Robert Redford: Is the Obama Administration Putting Corporate Profits Above Public Health?

Robert Redford in a HuffPost repost

One reason I supported President Obama is because he said we must protect clean air, water and lands. But what good is it to say the right thing unless you act on it?

Since early August, three administration decisions — on Arctic drilling, the Keystone XL pipeline and the ozone that causes smog — have all favored dirty industry over public health and a clean environment. Like so many others, I’m beginning to wonder just where the man stands.

For months, the Environmental Protection Agency has been poised to issue new ozone rules to reduce the smog that causes asthma attacks and other respiratory ills. We badly need these new standards, which the EPA estimates could prevent 12,000 premature deaths a year.


On Friday, though, the White House put the new rules on ice. The result: these vital protections will be delayed until at least 2013 — conveniently after next year’s presidential election.

The week before, the State Department gave a preliminary green light to the proposed Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries.

If this pipeline wins final approval from the administration in the coming months, it will wed our energy future to the dirtiest oil on the planet. It will invest this country in one of the most destructive mining practices ever devised. And it will put farmers, ranchers and cropland at risk across the great plains of the American heartland. That’s why the Republican governor of Nebraska came out against it this week.

And just last month, the Interior Department gave conditional approval to Shell Oil’s plan to begin drilling four exploratory wells in the Arctic waters off of Alaska’s North Slope as early as next summer. Congress has yet to pass a single law strengthening offshore drilling safeguards in the wake of last year’s BP blowout, and we’re giving Shell the go-ahead to drill in some of the nation’s most fertile fishing grounds, in waters that are iced in eight months each year and in a location a five-day journey by ship from the nearest Coast Guard station.

What’s going on here?

In all three cases, the administration’s decisions have come in the face of a withering industry lobbying campaign based on the usual mix of fear mongering and lies.


With our economy staggering and unemployment at 9.1 percent, some of the biggest corporate polluters in the country and their allies in Congress are suddenly talking about jobs.

Lobbyists from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other powerful corporate interests have spent the summer pressuring the White House to kick new smog standards down the road. If we have to clean up the mess we make, they say, we won’t hire any new workers.

Really? American companies can’t hire workers unless they’re allowed to make our air so dirty our people get sick, miss work and die? That’s nonsense. Companies hire workers to fill orders for their products and services. Cleaning up after themselves is a cost of doing business, and it’s a necessary cost. This isn’t about jobs; it’s about profits.

The fact is, federal safeguards for public health, worker safety and our environment generated up to $655 billion in measurable economic benefits over just the past decade, at a cost to industry of $62 billion — at most — according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Even on a strict economic analysis, in other words, the national benefits of federal safeguards outweigh costs by more than 10 to 1. Read the report for yourself.

I want our smog levels to come down so more of our children and seniors can breathe clean air. Putting corporate profits above public health is unconscionable. It’s outrageous that it would be countenanced — by this president or any other.


Similarly on Keystone XL, this is a terrible idea for the country. It needs to be stopped. That’s the message more than 1,000 concerned Americans have delivered directly to Obama, through White House demonstrations over the past two weeks. If you want to help, click here.

Because the pipeline would cross our border with Canada, it’s an international project that can’t go forward without a presidential determination that it’s in our national interest.

It’s not. It’s in the interest of big oil companies. When you check, though, you find they’re doing okay. They piled up profits topping $67 billion in just the first six months of this year.

I’m all for profits. But not when they come from something as destructive as tar sands.

Already in the Boreal forests of Alberta, tar sands production has made a strip mine of an area the size of Orlando, Fla. It’s scarred and poisoned, perhaps forever.

The Keystone XL would cut through parts of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma en route to the Gulf ports of Houston and Port Arthur, Tx. It would expose our heartland to the kinds of ruptures and blowouts that just in the past year have brought disaster to the Yellowstone River, the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

I was reminded of those disasters three weeks ago, when the administration gave a conditional go-ahead to Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic. Instead of going to the ends of the earth to feed our national addiction to oil, and putting irreplaceable waters, habitat and even the American breadbasket at risk, we need to invest in the clean energy strategies of tomorrow. That’s the way to put Americans back to work, developing renewable sources of power and fuel and building the next generation of energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces.

President Obama has done a lot to protect public health and our environment. He’s championed clean-energy investments, high-speed rail and cuts in the carbon emissions that are warming our planet. He’s promoted efficiency gains in home and commercial appliances that will save us all billions of dollars each year. And the agreement he reached earlier this summer on vehicle gas mileage goals will cut our oil use by a breathtaking three million barrels a day by 2030.

Those are all positive steps and strong.

But we have to keep moving forward. This is no time to turn back from the progress we need.

I have to believe that President Obama still knows it’s important to protect clean air, water and lands. Like so many, I’m waiting for him to stand up for all that. I’m waiting for him to stand up for our future. But we can’t wait forever.

Robert Redford