Drill, baby, drill?

It’s going to be a long time fixing.

The Deepwater Horizon site is pouring some 200,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil daily from a broken pipe into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of dollars are being added to the leak’s cost, and despite BP‘s assurance that they will pay for the fix, long-term costs are beyond estimating at this point.

PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff got differing views Monday night from Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies and Sara Banaszak, senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute. Asked how the current catastrophe will affect his organization’s long-standing opposition to off-shore drilling, Davies said

Well, it reinforces what we have seen worldwide. As we drill for oil, it’s a dirty, dangerous business. And the farther afield we go, deep into the Amazon, into the Arctic, and into deeper water, the greater those risks are, and the worse the impacts when things go terribly wrong.

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Things have gone terribly wrong. But not wrong enough to change much, considering our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Banaszak seemed unshaken:

(A)t this point”, she said, “we don’t know what happened in that incident offshore. And that’s what’s going to be critical to find out.

What the industry has focused on doing over the years is using advanced technologies and multiple safety systems in order to prevent accidents. So, it’s a constant process of using the latest information and the latest technology, to incorporate that into developing technologies that can deliver the oil that we’re consuming in our economy today. And that’s the way the industry has approached the problem.

It was not an encouraging interview (but worth reading the entire transcript.) Banaszak mentioned that 63% of our energy comes from oil and gas, and repeatedly said that dependence will continue for at least the next 20 or 30 years. Davies mentioned, at one point, that if a similar catastrophe were to happen off the Virginia coast, where this writer grew up sailing on a pristine Chesapeake Bay and where offshore drilling could soon begin, damage would hit beaches as far north as New Jersey and beyond.

So far, one glimmer of good news for the west coast: Governor Schwarzenegger is thinking that perhaps opening up the California coast to drilling might not be such a grand idea after all.

Who says you're poor?

The U.S. government thinks you’re doing okay if, in a family of four, you’re pulling in something over $22,000 a year. It might be a little tough to get by on that these days. But the way poverty is measured, and plans made around the measurements, are obtuse and arcane at best.

Exactly who qualifies for state and federal assistance varies. More important than today’s index though, unless you are someone missing out on help, is tomorrow: plans for adequate housing, food stamp and other assistance programs are all based on some very old data. When the current federal index was set, for example, some 3% of the family budget went for food; today’s actual food costs are more like 10%.

A group of California seniors converged on the state capitol a few days ago with an eye toward bringing that state’s poverty line and real-time poverty closer together. The group is enthusiastically supportive of a far more accurate index developed by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.  They were careful to be “advocating and educating” only in meetings with legislators — the Senior Leaders Program is funded by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation and lobbying is a no-no. But they would like to see AB 324, a bill crafted by Assembly Member Jim Beall, finally pass. Beall has watched it pass the Legislature twice, only to meet a Schwarzenegger veto; he told the seniors he thinks this time around the governor’s objections have been addressed.

This particular senior fails to see any reason to stick with inaccurate data when accurate data is available. The main argument against adopting a better measurement has centered around the cost issue — If we update the index, we might find more poor people. Hello? A town builds housing for 10 people and 100 people knock on the door?

Whether or not there are any incipient seniors in your family (we seem to make up a substantial percentage of the poor, by any measurement) you might want to see what’s going on in your state. Maybe, some day, the U.S. Government will even go for poverty line fact over fiction.

Anthem Blue Cross 'doing the right thing'?

In testimony before the California Assembly Health Committee yesterday, Anthem Blue Cross President Leslie Margolin said of her company, “I think we do the right thing, and we try to do the right thing every day.”

What that means is, turn a profit for the company every day. If you are in business to make money, that is the right thing to do.

On the other hand, when Margolin says the company’s goal is to provide “care, comfort and coverage to those in need,” that is simply not true. Physicians and health care professionals provide care and comfort. Anthem provides coverage which sometimes pays for these things and often does not, if they can help it.

Is there no way to connect those dots? Care and comfort for those who need and deserve it — i.e., every human being — are not going to happen until we get the coverage people out of the equation.

OK, not going to happen any time soon. It could happen in California, except for Governor Schwarzenegger‘s probable veto. It should happen in Washington, except for the money and muscle of the coverage people. In lieu of those realities, a health bill that takes a tiny step in the right direction would be welcome.

Gay judge for Prop 8 trial: open secret, non-issue

The biggest open secret in the same-sex marriage trial underway in San Francisco has been the general knowledge that presiding Judge Vaughn Walker is himself gay. It became less secret and more open today, thanks to a piece in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle by columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross.

Many gay politicians in San Francisco and lawyers who have had dealings with Walker say the 65-year-old jurist, appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, has never taken pains to disguise – or advertise – his orientation.

They also don’t believe it will influence how he rules on the case he’s now hearing – whether Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure approved by state voters to ban same-sex marriage, unconstitutionally discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Gay rights supporters, as well as many on the other side of this case, say they would not expect the sexual orientation of the unpredictable jurist to become an issue. Walker was, in fact, loudly condemned by the LGBT community for representing the U.S. Olympic Committee in their successful suit to keep the San Francisco Gay Games from using the ‘Olympics’ name when he was a private attorney.

“There is nothing about Walker as a judge to indicate that his sexual orientation, other than being an interesting factor, will in any way bias his view,” said Kate Kendell, head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is supporting the lawsuit to overturn Prop. 8.

Matier and Ross quoted a federal judge friend of Walker who said Walker had some concern that people might conclude he wants to conceal his sexuality, but that it is part of his private life and irrelevant to any decision-making. The friend, who asked not to be identified “because of the sensitive nature of the Prop. 8 trial” further commented,

As evidence, she cites the judge’s conservative – albeit libertarian – reputation, and says, “There wasn’t anyone who thought (overturning Prop.8) was a cakewalk given his sexual orientation.”

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has sponsored two bills to authorize same-sex marriage that were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that as far as he’s concerned, Walker’s background is a nonissue. “It seems curious to me,” he said, that when the state Supreme Court heard a challenge to Prop. 8, the justices’ sexual orientation “was never discussed.”

Leno added, “I have great respect for Judge Walker, professionally and personally.”

Matier and Ross quoted a federal judge friend of Walker who said Walker had some concern that people might conclude he wants to conceal his sexuality, but that it is part of his private life and irrelevant to any decision-making. The friend, who asked not to be identified “because of the sensitive nature of the Prop. 8 trial” further commented,

Is it newsworthy?” he said of Walker’s orientation, and laughed. “Yes.”He said it was hard to ignore the irony that “in the beginning, when (Walker) sought to be a judge, a major obstacle he had to overcome was the perception that he was anti-gay.”

In short, the friend said, Walker’s background is relevant in the same way people would want to know that a judge hearing a discrimination case involving Latinos was Latino or a Jewish judge was ruling in a case involving the Anti-Defamation League.

There has been some talk around town that if the judge rules Prop. 8 unconstitutional and the  case goes as expected to the Supreme Court, Prop. 8 supporters will indeed raise the issue of Walker’s sexual orientation; and this was noted by the columnists.

Not so, said Andy Pugno, general counsel for the group that sponsored the Prop. 8 campaign.”We are not going to say anything about that,” Pugno said.

He was quick to assert, however, that Prop. 8 backers haven’t gotten a fair shake from Walker in court. He cited both the judge’s order for the campaign to turn over thousands of pages of internal memos to the other side and Walker’s decision to allow the trial to be broadcast – both of which were overturned by higher courts.

“In many ways, the sponsors of Prop. 8 have been put at significant disadvantage throughout the case,” Pugno said. “Regardless of the reason for it.”

Who’s getting the breaks and advantages in the case, now being considered by the judge, is a matter of who’s doing the analysis.

Judge being gay a nonissue during Prop. 8 trial.

Single-payer healthcare in California: Not Dead Yet

“Is there any hope for health care on the national level,” he was asked? “No.”

But Don Bechler, Chair of the California activist group Single Payer Now, was on northern California’s KZYX yesterday affirming that there is still hope for health care “if we get the insurance companies out.” California voters have twice passed single-payer health plans, both times seeing them vetoed by Governor Scwarzenegger. State Senator Mark Leno has a universal-coverage bill in the current legislature to try once more. It’s a bill anybody would love — unless you’re a body working in the insurance business.

As to the national battle, Bechler says HR 676 (sometimes known as the John Conyers bill) is the best current hope. “We haven’t really given up.” Strategies? “Talk to your congressmen, ask them to co-author HR 676. There are 87 co-sponsors so far. It’s health care for everyone, dental coverage, long-term care.” What’s not to love?

Bechler contends that Massachusetts voters who put Scott Brown did not do so out of anti-health care sentiments as has been speculated in media reports. “That’s the corporate media doing their corporate spin for their corporate buddies in the insurance industry.” Lest there be any doubt, Bechler is not much more enthusiastic about the media than about the insurance business.

As to the threat of filibuster of the current bill, which is at least more likely to pass than HR 676, Bechler suggests the Republican bluff be called. “Put it on the floor. Let the Republicans get up and talk for two months.”

Such a prospect is mind-numbing all by itself. But the national outrage might keep everyone awake.

Gay rights: a strange week everywhere

President Obama seemed finally on the move toward ending don’t ask, don’t tell after 16 years. The California same-sex marriage case was inching toward its anticipated target, the U.S. Supreme Court. Gay rights supporters were beginning to see rays of hope. That was the beginning of this week.

Nearing week’s end, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had joined Adm. Mike Mullen in calling for an end to the policy, was saying we should not rush into anything. Former Secretary of State and Retired Army General Colin Powell had switched gears and said the onerous law should be changed. Judge Vaughn Walker had begun to sift through testimony in the Perry v Schwarzenegger — but you can watch it (well, a reenactment set up after cameras in the courtroom were barred) yourself if you’d like to second guess the unpredictable federal judge. It has been a strange week, and it’s not even Friday yet.

In the California capitol meanwhile, State Senator Mark Leno, an openly gay and widely influential state legislator, is pushing a bill to defuse religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The bill would alleviate clergy concern about their churches losing tax-exempt status by putting the word “civil” before “marriage,” thus clarifying the differences between civil and religious ceremonies. It would protect those unwilling to perform a marriage which conflicts with religious beliefs — an argument that featured prominently in the acrimonious debates leading to Proposition 8 ‘s ban of same-sex unions.

Leno’s bill has the support of LGBT organization Equality California, whose executive director Geoff Kors says it will eliminate confusion, and of the pro-Prop 8 California Southern Baptist Convention, whose spokesman Terry Barone calls it “good legislation.”

We may never see bipartisanship in Washington, but when Equality California and the Southern Baptist Convention come out in support of the same legislation, it has to be a sign of progress. Or Mark Leno’s political wisdom. Or something.