Environmentalists and human rights activists are accusing Vice President Al Gore of hypocrisy over his shareholding in Occidental Oil, a company that plans to drill in Colombia’s rainforests over the objections of local indigenous communities. [includes rush transcript]
Gore has targeted the environmental and human rights vote as part of his election campaign and was rated last week as "the most knowledgeable" presidential candidate on green issues by the League of Conservation Voters.
But the U’wa Defense Working Group, which represents the U’wa indigenous group from Northeastern Colombia, says Gore is inextricably linked with Occidental Petroleum, the U.S. oil company that plans to start drilling on its ancestral lands in the next few months in search of an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil.
The U’wa have been campaigning for years to stop the drilling, but Gore’s connections to Occidental sprang to the headlines this week when the Financial Times carried a story about environmentalists’ request to the Vice President that he call for Occidental to abandon their drilling plans in Colombia. Gore owns up to half a million dollars of the company’s stock.
And Gore is also facing heat for his involvement in the sale by the Clinton administration of thousands of acres of oil-rich, publicly owned land to Occidental in 1997. The area is known as Elk Hills and it is located in Bakersfield, California. It is known as an ancestral land for Native American communities.
Two prior Republican presidents–Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan–had attempted to put Elk Hills on the auction block, but backed down in the face of widespread opposition. It was President Clinton, under the advice of Vice President Gore, who approved a deal to let oil companies buy some of the reserves, pushing a bill through Congress that made it possible to sell the government’s interest in the 47,000 acre Elk Hills reserve to Occidental Petroleum for $3.65 billion. It was the largest privatization of federal land in the country’s history, and it tripled Occidental’s reserves overnight.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we are going to be following the money trail in another case, and that is in the case of Vice President Gore and Occidental Petroleum. Environmentalists and human rights activists are accusing the Vice President of hypocrisy over his shareholding in Occidental Petroleum, a company that plans to drill in Colombia’s rainforest over the objections of local indigenous communities.
Gore has targeted the environmental and human rights vote as part of his election campaign and was rated last week as the most knowledgeable presidential candidate on green issues by the League of Conservation Voters.
But the U’wa Defense Working Group, which represents the U’wa indigenous group of Northeastern Colombia, says Gore is inextricably linked with Occidental Petroleum, the US oil giant that plans to start drilling on its ancestral lands in the next few months in search of an estimated one-and-a-half-billion barrels of oil.
The U’wa have been campaigning for years to stop the drilling, but Gore’s connections to Occidental sprang to the headlines this week with a Financial Times piece about environmentalist requests to the Vice President that he call for Occidental to abandon their drilling plans in Colombia. Gore, by the way, owns up to half-a-million dollars of the company’s stock.
And he’s also facing heat for his involvement in the sale by the Clinton administration of tens of thousands of acres of oil-rich publicly owned land to Occidental in 1997. The area is known as Elk Hills and is located in Bakersfield, California. It’s also known as an ancestral land for Native American communities.
Now, two prior Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan, had attempted to put Elk Hills on the auction block, but backed down because of fierce opposition. It was President Clinton, under the advice of Vice President Gore, who approved the deal to let oil companies buy some of the reserve, pushing a bill through Congress that made it possible to sell the government’s interest in the 47,000-acre Elk Hills reserve to Occidental Petroleum for $3.65 billion. It was the largest privatization of federal land in the country’s history, and it tripled Occidental’s reserves overnight.
We’re joined right now by two people to talk about Vice President Gore’s connection to Occidental. Peter Eisner is with the Center to Public Integrity, which just put out the book The Buying of the President 2000. And we’re on the line from the Berkeley area with Steve Kretzmann, who is right now the coordinator of the U’wa Working Group. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!
PETER EISNER: Thank you.
STEVE KRETZMANN: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with Peter Eisner. Peter Eisner, can you talk about, first, Elk Hills?
PETER EISNER: Yes, indeed. Elk Hills is, besides all of the description that you gave, it’s also interesting because it’s part of what became known infamously in the 1920s as the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved the Elk Hills field and also the Teapot Dome field outside of Casper, Wyoming, which the predecessor of Atlantic Richfield Corporation attempted to buy by bribing the Secretary of the Interior in 1922. We’ve heard of the Teapot Dome scandal, but that’s the background to it. So it’s been a sacred cow, let’s say, in American politics for most the 1900s.
The interesting thing about it is that, indeed, as you say, that subsequent administrations were not willing to sell it, because the United States was getting good money from leasing parts of the fields for oil development. And suddenly, in 1996, as part of Vice President Gore’s good government and business work, the National Performance Review, where he — which he widely touted as reinventing government, he inserted the possibility that the Elks Hill reserve be sold in part, and President Clinton went along with it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Steve Kretzmann, who is heading to New Hampshire today to begin organizing a campaign on Gore’s environmental record, that we talked to the Vice President’s press office yesterday, and although they didn’t come on the show, they did raise some issues. One is that they claim that there was an open bidding process on the land and that Occidental merely was the highest bidder, so that there was no attempt — although they acknowledged the Vice President recommended the sale of the land — that there was no attempt or chance to be able to rig the vote or rig the bid for Occidental. What’s your response to that?
STEVE KRETZMANN: Well, I think that you need to look at the long history of connections in between Gore and Occidental to really understand the relationship fully. I don’t think there is at the moment hard evidence that Gore actually maneuvered it inside to make sure that Occidental got the bid properly. However, he certainly was in a position to do so and has an abiding financial interest in doing so. He owns up to a half-million dollars in Occidental stock. He stands to profit greatly, not only from the sale of Elk Hills, but also if Occidental discovers the 1.5 billion barrels of oil on U’wa land.
This whole issue, whether you take the Elk Hills angle on it or you look at the U’wa people in Colombia, it’s really — it’s a chance for Al Gore to tell us all whether or not he stands for his convictions for the environment or his connections to big oil. And that’s really what this whole thing is all about right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Steve, you’re a consultant to the U’wa Campaign of Amazon Watch, and you’re headed to New Hampshire. Why?
STEVE KRETZMANN: We’re headed to New Hampshire to tell Al Gore that he absolutely needs to make a decision and take a stand on this and needs to intervene on behalf of the U’wa.
Just this morning, we’ve heard that 5,000 Colombian troops have invaded U’wa territory and surrounded 400 peaceful protesters, the U’wa who were sitting on Occidental’s drilling site in a nonviolent protest to stop the drilling from going forward. That’s new news as of this morning.
So this is really a truly urgent situation. And it’s one that we want to make sure that Al Gore understands, that if he doesn’t intervene, it’s a possibility that he’s going to be profiting from what could amount to a genocide in Colombia. He really needs to get on this and make his voice known immediately.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the Gore people are claiming that there are divisions among the U’wa, in terms of what to do, and that it’s not clear cut what’s the right side on this issue.
STEVE KRETZMANN: There’s absolutely no divisions among the U’wa. They’ve been completely consistent for years in saying that they want absolutely no oil drilling on their land and that they prefer, indeed, collective suicide. They have previously threatened to jump off of a cliff if oil drilling went forward to going forward with oil drilling. And now they’re saying that they prefer the Colombian government to come in and wipe them out to allowing — permitting oil. So it’s quite a dire situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Kretzmann, I was speaking to an administration official who wants to remain unnamed yesterday, but was called by the White House to give me background.
I thought it was interesting how things work. You call the campaign. We called the Gore campaign to be on the show in Iowa, to be on from New Hampshire, to be on from Nashville, the headquarters of Gore’s campaign, and also Washington. But they all said no. In Iowa they said, "This is not our priority." I said, "I’m sure it’s not, to talk about, you know, what stock Gore holds."
But, within minutes, we got a call back from the White House answering questions from their point of view, and then further officials calling us, although they said they would not go on the record. But what they did say is that Gore really has just learned about the U’wa situation.
Now, I raised the issue of Gore meeting with the winner of the Goldman Prize in 1998 — is that right? And they said, well, those things can just be a photo-op. Was there any conversation that went on between the spokesperson for the U’wa and Vice President Gore?
STEVE KRETZMANN: Yeah. My understanding of that meeting is that when Berito Kuwaru’wa, who is the spokesperson for the U’wa people, began to mention the fact that it was Occidental Petroleum that was the threatening corporation on his land, the Vice President excused himself quickly and had to leave the room for unclear reasons. I mean, that’s just one example. The Vice President has also gotten thousands of letters that came off of a full-page New York Times ad in 1998 on this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: They said they get tens of thousands of letters, so they don’t remember.
STEVE KRETZMANN: Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope just wrote him three months ago on this issue. The Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and the Environment wrote him a letter two years ago on this.
AMY GOODMAN: They said they’ve — the environmental groups have never requested to meet on this issue.
STEVE KRETZMANN: That’s not true.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d —
STEVE KRETZMANN: It’s simply not true.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Peter Eisner: Peter, how did Gore acquire this large stake in Occidental?
PETER EISNER: Well, it has a lot to do with his father’s relationship with Armand Hammer, the late founder of Occidental. His father, Al Gore, Sr., after he left the Senate, was immediately hired by Occidental as a consultant to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. Armand Hammer liked to say that he had Al Gore, Sr., in his back pocket. During Senate campaigns, both Gores were flown around frequently by Occidental jets.
As a matter of fact, there’s another piece of information about Al Gore, Jr., which is that Occidental leases some land from him, which has rich zinc and other trace mineral deposits, and he’s been getting $20,000 a year — a check for $20,000 a year, most years, for the lease of that land.
By the way, on the Elk Hills question, it’s true to say that there was a bidding process for that to be purchased. But it’s not true to say that it was an open bidding process. Very interesting that a precedent was sent in the Elk Hills sale — many precedents were set, but one was that it was a closed bidding process, and we still haven’t been able to take a look at what the bids were.
It is also true that the Occidental sale for $3 billion-plus was almost double what the government was expecting. And the government says that by having a sealed bid the price will go up, because no one knows each other’s bid. But it’s also true that it’s never been done before, and even now, after the fact, we’re not able to get a look at what the bids were.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for a minute for stations to identify themselves. Then we’re going to wrap up in a few minutes on this issue that we will continue to cover, Gore’s connection to Occidental Petroleum. After that, we’re going to have a discussion about the SATs and how kids are getting to take them in a four-and-a-half-hour exam period, rather than three hours, but there’s only a certain kind of kid who gets to do that. Then we will go to talk about the UN Security Council meeting that will be taking place on Monday on the Congo.
You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Our guests are Peter Eisner of the Center for Public Integrity and Steve Kretzmann, the consultant to the U’wa Campaign of Amazon Watch. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, the Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez. And we wish we were also here with a representative of the Gore campaign or of the White House, explaining Vice President Al Gore’s connection to Occidental Petroleum.
We’re talking with Peter Eisner, who is with the Center for Public Integrity, and Steve Kretzmann, in California, who is a consultant to the U’wa Campaign of Amazon Watch. Public Integrity put out a book just a couple of weeks ago, The Buying of the President 2000: The Authoritative Guide to the Big Money Interests Behind this Year’s Presidential Candidates, and in it, it talks about this vast sale the Energy Department has made of the 47,000-acre Elk Hills reserve to Occidental Petroleum Corporation, the largest privatization of federal property in US history, one that tripled Occidental’s US oil reserves overnight.
I know Steve Kretzmann has to go, as he heads to New Hampshire, but first, Juan, you had a quick question for Peter Eisner.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Peter, Occidental is linked not just to Al Gore in the Gore campaign, right? There’s a — you’ve uncovered a link also with Tony Coelho, the chief of the Vice President’s presidential campaign. Could you tell us about that?
PETER EISNER: Yeah, that’s also true, Juan. In the course of looking at the sale of Elk Hills, for instance, we found that the environmental impact statement for the sale was farmed out to ICF Kaiser, which is a consulting firm whose board of directors includes Tony Coelho and the former Energy Secretary, Hazel O’Leary.
One interesting thing about that was that the Environmental Protection Agency asked for information about PCBs being stored at Elk Hills. You may remember that PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls — a lot of talk about that in the Hudson River in the 1970s from General Electric — one of the most poisonous chemicals known, usually found in huge electrical transformers. The Environmental Protection Agency found that there were stores of PCBs on the Elk Hills site, and they wanted to know what was going to be done about it.
ICF Kaiser, acting as the Environmental Review Board, simply didn’t answer, nor did the Department of Energy, so we don’t know what happened to the PCBs. And, by the way, that whole process, controlled by this ICF Kaiser, which includes Coelho, was sped up beyond most known environmental reviews. So as people close to this situation saying that it was really, more or less, a rubber stamp, rather than taking a look at environmental impact.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that this private company, ICF Kaiser, that was paid to complete the assessment — general chair of Gore’s presidential campaign, Tony Coelho, sitting on the board of directors — when our producer Maria Carrion talked to a White House spokesperson, they said that at the time Vice President Gore didn’t know Tony Coelho.
PETER EISNER: That might be so, might not be so, but the fact is that what we’re dealing here with is a connection of sweetheart business deals in which a certain sector of the business world tends to benefit, whether the individuals know one another or not.
AMY GOODMAN: Last comment to Steve Kretzmann, as you head off to New Hampshire. Are we going to see a campaign like we saw with the AIDS activists around Vice President Gore’s involvement with pushing US drugs, AIDS drugs, that were too expensive for people in Africa, where everyone was putting up these signs that said "Gore — Greed Kills," and it ultimately forced him to meet with the activists?
STEVE KRETZMANN: He’s not going to be able to get away from us in New Hampshire. We’re going to be dogging him everywhere he goes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steve Kretzmann, heading off to New Hampshire from Berkeley, California, consultant to the U’wa Campaign of Amazon Watch, and Peter Eisner. He’s with the Center for Public Integrity, which just put out the big report on all the candidates, The Buying of the President 2000: The Authoritative Guide to the Big Money Interests Behind this Year’s Presidential Candidates. That website, if you want more information, is www.publicintegrity.org. And the website for Amazon Watch, Steve Kretzmann?
STEVE KRETZMANN: Is www.amazonwatch.org.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks both for being with us.