Dust-Up Over Oil in 3rd District Race

In case you’ve neglected your political calendar lately, we’re nearly to the 4th of July, beyond the June 8th primary, and the November 2010 general election race for the 3rd Congressional District seat between challenger Ami Bera and incumbent Dan Lungren is in full swing.

Nowhere has this race been more evident recently than it was in the mid-June dust-up in which Bera accused Lungren of being silent about the gulf oil spill, calling him “a pawn of BP and big oil” who tacitly defends BP (the firm that caused the Deepwater Horizon spill, easily the nation’s worst environmental disaster ever), because he (Lungren) relies heavily on the oil and gas industry to finance his political campaigns.

Lungren’s response was to say that BP “screwed up big time,” disavowing a June Republican Study Committee report that calls the $20 billion fund set-aside by BP to pay for the spill as White House “Chicago-style shakedown politics,” and that he (Lungren) had been speaking out about the oil spill for weeks. Apparently not publicly, however, as a search of Lungren’s Web site reveals nothing, nor had he made any public statements until June 23rd when he spoke about HR 5503, a bill to help families in the gulf region.

As to campaign contributions from oil and gas interests to Lungren, he had already collected $18,000 from them this election cycle by the 2nd quarter 2010 - some $75,000 since 2003 - and his attitude on this is characterized by his now famous 2008 campaign quip.  When asked about taking more than $20,000 from “big oil” while voting against a half-dozen House bills designed to protect gas consumers and reduce energy prices and our dependence on foreign oil, he responded with a smirk, “I don’t consider it a contradiction…if I could get more [big oil money], I’d take more.”

Not surprisingly, Lungren opposes President Obama’s six-months moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf. (This moratorium which idled all 33 Gulf drilling rigs has been struck down by New Orleans Judge Martin Feldman who owns interests in several oil and gas firms, but inexplicably refuses to recuse himself.)

According to Lungren, BP has a different attitude about safety than other oil companies and, further, offshore drilling can be “environmentally safe,” both rather surprising and ludicrous arguments in view of recent Congressional testimony by big oil executives that reveals their safety plans offer no solutions to deepwater oil spills, are likely copied from one-another, and were approved incredibly without any real scrutiny by the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS), an incompetent and scandalized “regulatory” agency left over, without adequate change by Obama, from the Bush administration. Moreover, oil company investment in safety technology is minimal at best, especially for risky drilling in deepwater – as much as four miles deep in the case of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

The important context behind all this is our national energy and environment policy, which must acknowledge the interconnection of energy, environmental safety, climate change, economic and national security concerns.

Lungren’s rather narrow approach to the issue focuses on “greater fuel efficiency” by offering a $1 billion prize to the U.S. carmaker that successfully builds a midsize sedan which travels 100 miles per gallon of gas. This “competition” is embodied in his bill HR 1794, stalled in subcommittee since its introduction in March 2009. He touts this prize money which perpetuates the consumption of oil, giving only passing reference to alternative sources of energy like nuclear, solar, geothermal. In seeming contradiction to all this last year, Lungren voted against “cash for clunkers,” vouchers for fuel efficient cars, and the House climate change bill HR 2454.

Dr. Bera, by contrast, proposes “a ‘smart’ and ‘green’ relationship with the earth and to the natural resources that power our communities; that is both environmentally and economically wise and sustainable; and that recognizes the crucial intersection of environmental reform, job creation, and national security.” This in “an economy that encourages competition and innovation…that preserves the jobs we have while creating new ones through job training, especially in clean energy technologies.” 

An effective national energy and environment policy (like all other current public policies, for that matter) needs to be consistent with overall public fiscal policy, which given the weakness of the current “recovery” should be to preserve and grow jobs and maintain safety nets in the short-term, and reduce public debt in the long-term once the recovery has kicked-in.

A policy that phases-out use of fossil fuels – because of both the lack of domestic oil (foreign imports account for more than half of U.S. oil consumption) and the threat to national security of continuing Middle East involvement to secure adequate foreign oil imports – and phases-in use of alternative and renewable energy sources of all sorts, including nuclear, solar, wind, water, natural gas, and biofuels, and relies as well on effective energy conservation incentives. Moreover, a policy that provides incentives (subsidies and the like) for firms to produce positive externalities (the economist’s term for such as pollution and emissions reduction) and regulates and taxes negative externalities (death and pollution losses to others from firms’ actions like the Gulf oil spill, Exxon Valdes, Texas City and West Virginia mine explosions.

The energy and environment policy of a representative from California’s 3rd congressional district must adhere to the above principles in a practical and sustainable way, importantly including definitive reference to water, local pollution, and other environmental issues unique to the Sacramento valley, delta and Sierra foothills. In any case, local voters can help promote solutions to area and national energy and environmental problems by electing as representative someone like Bera who advocates a variety of clean energy approaches, rather than someone like Lungren who is stuck on promoting primarily oil and gas solutions evidently because firms of that industry represent a significant source of his campaign funding.

Chuck McIntyre
Sacramento economist, some of whose other writing is seen here.


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July 1, 2010 | 10:15 PM

If the gulf spill as an issue didn’t work in the Central Coast special election in State Senate district 15, which is much more liberal that CD 3 and actually on the coast, it isn’t going to work here. Bera should save his money – there is no upset in the making here.

July 13, 2010 | 10:26 AM

One of the problems with people understanding Dr. Bera’s intelligent foresight, as outlined by Mr. McIntyre, appears to be an energy issue: wind power. Dr. Bera, and those of us who agree with him, are speaking into the wind of the same minded, closed minded people who keep trying, like the ant, to push the boulder of oil as our main source of energy up the hill of the future. It’s an impossible and irresponsible task, and a waste of…..energy. We need to find new ways. We owe it to our children and grandchildren. And ourselves. And our planet. It seems as if the only way to make this happen may be a do-over, do things in a different way. If every time you opened your kitchen cabinet a cup fell out and hit you on the head, would you just leave it that way? If something is hurting you, you change it, or at least try to. How about starting with campaign reform? Instead of arguing about which candidate took money from which oil company or special interest? It’s “We The People” who are being hurt. I’m sure Thomas Jefferson would agree and approve.

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