Big Oil’s Grip on California

In America’s greenest state, the industry has spent $122 million in the past six years to shape regulation and legislation. It wins more than you think.

By Michael J. Mishak, Center for Public Integrity

On the morning of June 21, 2011, a worker named Robert David Taylor was walking through an oil field west of Taft, California, when he noticed a plume of steam coming from the darkened earth. Taylor, 54, was a Chevron supervisor who had spent three decades around Kern County’s Midway-Sunset field, the largest and most productive in the state. He and two co-workers had been dispatched to fix the “chimney” near an idled well known to spew scalding geysers of oil, water, and rocks as high as 40 feet in the air.

California was in the midst of an oil boom. Crude prices had soared above $100 per barrel, and pump jacks, pipes, and power lines snaked across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, about two hours north of Los Angeles. The spouts at Well 20 that day were the result of an increasingly popular technique called cyclic steaming, in which steam is pumped into the earth to dislodge thick, tar-like crude. After a century of extraction, the easy oil was gone, and this was like filling an empty ketchup bottle with water to get the last few drops. It was dangerous work—the intense heat fractured geologic formations to release oil, but it also destabilized the porous earth and created sinkholes.

As Taylor approached the site, the ground gave way. He was sucked feet first into a burbling cauldron of fluids and poison gas. He screamed. A co-worker rushed to reach him with a piece of pipe, but it was too short. Within seconds, Taylor disappeared into the muck. It took 17 hours to recover what remained of his body.

Two hundred and eighty miles north in Sacramento, the news of Taylor’s death shook Elena Miller. As the state’s oil-and-gas supervisor, Miller had been warring with energy companies for the better part of a year over the potential dangers of underground injection—the umbrella term for cyclic steaming and other forms of oil extraction that involve infusing fluids into the earth. Now, she redoubled her efforts, banning steam injection around the accident site and cracking down on new drilling permits. The oil industry was outraged. Hamstrung by unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, energy companies were rushing to ramp up production in California, marching steadily out of century-old oil fields and into almond orchards, alfalfa fields, and just about anywhere crude might be found. Miller threatened all of that.

Four months later, she was fired.

Known nationally as a laboratory of progressive values and environmental protection, California is perhaps the last place one would expect Big Oil to hold sway. The state has passed some of the toughest energy regulations in the country and set aggressive new goals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Since the election of Donald Trump, Governor Jerry Brown has positioned California as a bulwark against a new president who sees climate change as a “hoax” and a White House that promises to appoint the most pro-drilling Cabinet in American history. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight,” the governor thundered during a speech in San Francisco in December.

Praise came quickly.

“At Forefront of Climate Fight, California Plans an Offensive,” said The New York Times.

“This Is What the Resistance Sounds Like,” said The Atlantic.

Obscured by the headlines, however, is oil’s enduring power in the Golden State. Long before Silicon Valley, medical marijuana, and sushi burritos, crude was king. Today, California is the third-biggest oil-producing state, behind only Texas and North Dakota. Over the past six years, as the state has won international praise for its efforts to fight climate change, Big Oil has spent more than $122 million on campaign contributions and on lobbying to boost production, weaken regulatory agencies, and mold energy policy.

Perhaps more than any other special interest, the oil industry has helped reshape California’s political landscape, in part by cultivating a relationship with Brown and nourishing a new breed of Democrats: moderate lawmakers who are casting a critical eye on the state’s suite of climate-change policies, including its signature cap-and-trade program, which aims to curb greenhouse gases by penalizing companies that pollute. As a result, the industry saw a spike in production for the first time in nearly two decades, turned back legislative efforts to halve the state’s petroleum usage and overcame calls for a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In perhaps the biggest sign of oil’s clout, Brown, a liberal icon who made a name for himself as an environmentalist in the 1970s, eased restrictions to clear the path for more drilling. “I don’t think it’s responsible to let Third World countries do the oil production so that Californians can drive around, even in their hybrids,” Brown told Politico in 2015, as he prepared to attend the United Nations climate summit in Paris. “We have to shoulder our part of the responsibility.”

That business-friendly approach has come at a price. Two and a half years ago, California’s oil regulator acknowledged that it had allowed companies to drill thousands of wells into aquifers—underground reservoirs—that were supposed to be protected as potential sources of drinking water. The US Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to oversee the cleanup. A year later, after a gas leak in the San Fernando Valley forced the evacuation of thousands of residents, state lawmakers blamed lax regulation. It was the largest discharge of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in American history. The state’s overall carbon emissions have decreased in recent years, but only modestly; industrial pollution from oil and gas development has risen.

All of this, some environmentalists and lawmakers say, calls into question California’s ability to live up to its reputation as a climate leader.

Bill McKibben, one of the country’s most prominent climate activists, pointed to the state’s embrace of fracking as a “glaring exception” to an otherwise-impressive environmental record. “There’s no other explanation than the political and financial clout of the oil industry,” he said by e-mail. “Every ton of carbon Occidental [Petroleum] sends into the atmosphere makes it that much harder to imagine a California that survives the droughts of this century.”

Some specifically fault Brown, who has boasted of “the most aggressive control of oil production and use anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.” In a report last week, a prominent California-based consumer group gave the governor a “dirty” rating for his actions on oil drilling.

“‘Hypocrite’ is almost too nice of a word. It’s more of a con,” said Adam Scow, state director of Food & Water Watch, which endorsed the report. “Once you start to look at the real policies and the real problems and the fact that we are still the nation’s third-largest oil-producing state, things are not all so rosy here.”

Lobbyists have so much power in the California Legislature that insiders refer to them as the “third house.” Few groups have more influence than the Western States Petroleum Association, or WSPA (pronounced Wis-Pa), as it’s known in the capital. Founded in 1907 amid the black-gold boom that shaped Southern California, WSPA is the nation’s oldest oil-trade group, representing more than two dozen major companies in five states, including California. Much of its staying power stems from an unrivaled political war chest; it routinely spends more on lobbying than any other special interest in Sacramento—a necessity, its leaders say, because of the oil industry’s “unfortunate and undeserved” negative image, as well as the strong environmental principles of the state’s elected leaders. “Their stated goal is to reduce petroleum use above all else,” WSPA president Catherine Reheis-Boyd said. And with millions of Californians dependent on gasoline-powered vehicles, “the facts dictate us being very much part of that conversation, no matter where California goes.”

After 26 years with the trade group, Reheis-Boyd is the soft-spoken public face of the oil industry, backed up by a team of lobbyists. She leads an organization that is decidedly old school: Each winter, it hosts a reception for lawmakers at the upscale Esquire Grill a few blocks from the Capitol building, and continues to wine and dine them throughout the year, often in tandem with its smaller counterpart, the California Independent Petroleum Association, or CIPA. In 2015, for instance, when state lawmakers convened for an annual corporate-sponsored summit in Maui, WSPA treated nine legislators to dinner at Spago, running up a $3,300 tab. The following month, CIPA whisked 22 lawmakers and two candidates to its oil symposium at the Resort at Pelican Hill, a five-star property in Newport Beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Two state senators and a Senate candidate enjoyed $300 rounds of golf. The outings are legal under the state’s campaign-finance laws.

But WSPA’s real influence stems from the millions more its members—including Chevron, California’s third-largest company by revenue—pour into a network of political-action committees—outside groups designed to boost industry allies and target critics under innocuous names such as the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class. They run attack ads and send out mailers to influence campaigns as well as legislation. “Unless leadership directly intervenes for a bill, the oil industry can hold it hostage,” said former Assemblyman Das Williams, a Santa Barbara Democrat who chaired the California Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee. “On any given day, they’ve got between six and nine Democrats, in addition to most of the Republicans.” That approaches half the 80-member Assembly, and that bipartisan coalition has established a track record of watering down or blocking climate-related legislation.

The industry had already changed the rules of legislative debate; in 2010, Chevron was the leading corporate sponsor of a ballot measure to require a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, for state and local governments to enact new fees on businesses.

When energy-related bills pass the Legislature, WSPA and its members have a hand in how rules are crafted and laws are enforced. Lobbyists pick up meals for regulators at fast-food restaurants, refinery cafeterias, and oceanfront resorts. Oil executives and state regulators meet as an “oil and gas work group” to discuss rule making, and WSPA’s Reheis-Boyd was even appointed to a state panel that helped create marine sanctuaries. Last year, when an assemblyman filed a request to audit the state agency that administers the state’s cap-and-trade program, the Microsoft Word file showed it had a different author: WSPA’s chief lobbyist. The lawmaker’s chief of staff told the Los Angeles Times that the group, like any other special interest, “tend[s] to have the policy expertise when we have questions.”

When California established an oil regulator—what’s now the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR—a century ago, it wasn’t with the environment in mind. The state was acting at the behest of oil executives who were tired of fighting over land and fouling one another’s projects. The agency’s role was to help companies “win from the ground the greatest amount of oil at the least expense,” officials wrote just after passage of the 1915 law that created the Department of Petroleum and Gas. “It is not our desire to assume the role of a prosecuting officer thrusting regulations upon unwilling subjects.”

Even as California changed—birthing the modern environmental movement and leading the way on renewable energy—the approach of oil regulators did not. A 2007 state audit found one DOGGR field office that was run like an industry fiefdom, with regulators buying stock in companies they oversaw. One official told a firm how to circumvent a planned moratorium on new oil permits and routinely asked oil companies to make contributions to the charity that employed his wife. Most important, regulators rarely asked companies for proof that their operations were not endangering potential sources of drinking water, as required by state and federal law.

Elena Miller inherited the agency in 2009. An attorney at the California Energy Commission and then the state Department of Corrections, Miller had come full circle: She had begun her law career as a paralegal for Atlantic Richfield Company, or ARCO, in the 1990s, working on Alaska pipeline litigation and later living in oil-rich Venezuela. When she began requesting well-casing diagrams from the oil industry, it was, by historical standards, earthshaking. The extra scrutiny slowed the issuance of drilling permits. Then Robert David Taylor met his end in a Kern County sinkhole. Miller and her boss at the state Department of Conservation, Derek Chernow, compiled a binder of spills, seeps, and eruptions related to steam injection and insisted that companies document every well near an injection site—fluids could travel through old, broken or unstable wells and taint fresh water—before receiving new permits. “Imagine that,” Chernow wrote Miller, “A regulator not in bed with the regulated.”

The US EPA encouraged the crackdown. Its audit of California’s underground-injection program, the first comprehensive review in three decades, came out just after Taylor’s death and found state regulators failing by nearly every measure: They weren’t properly calculating the impacts of drilling on drinking water, ensuring sound well construction, or penalizing companies that broke the law; a state report later found that DOGGR had failed to collect millions of dollars in unpaid fines. Federal officials ordered the state to step up scrutiny of oil projects. Already unhappy with how Miller’s oversight had slowed drilling, the Western States Petroleum Association proposed a shortcut: Regulators would grant permits without the usual environmental reviews, and oil companies would provide the assessments later.

The idea was rejected, but WSPA was undeterred. Behind the scenes, oil-industry representatives lobbied lawmakers and deployed state power brokers, including former governor Gray Davis, legal counsel for Occidental, the country’s fourth-largest oil company. WSPA orchestrated a letter-writing campaign; before long Brown’s office was flooded with missives from oil executives and workers alike, all claiming the industry was on the verge of a shutdown. Brown had a choice: He could back his regulators and risk antagonizing industry—or he could spur energy production and make a powerful ally in the process.

In the 1970s, Jerry Brown cemented his place in the national imagination as “Governor Moonbeam,” a liberal dreamer who embodied California cool—or California kook, depending on where one stood. He drove a Plymouth Satellite, spurned the governor’s mansion for a mattress on an apartment floor, and dated singer Linda Ronstadt. But beneath that caricature lay a policy wonk who embraced the environmental movement like no politician had before. Confronted with California’s booming population and stifling pollution—smog alerts regularly forced schools to cancel recess—he enacted the nation’s first energy-efficiency standards, signed strict clean-air laws, and blocked offshore oil drilling.

Brown’s worldview, however, was tempered by a 28-year odyssey after he left Sacramento, one that took him from charity work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta to another failed presidential campaign (there were three in all) to the mayor’s office in Oakland beginning in 1999. Friends say Brown’s time in Oakland was seminal. Keen to jump-start redevelopment in the struggling city, he had to deal with a patchwork of state agencies and a thicket of environmental regulations, some of which he had championed as governor.

Reelected to the state’s top office in 2010, Brown was singularly focused on the economy: With recession still rippling through the state, California faced a $27 billion deficit and a record unemployment rate of 12.1 percent. Brown barely mentioned the environment during his first State of the State address, a speech so focused on fiscal discipline it could have been delivered at a Republican fundraiser. “At a time when more than 2 million Californians are out of work,” Brown told the Legislature, “we must search out and strip away any accumulated burdens or unreasonable regulations that stand in the way of investment and job creation.” The message was clear: If ideology had dominated Brown’s first stay in the governor’s office, pragmatism would dominate the second.

Having campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes without voter approval, Brown moved quickly to lay the groundwork for a ballot measure that would hike levies on the wealthy. It was a risky move. Brown had just spent $36 million to get elected, and now he had to go back to his affluent donors, as well as the business community, and ask for more—all for an initiative that would target people like them. With its deep pockets, the oil industry could help pass or kill the measure, Proposition 30. And, at that particular moment, it wanted no-fuss drilling permits from state regulators. According to memos and e-mails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, Brown’s office began pushing for a shortcut, one that would allow drilling to proceed without full environmental reviews.

Chernow was astounded. A former legislative aide and conservation advocate, he believed in his department’s mission.

In October of 2011, four months after Taylor’s death, he and Miller pushed back. “This approach is simply contrary to law,” Chernow wrote in a memo to his superiors. The US EPA had asked the state to tighten its standards, not relax them, he said, warning that the proposed shortcut would likely draw legal challenges from environmental groups.

The following day, the regulators were summoned to the governor’s office. There, Chernow alleged in court filings, one of Brown’s senior advisers told them to fast-track the permits. The aide then handed Chernow a proposal modeled on the one WSPA had presented earlier. The regulators were incensed. In a follow-up call, tensions flared. According to a declaration by Chernow, Miller told Brown’s advisor that the proposal would break the law. The aide shot back: This is an order from the governor. The next day, Brown fired Chernow and Miller—a move the oil industry applauded.

Brown’s decision to relax regulations turned on “making sure all these people didn’t come after Prop 30 with a knife,” said a source familiar with the governor’s thinking. There was ample cause for concern. In 2006, the oil industry had outspent environmentalists to kill an initiative that sought to place a tax on crude oil. The $154 million fight had set a new spending record for ballot-measure battles in California. Brown and his top aides declined to be interviewed for this story, but spokesman Gareth Lacey dismissed as “ridiculous” any claim that the governor’s actions were influenced by his tax campaign. He also disputed Chernow’s characterization of events. “The expectation—clearly communicated—was and always has been full compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” he said.

Nonetheless, Brown replaced Chernow and Miller—who declined interview requests—with appointees more sympathetic to the oil industry. The new oil-and-gas supervisor was a longtime DOGGR manager who’d worked in the agency’s Bakersfield office. In the months after the firings, regulators approved nearly 80 permits that had been on hold. Stephen Chazen, president and CEO of Occidental, told investors during an earnings call that Brown had prompted the “change in attitude.” “We’re pleased with the governor’s involvement,” he said.

Brown himself began using the firings as evidence of his commitment to pare regulations—and made clear that oil was still vital to California’s economy. In January of 2012, at a press conference intended to showcase the state’s commitment to solar energy, Brown veered from his prepared remarks to note “the oil rigs are moving in Kern County” and affirm the state’s status as an energy leader. “It’s not easy,” he said. “There are going to be screw-ups. There are going to be bankruptcies. There will be indictments, and there will be deaths. But we’re going to keep going.” That day, Occidental gave $250,000 to Brown’s tax campaign. Not long after, it gave another $100,000, this time to the Oakland Military Institute, a charter school Brown had founded as the city’s mayor. That November, Brown’s tax measure, Proposition 30, passed easily. Oil companies had contributed more than $1 million to the campaign. More important, they hadn’t opposed it.

The heart of California’s oil industry is a short drive from Los Angeles, on the other side of the Tehachapi Mountains and past a curtain of smog so thick that it comes with its own color-coded warning system (green for good air quality, yellow for moderate, red for unhealthy). Orchards, vineyards, and fields stretch to the horizon, sharing the fertile valley floor with pump jacks and derricks. Kern County accounts for 70 percent of California’s oil production, and more than 40,000 people hold energy-related jobs. One high school’s mascot is a driller, and the town of Taft, near where Robert David Taylor died, crowns an Oil Queen every year.

Mike Hopkins grew up in the county and studied agriculture at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and the University of Arizona. For his senior project, he mapped out an almond orchard, and he’s been farming ever since. In the fall of 2011, around the time Brown fired the oil regulators, one of Hopkins’s most fecund parcels of land was in Rosedale, a 58-acre orchard that bore almonds and cherries. Over the next three years, state oil regulators paved the way for a six-fold increase in injection projects, cutting their typical review time in half. Hopkins began to notice changes in the Rosedale field.

First, his cherry trees wilted. “I actually had one of my neighbors drive by and say, ‘Hey, are you abandoning your cherries?’ And I said, ‘No, why?’ and he said, ‘They look like shit.’” Hopkins hired scientific consultants who found high levels of salt and boron in the soil and water—a death sentence for most plants. “This is something that’s not natural,” a water company official told him.

The injection wells and rusting storage tanks that had ringed his ranch for decades suddenly appeared menacing. Hopkins called oil producers in the area and visited the local office of DOGGR, the agency Miller and Chernow had overseen. No one, Hopkins said, could offer any explanation for the contamination. Soon, the cherry trees began to die, and after a lackluster harvest in 2012 Hopkins decided to pull the orchard. “It hurts you,” he said. “I know it doesn’t sound like you can equate the two, but if you had a herd of goats or cattle, and you did everything in the world to feed them and nurture them, and they started dying, and you had to kill them all—same feeling.”

Hopkins soon learned that salt and boron were waste products of oil drilling: Each barrel of crude that firms bring to the surface is accompanied by more than 15 barrels of briny water. That mixture of toxic substances is often re-injected into “exempted” aquifers, geologic formations that were written off as underground garbage dumps decades ago, typically because they either do not contain water or the water is too contaminated or too deep to retrieve. After reviewing state records, Hopkins filed a lawsuit, accusing four oil companies that operate near his orchard of injecting their wastewater into aging and damaged wells without first surveying the area to ensure containment. Idled and abandoned wells—some just 200 feet from his ranch—served as pollution pathways to his groundwater, he alleges.

In August, the height of harvest season, the air was thick with dust as farm workers shook almonds from nearby trees, some of which showed signs of wilting. Hopkins drove to the spot in his orchard where, over the course of three days, he had watched as backhoes yanked row after row of cherry trees—2,232 in all. Now, the field is full of pistachio trees, which are hardier but will take years to mature and start producing nuts. “It’s hard to tell a farmer not to grow something if it’s in their blood,” he said.

Hopkins wasn’t the only one worried about water. California’s oil boom coincided with a record drought; the rains and snowpack that typically provide much of the water for the state’s agricultural industry slowed to a trickle, prompting farmers to tap unprecedented amounts of groundwater. In fact, in the Central Valley, they sucked so much from basins that the ground in some areas began to sink at a pace of a foot a year. With such parched conditions, and with aquifers becoming the largest source of water for growers as well as the general public, federal officials took a closer look at how California was protecting its subterranean supplies from oil drilling. After reviewing aquifer maps, they grew concerned that state regulators were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act by allowing wastewater injections outside approved zones, potentially fouling what hydrologists referred to as the state’s “reserve banking account” of water. US EPA officials asked DOGGR for more information. What they got back, in 2014, was shocking.

Over the previous 30 years, the state had allowed oil companies to inject wastewater into nearly a dozen aquifers that were supposed to be protected by federal law—some containing water clean enough to drink without treatment. About half of the more than 2,500 suspect injection wells had gotten permits since Brown took office, The Associated Press found. In a preliminary review of the riskiest sites, the state shut down nearly two dozen wells, saying their operation “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.” “California is a world leader when it comes to adopting green legislation. But these measures are only as good as their implementation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, a former EPA regional administrator who oversaw the state. “Without proper institutional support, funding and enforcement, environmental laws become paper tigers.”

State lawmakers demanded answers, but they were hard to come by. Not only had the oil agency failed to deliver a mandatory annual report to the Legislature for three years, but an internal review by DOGGR found that injection project files also were “confusing, information-deficient, overly generic, or simply absent.” At a state Senate oversight hearing in early 2015, Brown administration officials conceded they had made mistakes but cast them as the result of an understaffed agency beleaguered by unqualified workers and poor recordkeeping. Some lawmakers weren’t buying it. “There is a culture here that has been so much moved by the oil and gas industry,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat from Santa Barbara.

Regulators assured the Legislature that they had found no contamination of drinking water—but that assessment came with a large caveat. Shoddy records meant that they would never be able to say with any certainty how much water had been lost. “Many aquifers had no baseline water quality data,” Blumenfeld said, “so it’s often impossible to determine the extent of contamination from decades of oil industry injection.”

About 300 miles south of Sacramento, Natalie Beller, a registered nurse who lives in the Central Coast town of Arroyo Grande, stopped drinking and cooking with her well water. Tucked into a scenic canyon, her home is a little more than a mile from the Arroyo Grande oil field, where the state had allowed companies to inject into a protected aquifer and where Phillips 66 was building a pipeline that would carry crude past her property. Looking at the yellow warning posts from her kitchen window, Beller imagined her daughter, now 6 years old, drinking tainted water. “Anybody living out here is on well water,” she said. “I just can’t believe it’s so easy to sacrifice the health and safety of fellow human beings.”

The EPA gave California an ultimatum: Shut down the most dangerous wells and submit the rest for formal “exemption”—or risk a federal takeover. Oil companies—including one that wanted to expand its operations in the Arroyo Grande field—asked for a number of exemptions. Beller and her neighbors objected to the Arroyo Grande proposal but it was approved by DOGGR and the state water board; the EPA still must sign off. “My experience with our state government agencies has been really disappointing,” Beller said. “I don’t feel like they’re representing me. I don’t even feel like they care.”

As Brown coasted to a fourth—and final—term in late 2014, environmentalists were confused and irritated: Was the governor their ally? In addition to easing drilling rules, he had resisted calls to ban fracking and pass a severance tax on oil. At the same time, he had pushed policies that made California a leader on efforts to combat climate change, such as requiring the state to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources and offering rebates for electric cars to juice the market for zero-emission vehicles. When Brown addressed the state Democratic Party’s convention in Los Angeles, as he pledged to manage the state’s water “in a careful, efficient, and wise way,” hecklers interrupted: “No fracking! Ban fracking!” Brown raised his voice. “I challenge anybody to find any other state” doing as much to fight global warming, he said.

Indeed, with the state’s deficit erased and its economy surging, he began speaking with new urgency about climate change. Addressing a United Nations summit in New York, he called it an “existential threat” to humanity and decried the “toxicity of carbon itself.” With the state on track to achieve its original goals for reducing greenhouse gases, the governor proposed even more ambitious ones: Within the next 15 years, he said, California should get half its electricity from renewable sources, double the energy efficiency of existing buildings—and cut petroleum use by 50 percent. Democrats had a near-supermajority in the Legislature. And Brown had a powerful partner to shepherd his plan through: Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat and the Senate president pro tempore. But neither politician appreciated how WSPA and its members had reshaped the caucus.

In recent years, California had adopted a “top-two” electoral system: Candidates of all parties compete in an open primary, and the top two vote-getters face off in a general election. That meant many contests that would have been decided in a partisan primary, with nominal opposition in the general, now continued into November—essentially doubling the cost of campaigning. The oil industry saw an opportunity. With environmental advocates concentrated in the largely white, rich enclaves on the coast, the industry wooed moderate Latino and African-American lawmakers from urban and rural districts where energy firms tend to operate. These communities are often choked by pollution but also have some of the lowest voter-turnout rates in the state.

“There’s a direct correlation between how few voters participate in your district and your propensity to be influenced by special-interest money,” said Republican strategist Mike Madrid, noting that both environmental groups and oil companies fill that civic vacuum. Since 2012, however, it’s the energy industry that has made a full-court press for moderates, showering more than $12 million on their campaigns and the outside groups dedicated to their elections.

This bloc of votes, the so-called mod squad, is often an impediment to climate-change initiatives. “We are spending as much time as we can with anyone, and I would say it’s either side, Republican or Democratic, that are moderate in their view, because we are very firm in our belief that you have got to have both a strong economy and a strong environment in this state,” WSPA’s Reheis-Boyd said. Moderates say they want more control over climate programs that penalize industry without clear results in their districts. “On these environmental issues, it’s the haves versus the have-nots,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, co-chair of the moderate caucus and a Democrat whose district lies just south of Sacramento. “These environmentalists, I think they’re well-intentioned, but everything that’s happened, the benefits go to the affluent. In the meantime, the disadvantaged and the middle class have been left behind.”

Within weeks of de León’s introducing a bill to enshrine Brown’s goals in law, oil companies and their trade groups began dispensing money to moderate legislators and the black and Latino caucuses. In the last three months of the 2015 legislative session, they spent $11.5 million on lobbying, more than any other industry. WSPA accounted for more than half of that amount. By contrast, NextGen Climate Action, its most moneyed environmental rival, spent $1.2 million.

After nearly a decade of service in Sacramento, de León had never seen anything like it. Although he had accepted oil-company contributions in his career, the lawmaker had come to see climate change as a defining issue. Carbon emissions had had a devastating impact on his Los Angeles district, a diverse swath of poor and working-class neighborhoods, hemmed in by six major freeways and winds carrying harmful ozone pollution from the coast.

Appearing before the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, he urged his colleagues to reject the oil industry’s onslaught. “You will hear a carefully calculated blend of factual inaccuracies, logical fallacies, errors of omission, and scare tactics.… Folks would like you to believe that this is a scene out of a movie of ‘Mad Max,’” he said. In the post-apocalyptic action films, oil is a rare commodity.

Seated at a table in a hearing room, WSPA lobbyist Eloy Garcia told lawmakers the bill set aggressive goals without specifics on how to achieve them. As a result, he said, those decisions would be made by the California Air Resources Board, the “vast [and] unrestrained” executive agency charged with implementing the state’s climate programs. “The people of California expect you to make those decisions,” Garcia told the committee. “Power flows from the constitution to the Legislature, down to the regulators, not the other way.” De León’s bill, seeking a 50-percent cut in oil use, was, he said, unrealistic and arbitrary.

“When we set round numbers like 50, 50, 50, why 50? No one’s asking the question,” Garcia said. “Why not 62? Why not 70? Why not 58?”

De León fired back. “I agree with Mr. Eloy Garcia. If we want to go 68, 50, 70.… That’s promoted by WSPA,” he said, flashing a smile.

“Why not do 100 percent and justify that to your constituents, that you’re going to take all their fuel away?” Garcia responded.

That summer, WSPA’s “California Drivers Alliance” launched an ad campaign. In one spot, a woman in a black blazer stands at a gas station and says: “If you can afford a Tesla, then this message really won’t matter to you.” She warns that “the California Gas Restriction Act of 2015”—its actual name was the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act—will result in gas rationing and higher fuel costs. “But really, it’s about making it harder for regular people to drive to work and drive home each day.” Environmental groups pushed back with their own ads, and President Obama championed the legislation in an energy speech. But by late August, moderate Democrats were seeking concessions and WSPA offered three pages of amendments to lawmakers and the governor’s office.

Days before the legislative session ended, de León and Brown stripped the oil-reduction component from the bill. “This is one skirmish,” the governor said, “but I’ll tell you, it’s increasing the intensity of my commitment to do everything I can to make sure we reduce oil consumption in California and continue on the path of leading the world in a sustainable future.” The watered-down bill, which maintained Brown’s renewable-energy and efficiency targets, easily passed the Assembly and the governor signed it into law. In the weeks that followed, WSPA hosted three lawmakers at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, California, where the group was holding its annual conference (one legislator racked up nearly $1,500 in expenses; all three had expressed reservations about the oil-reduction target). Reheis-Boyd said WSPA’s lobbying activities, in practice, were no different than those of other industries seeking to influence policymakers. “There are opportunities to present your views to people who are interested in them,” she said, “and I think anyone would take that opportunity.”

A year later, dozens of environmental lobbyists gathered over chicken kabobs and cocktails at Hock Farm, a dimly lit, farm-to-table restaurant three blocks from the Capitol. It was August, four weeks before the end of the legislative session, and the mood was bittersweet. After 14 years in Sacramento, Senator Fran Pavley, the Legislature’s most prominent environmental champion, was retiring, but her top priority—a bill to toughen California’s already-aggressive climate goals—was languishing in the Assembly. After WSPA’s last campaign, few thought it would pass. Even Brown, for all his bombast the previous year, had been meeting with oil representatives in a bid to win support for his climate agenda.

Reflecting on their loss, environmentalists had hit on a key vulnerability: the movement’s failure to build relationships in California’s communities of color. As a result, oil companies had successfully cast climate change as a luxury issue for elites, disconnected from the economic realities of low-income and middle-class people. As Rob Stutzman, a Republican operative who has advised WSPA, put it: “The enviros created a battlefield for industry to win on.”

De León and others were determined to change the narrative. Pavley, who represents an affluent, coastal area in Los Angeles, found an unlikely partner in Eduardo Garcia, a first-term Latino assemblyman from the Inland Empire. Concerned about poor air quality in his desert district, he was pushing his own climate legislation, which would prioritize emission cuts at refineries while giving the Legislature more oversight of the Air Resources Board, something moderate Democrats wanted.

The symbolism of that pairing sent a strong message. In Garcia’s district, one of every four residents lives below the poverty line and unemployment approaches 11 percent, more than twice the statewide average. In Imperial County, east of San Diego, emergency room visits by children due to asthma are double California’s rate. “The discussion about preservation and conservation and climate-changing patterns and polar bears dying is extremely important to people,” Garcia said. “But my perspective is how about we put people at the core of the conversation, public health of people, the economic vibrancy of these communities of color that tend to be in the higher proportions of polluted communities.”

The oil industry opposed the measures, but environmentalists stepped up their lobbying. Reversing the previous year’s dynamic, NextGen Climate Action spent $7.3 million on advocacy in the final three months of the legislative session—more than any other special interest and nearly three times WSPA’s outlay. An ad featuring a little girl in front of a refinery blasted oil companies for “trying to weaken our clean air laws.” A coalition of mainstream environmental groups, environmental-justice advocates and clean-energy companies targeted moderate Democrats to correct the perception that “environmentalism is a white issue,” said Quentin Foster, of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. This time, instead of slamming critics as industry lackeys, they catered their approaches to individual lawmakers, emphasizing pollution-reduction efforts to some while playing up the economic opportunities of renewable energy to others. It worked.

Catching oil lobbyists by surprise, supporters rushed the legislation to a vote in the Assembly heading into the final week of the session. The final tally was 42-29—passage, with one vote to spare. The state Senate had already approved the legislation, and Brown lauded the Assembly for “rejecting the brazen deception of the oil lobby and their Trump-inspired allies who deny science and fight every reasonable effort to curb global warming.” Two weeks later, with de León, Pavley, and Garcia by his side, the governor signed the bill into law. The setting: Vista Hermosa Natural Park in downtown Los Angeles, which was built atop an old oil field.

Since the defeat, some in Sacramento see oil’s power slipping. The California Democratic Party, which has received $2.5 million from the oil-and-gas industry in the last decade, announced in November that it would no longer accept political donations from oil companies. The announcement came after news that the state’s campaign finance watchdog had opened an investigation into allegations that the party had improperly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil-and-gas industry to Brown’s reelection campaign in 2014. Party officials did not respond to a request for comment, but have said they are cooperating with the probe. At the ballot box, the industry lost a marquee legislative race and failed to beat back a ballot measure to ban fracking and new wells in Monterey County, the state’s fourth-largest oil-producing county, despite outspending backers roughly 30 to 1.

On the other hand, November’s elections swelled the ranks of moderate Democrats in the Legislature, giving the industry potential new allies. And oil companies are almost certain to benefit from the Trump administration, which has vowed to relax environmental regulations and overhaul agencies like the EPA, which has played a critical role in reforming DOGGR. “Oil will use every trick in the book,” said Dan Jacobson, head of the advocacy group Environment California. “They’re going to do whatever it takes to keep oil as the main form of energy that moves us from point A to point B.”

Looking beyond Sacramento, WSPA and other oil-trade groups spent nearly $12 million on lawyers, consultants, and fees to persuade Kern County officials to streamline the local permitting process, clearing the way for tens of thousands of new oil wells. Reheis-Boyd said WSPA wanted “regulatory certainty” and called the new system, which charges companies higher fees to help fund clean-air programs, a model for other oil-producing areas. Environmentalists, however, are challenging the measure in court, saying it circumvents the state’s landmark-conservation law and doesn’t go far enough to protect residents who already breathe some of the dirtiest air in the nation.

The industry also is waging battles to roll back emission rules in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. For millions of Californians, the stakes are high. Alejandro Valdez lives with his wife and two young sons in Wilmington, an industrial enclave near the Port of Los Angeles frequently enveloped in brown haze. Their bungalow borders the Phillips 66 refinery, which gives off odors so strong, especially at night, that “I feel like throwing up,” Valdez said. His older boy, Nathan, is lethargic and regularly gets nosebleeds and headaches. Noise deprives the family of sleep; some days, black smoke from flares fills the sky. Everyone has rashes. Valdez likes the neighborhood, loathes the hulking complex just across the fence. “I got a good price for the house,” he said, “but it’s not worth it.”

The biggest test of oil’s power could come this year, as Brown seeks legislation to save the state’s embattled cap-and-trade program, the linchpin of California’s climate-change efforts. The program, which requires companies to purchase permits in order to emit greenhouse gases, provides a key source of revenue for the state’s anti-pollution efforts, but the California Chamber of Commerce has challenged it in court, alleging that cap-and-trade is an unconstitutional tax, passed without the required two-thirds majority of the Legislature. To eliminate any uncertainty, the governor wants lawmakers to effectively bulletproof the program with a super-majority vote—a feat that will require support from the moderate Democrats who have bucked past climate bills. To win their votes, Brown will likely have to make concessions—and WSPA has long sought leverage to water down or eliminate a rule that requires oil companies to reduce the amount of carbon in their fuels. Brown and his aides insist they have the upper hand—more onerous pollution controls are on the table, they say—and have floated the prospect of a ballot measure to extend cap-and-trade if they fail in the Legislature. But such a fight with the oil industry would be expensive and risky, and if Brown loses, the defeat could have international implications for the fight against climate change; other countries, including China, see California’s system as a model.

For its part, DOGGR, the troubled oil-and-gas regulator, is in the midst of a multi-year “renewal plan,” dedicated to strengthening oversight of the industry and “changing the culture of enforcement” among state regulators, spokeswoman Teresa Schilling said. The agency has sponsored legislation that gives it more power to punish errant oil companies and by this week expects to have forced closure of more than 600 wells that were injecting production fluids and wastewater into protected aquifers, a key requirement under its federal agreement. (WSPA, CIPA, and another trade group are challenging some of those closures in court.)

Still, more than five and a half years after Robert David Taylor’s death, DOGGR has yet to achieve a key objective: updating rules to regulate cyclic steaming. In a statement, Chevron called the accident “a tragic and isolated incident,” adding that it has “a long track record of safely conducting cyclic steaming in the Midway-Sunset Field.” Barred by state law from suing Chevron, Taylor’s family filed a lawsuit against a contractor who worked on the site and another oil company with nearby steam operations; the parties settled last summer. The sole regulatory action in the case remains the one taken by state workplace inspectors. They fined Chevron $350 for failing to inform employees in writing of “necessary safeguards” for working near Well 20, where Taylor was swallowed by a sinkhole. The incident, they said, was an “act of God.”


Nestlé bottled-water company seeks to take more Michigan water

by Keith Matheny and Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press

Nestlé Waters North America’s plans to increase its Michigan groundwater withdrawal by more than 2 1/2 times would unravel an accord reached with environmentalists seven years ago that was aimed at protecting the water table and wildlife.

Nestlé announced a $36-million expansion at its Ice Mountain bottling operations in Stanwood, in Mecosta County, on Oct. 31. The addition of two water-bottling lines — the first to begin operation next spring; the next opening by 2018 — is expected to add 20 jobs to the plant, which employs more than 250 people.

But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has not yet approved the company’s request to increase its groundwater withdrawals by 167% — from 150 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute — at White Pine Springs well No. 101 in nearby Osceola County. The DEQ has, however, recommended approval under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation sued Nestlé in 2001 over the potential damage to lakes, rivers and streams that its bottled water plant’s groundwater withdrawals would cause. After years of court battles, the two sides reached a settlement agreement in 2009, reducing Nestlé’s siphoning to 218 gallons per minute from 400, with additional restrictions on spring and summer withdrawals. The litigation cost the nonprofit more than $1 million, which was covered by supporters.

Now, the proposed permit from the DEQ would take the bottled-water plant’s groundwater withdrawals back up to the level that prompted the lawsuit.

“I’m not sure if there is a reasonable amount of water that should be allowed to be taken from an aquifer,” said Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of the nonprofit Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. “But 400 gallons per minute seems more than a bit too much.”

The controversy highlights the sometimes-contentious balance between protecting Michigan’s most important, abundant natural resource — its fresh water — and using it as an economic commodity. It’s particularly heightened after the months of fierce debate this year over a Wisconsin community, Waukesha, which lies just outside the Great Lakes Basin, being approved to use the basin for its water supply by Great Lakes Compact member states — over howls of protest from local governments throughout the Midwest.

The DEQ requires use of its Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, an interactive, online evaluation of proposed water withdrawals in the state that looks at impacts to fish and stream flows through comparative data and modeling, prior to any proposed large-quantity water withdrawal.

“When Nestlé ran the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool” last December, “they didn’t pass,” said Jim Milne, the shorelines unit chief in the DEQ’s Water Resources Division.

But as state regulations allow, the company then requested a site-specific review by DEQ staff. That review, which included looks at the geology in the area and Nestlé’s own compiled stream-flow information, led the DEQ to determine the increased pumping “is not likely to cause an adverse resource impact,” in January, he said, meaning it won’t impact populations of fish in the Chippewa Creek watershed, a tributary to the Muskegon River, or decrease stream flows to the point of natural resource impacts.

It’s not unprecedented for DEQ staff to override the findings of the agency’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. From July 2015 to July of this year, the DEQ authorized 123 withdrawal requests rejected by the computerized modeling after site-specific reviews, Milne said.

The Stanwood plant receives its water supply “from diverse sources that we manage in a sustainable manner,” said Christopher Rieck, a spokesman for Nestlé Waters North America.

“The increase would also allow us the ability to balance the use of our water sources to ensure long-term sustainability and support future growth.”

The DEQ notified the public of its impending decision on the Nestlé permit via its biweekly environmental calendar, a little-read regulatory notices clearinghouse, and announced that public comment on Nestlé’s request would close Nov. 3, sparking outrage from many because of the short notice.

“The MDEQ’s handling of the Nestlé application is as lax as the handling of the Flint water crisis. Nothing has changed,” said Jim Olson, an environmental attorney and founder and president of the environmental nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW.

“Rights to public notice, public information, hearings and public participation in government decisions over water and quality of life, health — even our economy — have been diminished to the point of absurdity. MDEQ didn’t even post the underlying documents to the application summary online for interested people to review before public comment, and the notice was so hidden and late in the game that no meaningful comments can be made by Nov. 3.”

Added Ostahowski : “I think they were trying to slip it through. It’s disappointing but not uncommon.”

Responding to such criticism, the DEQ has announced it would extend the public comment period 30 days, and will make available the documents it used to recommend approval of the Nestlé application. A public hearing will also be scheduled in the area during the 30-day period, with a date and venue yet to be determined, said Carrie Monosmith, the DEQ’s Environmental Health Section Chief in its Office of Drinking Water.

One reason the Nestlé operation in Michigan has been controversial is that Deb Muchmore, a lobbyist and public relations consultant who has served as a Michigan spokeswoman for the company, is the spouse of Dennis Muchmore, who until January was chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Free Press reported in February that in March 2015, Dennis Muchmore proposed spending $250,000 to buy bottled water for Flint from either Nestlé or Absopure, a competitor.

“How about cutting a deal with Ice Mountain,” which is bottled by Nestlé, “or (Absopure Water board member) Bill Young and buying some water for the people for a time?” Muchmore asked in a March 3, 2015, e-mail. He added that “$250,000 buys a lot of water, and we could distribute it through the churches while we continue to make the water even safer.”

Neither deal happened, officials said.

Nestlé’s large-scale withdrawal of low-cost Great Lakes water while Flint residents have not had clean tap water to drink has not sat well with many in Michigan.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said Nestlé has increased the amount of water it’s pumping over time and that he feels the company’s permit application shows the latest proposed increase would negatively impact the environment. Nestlé said its plans would only “minimally” affect the levels of nearby creeks, when it should be having no impact on surface waters, he said.

“Nestlé is essentially appropriating what is a common good for their personal corporate utility,” he said.

Given the track record of the DEQ under Snyder’s administration, it’s reasonable for people to question whether a decision will be made based on the environment and the public good, or on corporate interests, Irwin said.

“Michigan citizens need to understand that part of the legacy we have is the unusual amount of fresh water we have. It’s not a given that it’s going to be around forever. With a company like Nestlé, it appears there is no end to what they think they can sell,” Ostahowski said.

Written comments on Nestlé’s proposed increased water withdrawals can be submitted until Dec. 3 to the DEQ via e-mail at or mailed to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, P.O. Box 30241, Lansing, Mich., 48909-7741.


Slovenia adds water to constitution as fundamental right for all

by Agence France-Presse in Ljubljana

Slovenia has amended its constitution to make access to drinkable water a fundamental right for all citizens and stop it being commercialised.

With 64 votes in favour and none against, the 90-seat parliament added an article to the EU country’s constitution saying “everyone has the right to drinkable water”.

The centre-right opposition Slovenian Democratic party (SDS) abstained from the vote saying the amendment was not necessary and only aimed at increasing public support.

Slovenia is a mountainous, water-rich country with more than half its territory covered by forest.

“Water resources represent a public good that is managed by the state. Water resources are primary and durably used to supply citizens with potable water and households with water and, in this sense, are not a market commodity,” the article reads.

The centre-left prime minister, Miro Cerar, had urged lawmakers to pass the bill saying the country of two million people should “protect water – the 21st century’s liquid gold – at the highest legal level”.

“Slovenian water has very good quality and, because of its value, in the future it will certainly be the target of foreign countries and international corporations’ appetites.

“As it will gradually become a more valuable commodity in the future, pressure over it will increase and we must not give in,” Cerar said.

Slovenia is the first European Union country to include the right to water in its constitution, although according to Rampedre (the online Permanent World Report on the Right to Water) 15 other countries across the world had already done so.

Earlier this year Slovenia also declared the world’s first green destination country by the Netherlands-based organisation Green Destinations, while its capital, Ljubljana, was made the 2016 European Green Capital.

Amnesty International said Slovenia must ensure the new law would be also applied to the 10,000-12,000 Roma people living in the country.

“Many Roma are … denied even minimum levels of access to water and sanitation,” Amnesty said in a statement.

The European Union agreed in 2014 to exclude water supply and water resources management from the rules governing the European internal market, following the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative that managed to raise more than one million signatures.


Susana De Anda honored at White House event

Congratulations to Community Water Center Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director Susana De Anda, who was honored by the White House as one of ten “White House Champions of Change for Climate Equity” in July. De Anda was a leader in California’s long fight to pass the nation’s first statewide Human Right to Water legislation, and for the past decade she has worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone in the state enjoys clean, safe, and affordable drinking water.

The passage of the Human Right to Water bill doesn’t mean that the struggle for clean water is over. Years of drought have hit rural, low-income communities and communities of color hard, resulting in dry wells and increasingly contaminated drinking water supplies. Long term climate instability is another threat to water security. According to De Anda, the Community Water Center works “to ensure these residents are at the decision-making table so their communities can emerge from this drought more resilient to climate change.î

We hope this timely recognition helps with that important work! You can read more here.


A video report on a victory through SB88

Follow this link to watch a video report on the effect that the Human Right to Water law, SB88, has had for the residents of Matheny Tract, California.  Matheny Tract is a small town of about 1,000 people in the Central Valley. A majority of its residents are immigrants who live under the poverty line. And many of them can’t remember the last time they had access to clean water. For eight years, Matheny Tract residents lived with known poisonous water, contaminated by arsenic and by pesticides from nearby fields.

As of last week, the town has access to clean water. That’s because of SB88 in California, a new law that makes providing clean water the responsibility of the state and gives California the ability to force nearby cities like Tulare to share its clean water supply with impoverished communities like Matheny Tract. Just as they have for the past eight years, Matheny Tract pays for its water, but now, it’s water they can use.


Alliance’s Ruth Caplan and Nancy Price on WBAI’s “Eco-Logic”

On Tuesday, AfD’s co-chair Nancy Price and Defending Water for Life campaign chair Ruth Caplan were guests on Eco-Logic, broadcast on WBAI in New York City. Ruth and Nancy were joined on the show by Susan Shapiro, of the Radiation and Public Health Project. You can listen to the show on WBAI’s online archive

      1. here
; the conversation starts around 15 minutes in.

The show focused on the safety of our drinking water, a topic that’s gotten more media attention in the last month due to ongoing crises with lead contamination in Flint and before that, shutoffs in Detroit, and the damage done there and elsewhere by austerity measures that seek to balance city and state budgets by putting the most economically-vulnerable citizens at risk. But as the guests emphasize, the problems with access to water and water contamination go far beyond one state or a few cities. Nancy, Ruth and Susan talk about the past, present and potential impacts of Wall Street deals, privatization, the nuclear industry, and international trade agreements.

Looking Back at the Cochabamba Water Revolt – 15 Years Ago

The Legacy and New Echoes of the Water War – 15 Years On

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the people’s victory in Cochabamba against Bechtel. At a time when winning real victories seemed like a distant dream, we suddenly saw that it was still possible to win, even against a giant U.S. multinational. That truth reverberated around the round, spreading hope and, most of all, courage, wherever it traveled.
– Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything

Fifteen years ago this month here in Cochabamba, I found myself in the middle of a set of events that came to be known as the Cochabamba Water Revolt. Citizens here took to the streets and shut down a city of half a million people, three times, to take back control of their water system from a foreign corporation.

Our struggle had a profound historical, political, human dignity and respect. We drove out one of the most voracious transnationals on the planet, Bechtel.
– Oscar Olivera, key leader of the Water Revolt, Cochabamba

The story began when the World Bank coerced Bolivia to put the city’s water up for lease, landing it under the control of a company that raised water rates overnight by more than 50% and in many cases far higher. Something as basic as a running tap was being pushed beyond the economic reach of many families. The people rebelled. The government responded with tear gas, bullets and death. The corporation was forced to leave. In the midst of it all I was able to use an Internet still in its infancy to discover and report Bechtel as the corporation behind the scenes, get the story out across the world, and later to help launch the global campaign that forced Bechtel to drop its $50 million legal retaliation against the Bolivia people. It was all an extraordinary experience.

The Cochabamba Water Revolt was a turning point in the history of our water justice movement. The courageous people of Bolivia showed the world how to stand up to bullies and that public water is worth fighting for. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bolivians for their leadership and commitment.
– Maude Barlow, chair, Council of Canadians

In the years since, the Cochabamba Water Revolt has been the subject of a full length drama on film, scores of documentaries, many articles, and a collection of academic papers almost as numerous as the multitudes in the streets those days in April 2000. To help mark the 15th anniversary of these remarkable events, the Democracy Center team has written a new collection of articles about the legacy of those events and their echoes today.


In There’s Something About Water Thomas Mc Donagh looks at how the battle over water in Bolivia echoes today in a water rebellion in his native Ireland, with just as much potential to upend an entire political system. In Bolivia, 15 Years on from the Water War Aldo Orellana, a Bolivian who was part of the Revolt, writes about the current situation in Cochabamba and the struggle’s legacy for the broader water movement. In 15 Years After the Water Revolt, Echoes in New Cases of Corporate Abuse Philippa de Boissière from the U.K. writes about how the corporate-driven abuses suffered by Cochabamba are being repeated today in Peru and Colombia, again with natural resources as the target. In The Case That Blew the Lid Off the World Bank’s Secret Courts, I have an article looking at the international campaign that beat back Bechtel’s $50 million legal retaliation after the Revolt and the lessons it holds for today’s battles over a pair of new global trade agreements, TTIP and TPP. Also, below you can find links to a deeper history of the Water Revolt, my dispatches from the streets in 2000, and more.

That extraordinary moment in April 2000 in the struggle against the giant Water Corporation Bechtel was an unprecedented expression of Peoples protagonism in intervention on the agenda of water and people’s rights. This is a revolt that lives today in many places and struggles around the world.
– Brid Brennan, Transnational Institute, the Netherlands

It was a powerful thing to have been such a direct witness to history and to have played a role in communicating that story around the world. It is still a story that still has much to say to us today and we are proud to bring it to you, in ways both new and old.

By Jim Shultz

Read More About the Water Revolt and its Echoes Today:

Testimonies from Bolivia: Bolivia’s deposed President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada faces criminal murder charges in Bolivia for his oversight of massacres that killed more than 60 people in 2003. Earlier this month Mercer University in Georgia refused to show video testimonies which we recorded with the families of those killed when it invited Lozada to speak to students about ‘political freedom.’ Since he fled Lozada has lived in self-imposed exile in suburban Maryland. We’d like to be sure 1,000 people see what Mercer wouldn’t show.
Please help us share these powerful new testimonies. 


Historic rally in Detroit demands water turned back on

(Cross-posted from National Nurses United, 7/18/14)

Turn on the water. Make Wall Street pay.

Thousands of registered nurses, community, labor, environmental and community activists marched in Detroit today in a resounding protests against the shutoff of water to tens of thousands of city residents – an action the marchers called a wanton violation of human rights that creates a public health emergency.

Continue reading

Monterey citizens group eyes ballot measure for public buyout of private water company

By Jim Johnson. Crossposted from Monterey County Herald

A citizens group in Monterrey is putting forward a ballot that would require the water district to draw up plans for taking water services back into public hands. Services are  controlled currently by private company California American Water. Their exorbitant profits and mismanagement, including a failed desalination project and an expensive dam removal, have led to growing anger against the company and provide an opportunity to put water back under public control. Continue reading