted in moving its drill ship Kulluk from Alaska to Washington, only to see it grounded along the way.

Some things can be counted on like the sun setting in the West.  In the extreme environment of the Arctic seas, a devastating oil spill is one of them if exploration is allowed to continue.  The Obama administration, having just opened the southeastern Atlantic Coast to large-scale future oil exploration and drilling, is now poised to let Shell turn America’s Arctic waters into a disaster area.  That it will happen sooner or later is a given should the company proceed.  That Washington is still considering letting Shell do it anyway should amaze us all.

The final decision about whether to “end or affirm” the Chukchi Sea oil leases will be made on March 20th. Shell still needs approval on several permits before it can head north. The Obama administration cannot approve these permits until Lease Sale 193 is finalized. This may have contributed to the administration’s rushed analysis of that impact statement.

In January, the prestigious science journal Nature published a study adding one more obvious factor to an already grim equation.  The development of oil and gas resources in the Arctic would, it wrote, be “incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees centigrade.” In other words, at a moment when the planet is experiencing an oil glut, it’s possible that the Obama administration will add yet another potential source of extreme oil to the list of future sources of the greenhouse warming of this planet.

Think of drilling in the Arctic as a future catastrophe in a single enticing package.  In April, the United States takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council.  If it decides to let Shell proceed, how will it present itself to the rest of the Arctic nation states, the indigenous Arctic nations and organizations, and the rest of us?  Will it be as the Arctic driller-in-chief, the planet’s warmer-in-chief, or a country committed to climate change mitigation and the conservation of biotic life and indigenous cultures in the midst of the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history?

Subhankar Banerjee’s most recent book is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. His Arctic photographs are currently on display in two exhibitions at the Nottingham Contemporary in the United Kingdom and at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario, Canada. He has been deeply involved with the native tribes of the Arctic in trying to prevent the destruction of Arctic lands and seas.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Subhankar Banerjee

Washington Redskins, Charlie Hebdo and the free speech right to be racist

By: Nat Parry Tuesday March 3, 2015 7:56 am

In a desperate attempt to hold on to its multi-million-dollar trademark, the Washington Redskins franchise submitted legal arguments last week seeking to overturn a 2014 decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to cancel the team’s trademark because it is offensive to Native Americans. The team’s attorneys argued that denying the use of disparaging trademarks is unconstitutional under the First Amendment – in other words, there is an implied First Amendment right to not only be racist but to profit off of that racism.

While it may be true that racist slurs are protected speech under the First Amendment, the issue here of course is whether the United States Patent and Trademark Office, an agency of the federal Department of Commerce, should be in the business of handing out trademarks to private entities so that they may enjoy legal protection over those offensive brand rights. In the case of the Washington Redskins, this is not just an academic question, but one with significant financial implications. Forbes Magazine estimates the value of the Redskins brand at $214 million.

Few would argue that the government should criminalize the uttering of the “redskins” racial slur, but when it comes to granting trademarks, this is a different story. Trademark law says that the government has the right to deny a registered trademark on “matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” It was on these grounds that the government cancelled the Redskins trademark last June.

Now, Redskins lawyers claim that the trademark board’s decision unfairly singles out the Redskins “for disfavored treatment based solely on the content of its protected speech, interfering with the ongoing public discourse over the Redskins’ name by choosing sides and cutting off the debate. This the U.S. Constitution does not tolerate.” In other words, “Waaaaaaaaa!!!!!”

In some ways, it’s interesting that this issue is being discussed now, just weeks after a similar debate over free speech had dominated media coverage. The parallels between the Redskins name debate and the discussions over freedom of expression following the massacre at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris are striking.

Just as the Redskins franchise is currently demanding rights to free speech in utilizing a patently offensive racial slur, so too did the Western world generally argue that the January 7 jihadist attack the anti-Muslim Charlie Hebdo cartoons was a brazen assault on sacred principles of free expression. Under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), Western leaders and members of the intelligentsia claimed to be taking the moral high ground in defending the rights of cartoonists, writers and satirists to offend people through their work. And much like the Redskins name debate, those who might have argued for restraint against racist and offensive speech found themselves in the uncomfortable role as free speech detractors.

But calling for respect and racial tolerance should not be considered an assault on free speech, and indeed the very fact that free speech in the year 2015 has come to be defined as the right to be racist and offensive should be a cause for concern. Freedom of speech is indeed a sacred right and a vital tool, but not necessarily for the reasons that Redskins fans and Charlie Hebdo readers may assume.

The most cursory examination of American history would make clear that it is only through the free expression of unpopular views that we ever move forward as a nation. For example, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, Social Security and the minimum wage were all considered radical ideas until they were forced into the mainstream by determined dissident voices. Without the full right to exercise freedom of speech, there is no telling how long those issues would have stayed on the side lines or how long the nation would have taken to address them in a meaningful way.

Free speech in this sense is not a utopian ideal, but an essential instrument for promoting peaceful change, securing liberty for the oppressed and advancing the cause of justice for all. When it is curtailed, therefore, it is not just a betrayal of democratic principles, but a roadblock to democratic progress. The Founders understood this dynamic when they enshrined the fundamental freedoms of religion, press, assembly and speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution. They recognized these as the unalienable rights of human beings as well as essential tools of an empowered citizenry. When the right to free speech is violated, then, it is a human rights violation as well as a betrayal of the Constitution and the democracy it promises.

But when the concept of free speech is perverted and twisted into meaning some supposed right to profit off of racial slurs by compelling the government to pass out trademarks in violation of its own rules or the right to be willfully offensive towards the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, inevitably provoking some of them into violent reactions, the free speech debate has lost its way.

This article is cross-posted at Essential Opinion.

The Elephant in Congress: Netanyahu’s Own Nukes

By: Barry Lando Tuesday March 3, 2015 6:16 am

It’s astonishing that in the breathless run-up to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress to warn of a nuclear-armed Iran, no one—politicians, editorial writers, media pundits—point out that there already is a nuclear power in the Middle East—Netanyahu’s Israel.

Estimates are that Israel has about 80 nukes, roughly the same number as Pakistan and India.

Although it has possessed nuclear weapons for more than half a century, Israel still refuses to own up to that fact, and the United States blandly continues to go along with that fiction. When asked in 2009 if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, Barack Obama avoided the trap by saying only that he did not wish to “speculate”.

The question is, whether you support Netanyahu’s policies or not, how can the U.S. and Israel and their allies block attempt to block Iran from acquiring the bomb, while pretending that Israel doesn’t already have one? How do you justify such a flagrant double standard?

How do you have a realistic assessment of a possible Iranian threat to Israel, without recognizing that any Iranian leader crazy enough to attack Israel, would have to act with the knowledge that Israel would retaliate with a nuclear arsenal that would obliterate not just Iran’s nuclear facilities, but all of Iran?

But, if they were to recognize the truth about Israel’s arsenal, American leaders would have to do something about it.

Which is the reason they’ve dodged the issue ever since the CIA first came to President Eisenhower in 1958-59 with news that Israel was developing a nuclear facility at Dimona with French covert assistance. As Seymour Hersh detailed in “The Samson Option,” Eisenhower’s White House made it clear they didn’t want to know.

One major reason was that by admitting that Israel was a nuclear power, the U.S.  would undermine its campaign to get the countries of the region to sign on to the new Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

(Ironically, beginning in 1974 under the Shah, and continuing under Khomeini, Iran would consistently call for a non-proliferation zone in the Middle East. To protect Israel, the U.S. would constantly dodge the issue.)

“Don’t be so naive,” Israel’s supporters will argue. “Sure, Israel has nukes, but its people live in a very dangerous neighborhood. And they’re our only real allies in that region. Our relationship is one of trust and respect.

“The Iranians, on the other hand, are a deceitful lot who have lied through their teeth about their nuclear goals since the beginning.”

The fact is, however, that from the start, the Israelis also lied about their nuclear ambitions.

In December 1960, for instance, the Eisenhower administration finally leaked word about Dimona and France’s involvement with the Israeli reactor to the New York Times. The administration hoped that, without having to make any official accusations itself, it could oblige the Israeli government to sign the NPT.

But Israel’s David Ben Gurion flatly denied the Times report.


He assured American officials –as well as his own Israeli Knesset–that the Dimona reactor was completely benign.


For their part, French officials guaranteed that any plutonium produced at Dimona would be returned to France for safekeeping (another lie).


The deceit and denials have continued ever since.


“O.K.” Netanyahu’s backers will argue. “So, Israel was not exactly forthcoming about its nuclear arsenal. They had no choice. But their nukes are in safe, responsible custody.

“On the other hand, there’s no way we can let those crazed mullahs in Iran get anywhere near a nuclear weapon. No telling whom they might give them to.”

There are a couple of problems with that argument. First, over the past fear years Israel’s own set of crazies –those calling for the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and the West Bank, for instance, or demanding preemptive strikes against Iran, have gained increased influence in Israel. Once considered kooks beyond the pale, they no longer are.

Secondly, even when supposedly wise, sober men were running Israel, some of their most respected leaders were willing to help the apartheid regime of South Africa develop nuclear weapons.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky researching a book on Israel’s relations with apartheid South Africa, uncovered a set of “top secret” documents including the minutes of meetings between senior officials from South Africa and Israel on March 31, 1975. The minutes related how South Africa’s defense minister, PW Botha, requested nuclear warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defense minister, responded by offering them in “three sizes.”

The two men also signed an agreement for military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that “the very existence of this agreement” was to remain secret.

According to the Guardian, a spokeswoman for Peres said the report was baseless and there were “never any negotiations between the two countries.” She didn’t comment on the authenticity of the documents.


In any case, partially because of cost, South Africa ultimately did not purchase those warheads. Nor was it sure that Israel’s prime minister would have approved the deal.


But South Africa did go ahead, with continued clandestine assistance from Israel, to develop its own nuclear weapons—missiles and warheads.


For its part, South Africa also provided much of the yellowcake uranium that Israel required to develop its nuclear arsenal.


Ironically, apartheid South Africa wasn’t the only country attempting to get nuclear assistance from Israel. So was Iran—under the Shah.


Documents seized by Iranian students from the US embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, revealed the Shah expressed an interest to Israel in developing nuclear arms.


Indeed, in the 1970’s Israel and Iran launched a secret joint project to develop a nuclear capable ground-to-ground missile. This according to Gary Sick, an Iranian expert who served on the staff of the National Security Council under several U.S. presidents.

The two countries undertook the project after the U.S. turned down each of their requests to buy the missile from America. They kept the program secret from the U.S. It was still in the works when the Shah was overthrown.

After the revolution, the new Islamic government of the Ayatollah Khomeini renounced the Shah’s nuclear policies. It looked like the entire program would be scrapped.

According to Sick, the Iranians stuck to that position even after Saddam Hussein attacked Iran’s cities with long-range missiles equipped with chemical warheads. The Ayatollah Khomeini was adamant that nuclear weapons violated Islamic principles.

After Khomeini’s death, the views of Iran’s nee leadership changed.

They were shocked by the extent to which Saddam had developed his own nuclear arsenal, and unnerved by the prospect that they would have been the first victims of the Iraqi dictator’s new weapons. Who knew what a future Iraqi leader might do?

They were also concerned by the ease with which the U.S.-led forces overthrow Saddam, and worried that they might also become a target of American attacks—a threat that U.S. (and Israel) officials have continued to brandish. Having their own nuclear weapons was a sure defense.

According to Sick, “Iran may also want to have a counterweight to Israel’s extensive nuclear arsenal, and it may believe that a nuclear program would bolster Iran’s position as a regional power.”

Good luck in trying to find such a sober and thoughtful analysis in the current firestorm that passes for a debate over Iran’s nukes.



Highlighting Failed Policy in Syria, US-Armed Militia Falls to Al-Qaeda Affiliate

By: CTuttle Monday March 2, 2015 3:30 pm

Harakat al-Hazm, armed with American anti-tank missiles, announces dissolution

by Sarah Lazare

A U.S.-backed militia in Syria, touted by the Obama administration as a trusted “moderate” group and armed with American anti-tank missiles, is reportedly dissolving following a series of defeats by al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra—leaving the U.S.-led war on ISIS in further disarray.

The combatant group, Harakat al-Hazm, had been engaged in fierce clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra for months. The U.S.-allied militia was initially pushed from its northern Syrian headquarters in Idlib and suffered another defeat on Sunday at its new center of operations in Aleppo.

“Given what is happening on the Syrian front, offenses by the criminal regime with its cronies against Syria as a whole, and Aleppo specifically, and in an effort to stem the bloodshed of the fighters, the Hazm movement announces its dissolution,” declared a statement from the group, cited by Daily Beast writer Jamie Dettmer.

The militia announced that its members would join a new coalition—the Shamiah Front—which is engaged in fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, according to Dettmer, is “distrusted by Washington.” According to the Guardian’s Middle East Editor Ian Black, the front includes “hardline Salafist factions as well as more moderate brigades like the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Mujahideen Army and another U.S.-backed outfit.”

Harakat al-Hazm is one of many Syrian militias that have received U.S. training and support, including shipments of anti-tank Tow missiles. Unverified reports are emerging on Twitter that their Tow missiles have been seized by al-Nusra fighters:

The announcement of Harakat al-Hazm’s collapse coincides with the launch of a new U.S.-led program to train and arm Syrian combatants in Turkey. U.S. support for “moderate” fighters has been a centerpiece of war on ISIS, nearing its seventh month.

However, this support dates back further than the war on ISIS. As Adam Johnson reported in FAIR last week, “That the US is arming and training Syrian rebels has been well-documented for over two years, yet Western media have historically suffered from a strange collective amnesia when reporting this fact.”

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