The Environmental Movement Needs to Regain Its Credibility

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In my second year at the University of Colorado Law School I joined the National Wildlife Federation Clinic.   I spent most of the next eighteen months working on the ability of antelope to pass across fences and in stream water flows in the Platte river system to insure the survival of fisheries and the whooping crane.  I was fortunate to work for one of the oddest and most brilliant lawyers I have ever met in my long legal career – Tom Lustig.

Tom was odd in that he wore clothes out of some bad early ’70s fashion magazine and had a lanky and vaguely hairy appearance.  He looked the stereotypical pinhead liberal.  But as I worked long into the nights with him on briefs or preparing for meetings with federal agencies, ranchers, and state agencies that he often sent me to alone without supervision, he hammered home simple lessons that have served me well throughout my career.  Never, ever surrender your scientific credibility in a moment of emotion.  Never, ever be afraid to reach out your hand to a potential opponent.  Never, ever break your word.

For me the environmental movement is a cornerstone of why I mostly vote Democratic, but I gaze in wonder at a host of recent actions that violate everything Tom taught me.

The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone was a stunning victory for biological balance.  But it was gained with the promise of management both in and outside the Park to balance the interests of ranchers, hunters, and others fearful of the wolves impact on cattle and elk.  The environmental movement followed this stunning victory with a host of lawsuits seeking to expand an uncontrolled wolf population outside the park under the guise of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  These lawsuits are a fundamental breach of the bargain that reintroduced wolves into the Park.

And the result is the unmitigated disaster of Congress intervening on a bipartisan basis for the first time in the underlying science of the ESA.

Now we see an all out war on the use of hydro-fracking for the production of natural gas.   I spent two summers working in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma during college and my employer injected drilling mud full of chemicals and water into the bore holes as part of the process of drilling and increasing the pressure in the oil field.  It was routine.  The only differences now are the existence of tort reform, the volumes of fluids, and the prospect that a fossil fuel might be an interim answer versus the limited promise of wind and solar.

Suddenly at a moment when the United States faces the unexpected opportunity to increase its energy independence and switch from coal to natural gas as a step toward greenhouse gas reductions, the environmental community has launched a campaign to prevent it.  How on earth does it make sense to extend the life of coal plants with their heavy metals and heavy carbon release?  Instead of a campaign whose scientific basis more resembles Republican arguments against global warming, the environmental community should focus not on preventing hydro-fracking but making it safe.

For example, the community should work to make sure tort reform does not endanger the right of water consumers to sue quickly and for full damages against any company whose operations pollute a water source.  It should pursue not prohibition, but transparency and regulation.  Because the alternative is to break the movement’s commitment that it is science based and will reach out its hand to compromise.

It is an alternative that plays into the hands of the polluters.  An alternative that will I fear result in another bipartisan Congress ignoring the environmental community in a moment of energy crisis.  An alternative that destroys the credibility of the environmental community as the true scientific movement to protect the environment in the United States and around the world.

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