By John O’Grady
Walter Shaub, Jr., the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, who retired last year after months of disagreements with the White House, used the term “banana republic” to describe the decision by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse course and continue to ban offshore drilling for Florida.
Called “the Florida Favor,” no other state was exempted, even though every other state with a coastline objected to removing the ban, except Maine and Alaska. It points to a deeper, systemic problem revealed in our country this new year where the rule of law is abandoned and protections for people take a backseat to whoever has the most influence with the Trump administration.
The term “banana republic” has become derogatory. It once referred to a country that was overwhelmingly dependent on exportation of one cash crop for its political stability and financial well-being. But the epithet has earned the connotation among nations whose flimsy governing institutions are corrupt, arbitrary and incompetent.
The phrase seems to be hanging in the air of late, and on Jan. 5, MSNBC’s Joy Reid tweeted: “We are wading deeper and deeper into banana republic territory” in reference to yet further diversionary tactics alleging new relevance to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
Have our country’s governing bodies and reputation sunk so low?
When, on Jan 3, the Trump administration announced plans to reverse a ban on new offshore drilling off all U.S. coasts, it opened more than 40 sites for leasing of natural gas and oil production. All the locations are in U.S. federal waters that were previously protected, and could raise $15 billion for the federal treasury.
For one of Trump’s main constituents, Big Oil and Big Gas, it’s a last “indulgence” to an industry that produces the fuel climate scientists are urging us to abandon as an energy source.
Of course, the administration tried to paint this as a national security issue.
“It’s better to produce energy here and never be held hostage by foreign enemy needs,” Zinke said. The proposal represents a “clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance,” he added.
Making matters riskier, the Trump administration is expanding offshore drilling just as it abandons attempts to keep oil drilling safe. Interior halted a National Academy of Sciences study to improve the inspection program for offshore oil and gas operations that would review current safety measures.
Just a week before making allowances for drilling, the White House also announced it will dispense with regulatory safeguards created after the Deepwater Horizon disaster almost eight years ago.
One draft proposal scales back previous rules governing fail-safes on wells, like the faulty blowout preventer used on the BP Macondo well. Ironically, the government arm that enforces drilling safeguards, Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, is now headed up by Scott Angelle, a Louisiana native with ties to the oil and gas industry.
So, the oil industry gets special treatment while the public gets snubbed. Trump’s toxic tax plan let expire a 9-cent per barrel tax on domestic crude oil production companies that raised hundreds of millions of dollars annually for federal oil-spill response efforts — basically a special corporate tax break just for oil companies.
The fee generated an average of $500 million in federal revenue per year and provided the main source of funds for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This tax cut attracted little interest at the time, but now we know it was part of a suite of “holiday bonuses” that Trump rewarded to Big Oil. Trump’s tax plan also allows oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
President Barak Obama designated 1.4 million acres of ANWR as protected wilderness. His plan had permanently restricted energy development in the 19.8-million-acre refuge’s coastal plain.
Media reports estimate the area contains 10.3 billion barrels of oil, and is home to more than 200 wildlife species. Due to environmental impact studies, drilling there was outlawed because cleaning up oil in perilous, icy conditions in one of the most pristine environments on earth seemed folly. Republicans in Congress charged ahead anyway, because industry projected to create $1 billion in profits for American oil and gas companies.
Also, in 2018, this administration has finally revealed its “real” plans for EPA. Just weeks after last January’s inauguration, Robert E. Murray, the head of Murray Energy, presented Mr. Trump with a wish list of environmental rollbacks.
“I give President Trump and his administration credit for being bold, being passionate and being correct in addressing a lot of these issues that were on my (to-do) list,” he said.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has vowed to realize the Murray Energy proposal to dismantle EPA by reducing regulators by 50 percent. Trump’s efforts will ensure that those who profit from increased fossil fuel production will not be hassled with controlling their pollution. With that action, America moves one step closer to exemplifying the meaning of becoming a “banana republic” or, perhaps more accurately, a “fossil-fuel republic.”
Though, it is not too late. America can reclaim our country from this fate by refusing to be ruled by industry, and instead put the collective public interest — public health — in our country’s beaches and tourist economies, native cultures, and in the wildlife in our coastal seas ahead of the almighty dollar.
John O’Grady is president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 8,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.