On Wednesday January 26 the Economic Affairs Committee of the lower house of the Dutch Parliament held its long-awaited hearing on Royal Dutch Shell’s oil production activities in the Niger Delta. While conceding that the number of oil spills occurring in this area is “unacceptably high,” Ian Craig, Shell’s executive vice president for sub-Saharan Africa, blamed 70% of them on sabotage by militants or organized oil theft by others. Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth accused Shell of tolerating environmental damage in Nigeria that it never would accept in the Netherlands. Shell countered that it was not applying a double standard, citing its much better environmental record in Gabon where it did not face militant attacks. Ritsema argued that Shell’s practice of open burning (“flaring”) of excess gas from 100 wells in Nigeria released emissions equivalent to four million Dutch automobiles. A Dutch lawmaker argued that Shell should openly press the Nigerian government to stop corruption and oil theft, but Craig argued that these matters “should be discussed in private.” David Jolly, Dutch Lawmakers Question Shell on Oil Pollution in Nigeria, N.Y. Times, Jan. 26, 2011.
On Tuesday January 25 President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union message to a joint session of Congress. While pledging a renewed effort to eliminate obsolete regulations, Obama did not directly address climate change. He did challenge Congress to pursue a new goal of producing 80 percent of America’s electricity from clean-energy sources by the year 2035. This challenge initially surprised many observers, but it was subsequently learned that Obama’s definition of clean energy would rely heavily on increased use of natural gas and maybe even “clean coal” technology.
On Friday January 28, the U.S. marked the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, which killed seven astronauts. The tragedy occurred on the day President Reagan was to deliver a State of the Union message. I remember it well because the disaster occurred while I was testifying before Senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth. Glenn was chairing a hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on OMB’s abuses of power in blocking regulations by EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. I was one of the first witnesses because OMB Director James Miller had been delayed at a meeting with President Reagan at the White House to discuss the State of the Union message. I was testifying because I had brought the first lawsuit challenging the legality of OMB’s efforts to block EPA regulations on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund for whom I worked. Senator Al Gore also was participating in the hearing and I recall their faces turning ashen when aides whispered the news to Glenn and Gore. They decided to continue the hearing and I did not learn about the disaster until after I finished testifying when one of Glenn’s aides told me. Coincidentally that afternoon the federal district court in Washington released its decision ruling that OMB had no authority to block the regulations. Environmental Defense Fund v. Thomas, 627 F. Supp. 566 (D.D.C. 1986).
As the world’s elite were gathering in Davos, Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum, very different gatherings of people were taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East. The remarkable cascade in the Middle East began with Tunisians taking to the streets to force the end of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 24 years in power. Egyptians are now doing the same in an effort to end President Hosni Mubarek’s nearly 30-year reign. Some have attributed the Tunisian protests in small part to the release of U.S. diplomatic cables by wikileaks that reported on astonishing levels of corruption by President Ben Ali and his family. Egypt’s government responded to the protests by shutting down the internet and cellphone traffic, a strategy that could easily backfire. Meanwhile Chinese internet censors are trying to keep China’s people from hearing about the protests in the Middle East. They reportedly have blocked web searches using the word “Egypt.” Jeremy Page, Beijing Blocks Protest Reports, Wall St. J., Jan. 31, 2011. Another jarring disclosure by the global press last week occurred in connection with Afghanistan’s decision to sign an agreement with the United Nations to end the use of child soldiers. The young boys in the Afghan military reportedly have been widely used as sex slaves by military commanders, a tradition known as “bacha bazi” (boy play) in Dari. Maria Abi-Habib, Officials Move to Curb Use of Underage Soldiers, Wall St. J., Jan. 30, 2011.
On Wednesday the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state’s new governor Susana Martinez did not have the authority to prevent environmental regulations adopted by the previous administration from taking effect. The regulations require annual 3% reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and control discharges of wastes from dairies. Arizona’s attorney general last week withdrew the state’s support for EPA’s “endangerment finding” for GHG emissions, which is being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Last week a five-member Court of Appeals in Botswana overturned a decision that had barred the Baswara tribe from drilling new bore holes and using old ones to obtain water in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The decision is viewed as a major victory for the opposition Botswana Democratic Party. Baswara representatives are questioning whether the government will comply with the decision, citing the government’s failure to comply fully with a 2006 decision that had allowed the tribe to remain in the CKGR despite a government relocation program. A copy of the Court of Appeals decision is available online at: http://assets.survivalinternational.org/documents/545/bushmen-water-appeal-judgement-jan-2011.pdf
This week I attended the annual Macworld conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Attendance appeared to be lower this year, but many companies were displaying cool new accessories and apps for Apple’s products. I was amazed at how many of these vendors were from foreign countries. I purchased a case for my iPhone that is made of baseball leather with stitching that gives it the look and feel of a baseball. The case is made by Trexta, a company headquartered in Turkey. There was considerable buzz about possible use of Near Field Communications “wave and pay” technology on the upcoming iPhone 5. The local press in San Francisco were trying to locate for comment the entrepreneur from Silicon Valley’s Narus who reportedly had sold Telecom Egypt the real time traffic intelligence equipment that facilitated that country’s internet shutdown.