Babbitt, List round up western approach to climate change, energy, immigration

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Robert List, former governor of Nevada, and Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and 47th U.S secretary of the interior, speak about the climate and environment in relation to the American West during their morning lecture moderated by The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin in the Amphitheater Thursday.

The American West is home to a unique set of cultural identities and attitudes that have, over the course of its relatively brief history as part of the United States, shaped its politics, including responses to crises like global warming.

Two former governors of Western states, Robert List, R-Nevada, and Bruce Babbitt, D-Arizona, who later served as secretary of the interior under President Bill Clinton, discussed politics in the American West with Washington Post White House reporter Juliet Eilperin at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday in the Amphitheater.

Both List and Babbitt grew up in cattle ranching families in the states that they eventually governed, and this background of working the land left them both with an affinity for the Western landscape and insight into the outcomes of Wild West-era policies and development.

Babbitt now serves on the board of directors for the Amazon Conservation Association, doing work that, he said, is deeply informed by the experience of the American West.

“As I go about my work across [the Amazon] Basin, up and down rivers and in national legislatures and in the various development banks, I am continually looking back to the moving frontier in the American West and seeing all kinds of similar problems,” he said, citing deforestation, potential elimination of indigenous tribes and gold mining as examples.

Grazing rights is one issue that still provokes controversy in the American West. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher who has refused to pay grazing fees for more than 20 years and recently organized a civilian militia to stave off federal intervention, is one holdout of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a 40-year-old political movement in support of local and state control of Western land. The federal government owns 86 percent of Nevada, Babbitt said, and 40 percent of Arizona.

Dismissing Bundy as a rogue “outlaw,” List described the standoff as “a microcosm of the conflicts that we continue to have in the West” between those who see the federal government as “an absentee landlord that doesn’t care about them” and a federal government responsible for representing the general public and managing land for recreation, mining and commercial use, in addition to grazing.

Babbitt agreed.

“I think there’s a fundamental dispute and debate going on in the West that sometimes is a little difficult for residents of the rest of the country to really comprehend,” he said.

But he comes to a different conclusion than do the Cliven Bundys of the region.

“It is public land,” he said. “It is owned by all of us. You, and me, and the residents of every state. And, although I will be met by lynch mobs in most parts of the West for saying what I’m now going to say to you, I believe that on the average, over time, the federal government has been a better, more solid and thoughtful steward of the public lands than the states.”

List agreed.

“The states, in most instances, have never managed or been responsible for a wide array of acreage. They don’t have the infrastructure to do it,” he said, adding that most cattle ranchers are not Cliven Bundy. “The vast majority of the ranch owners are responsible, decent people who pay their taxes, pay their grazing fees, love the land.”

The federal government wields a great deal of influence over energy production and environmental conservation via legislation such as the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to set aside public land as national monuments. Since 2009, Eilperin said, the federal government has leased 7.7 million acres of federal land, and protected 3.4 million acres. In President Barack Obama’s second term, a time in which, she noted, presidents often become more open to politically risky moves regarding the environment, the Obama administration has leased only 1.6 million acres and protected 785,000.

Babbitt, a conservationist, supports a balance between these two figures. List also recommended a balance, but, as the U.S. emerges as the world’s largest natural gas producer and is on track to be the world’s largest oil producer, stressed that the arbitrary conservation of productive land is “something that I don’t think anybody would want to see.”

The West, Eilperin said, is “really on the forefront of the energy frontier,” citing the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and carbon limits as enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency as potential boosts to energy concerns.

List favors nuclear energy as a long-term solution, citing that it currently provides 20 percent of the energy in the U.S.

“It’s inexpensive, it’s safe, it’s readily available,” he said. “There are no greenhouse gases, no emissions, no pollution. And the supply of the fundamental uranium that’s needed in the world is quite generous.” He also cited natural gas as a “bridge fuel” and commended Nevada for its renewable energy development.

Both solar and wind power are also important energy sources, he said, noting that solar power is simpler and less expensive to develop. Transmission poses a problem to the West, he said, for in many places in states like Nevada, there are no transmission lines.

Babbitt concurred that “there isn’t a silver bullet,” and said that the U.S. must transition away from fossil fuels, but warned not to bet on any energy source, favoring Obama’s phrase “all of the above.” He agreed with List that, during the transition to clean energy, the U.S. does need to extract natural gas from public lands. He then proceeded to criticize the Bureau of Land Management’s poor extraction and placement of wells.

The West, and especially the Southwest, has begun to see the impacts of climate change in the form of drought, Eilperin said.

List agreed, lamenting the lack of water across the West and warning that such situations affect the whole country in a “trickle-up” effect. His brother, a farmer in Lovelock, Nevada, has experienced this firsthand by not receiving an allocation of water from the Humboldt River and having to pay more for his cattle’s alfalfa. Products like milk will cost more as a result of this, List said.

Drought is a problem that people in the West can address by changing their use, Babbitt said. Across the West, 80 percent of the water is used for irrigated agriculture. Fifty percent of urban water consumption in the West is due to watering lawns and other outdoor use. The urban side of the equation has a ways to go, he said.

The West, Eilperin said, is one of the few parts of the country where presidential campaigns still have to fight for the vote, calling many of the states “purple” to the rest of the country’s clear-cut red and blue.

Babbitt attributed this to the history of the West, where there has never been much government involvement — particularly in the Gold Rush era when the culture was highly individualistic. Westerners “aren’t impressed” with government, he said, and they “don’t get excited” by collective action.

List agreed. In the sparsely populated Western states, he said, almost every resident has met the governor and senators, leading to increased accountability and focus on the individual, rather than the party.

The child migrant crisis in the last few years, Eilperin said, has been a major issue in Western border states. Sixteen thousand unaccompanied, undocumented minors crossed the border in 2011, a number that has risen each year to a projected 90,000 in 2014.

The fracture in national opinion about how to address the issue reflects the polarization in the rest of the country, List said.

Babbitt agreed, and said that the immigration issue illustrates the “dysfunctionality of American politics,” calling it a “total failure of leadership” on the part of the Obama administration. He proposed a pathway to citizenship for the 10 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., as well as increased border control, condemning the tendency of many Americans to support one measure, but not the other.

In true nonpartisan fashion, he said that “there’s just so much logic in putting the two together. We’ve just got to get there to prevent the human tragedies on both sides of the equation.”


Q: Can you go go back to a point that was made about water? Specifically, Bob, you referred to the effect of what Las Vegas is doing and how the numbers used on urban use of water in fact can be adjusted, and you demonstrated that, right? So, those are practices, there’s — get rid of lawns — there’s any number of things. But Bruce when you talked about irrigation, your observation — it may not be your recommendation — but your observation was, maybe, we have too much land devoted to agriculture and therefore can’t sustain the use of water. It seems to me that’s there’s an awful lot of discussion about the methods of irrigation — the spray irrigation, how fundamentally ineffective and inefficient it is. So the question I have for you is: In those large tracts of agriculture that define the rest, can this business of drip irrigation — or is there some alternative to the current process of irrigation that can create effective efficiencies so as to make a substantive difference in the impact?

Babbitt: Oh, there’s fantastic gains from the use of technology. The Israelis, understandably, a generation ago, pioneered the use of drip irrigation. It’s not a mystery anymore. It does take some capital to deploy a drip system across the land. The savings from that are huge. There’s also other things — laser leveling of fields, but we’re getting off into a lot of technology here. They must be implemented. But there’s another practice going of some importance and that is there maybe be a nice trade-off in times of real draught for farmers to follow their fields, and lease their water entitlement to the urban areas. It takes some careful economics and regulatory stuff to do it. There are a lot of solutions out there. And that’s the reason I think it’s important to bear down on how we use the water, and think about the technology and the economics.

List: If I may, let me add one more thing to it. To me, this has been a very interesting aspect of the management of water among the states. They work very carefully to share ideas and one of the most innovative things that has happened is this. Under the Colorado Water Decree, each state has an amount of water that they can utilize annually. In Nevada, it’s 300,000 acre feet annually. Now we haven’t been using all of our 300,000 acre feet. So we say, well, what’s happened to it? Has it just run on down the river, is it lost? Well, no it isn’t. Because Nevada’s got an arrangement with Arizona in which our water flows down a canal into Northern Arizona and then is pumped down into the ground, into an aquifer, and is stored there. What will happen in the future is that when we reach the point where we’re using 300,000 acre feet per year, we’ll take it out of the river and Arizona will be able to use our water from the aquifer and we will trade acre foot per acre feet with them. So water is being worked in many, many interesting ways to think ahead and think of our future. But the problem is, if this drought continues there’s a limitation on how much conservation can take place. And you have to continue to look for new ways to be creative.

Q: So is one of those new ways a successful use of a water market that’s going on right now in the Rio Grande, for example? And can that be applied more broadly?

Babbitt: Yes, of course. That’s particularly in the case of farmers being able to market their water entitlement into cities which have economic capacity to pay real prices either for the permanent transfer or just for seasonal transfer. Just a word about Nevada: They’ve been really great about water conservation. The reason is that, when the big deal was cut in 1929 to allocate the river, California got 4.5 million acre feet. Arizona got nearly 3 million acre feet. Nevada got 300,000 acre feet. Now, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’ve heard that the Nevada representative had been out drinking the night before.

List: I would not. Never attribute that behavior to Nevada. The fact is, in all seriousness, the water was allocated on the number of residents at that time that were in the basin from Nevada, and Las Vegas was a tiny little community. You know, water’s for drinking and whiskey’s for fighting, we know that.

Q: So before we leave water, two more questions: One, do either of you believe that the government should mandate movement away from water-intensive crops in the West? Like rice, etc. And finally, do you view the Great Lakes as a source of water for the West and for the future?

Babbitt: The answer, with respect to the Great Lakes, is no. No. Please.

Q: And on mandating crops, what do you say?

List: I — I’m sorry.

Q: Can the federal government say you shouldn’t be growing rice anymore because it’s water intensive, or do things to shift the crop — ?

List: Well, are those federal questions? Are they state questions? I’m not sure who should mandate in that connection. It seems to me that these are more regional issues that ought to be decided within a region. In our state, the groundwater is regulated by our state engineer. And very carefully allocated. And there’s a marketplace for water to be sold. And the free market economics of it are such that, to a greater and greater degree, water is going to be required for a municipal and industrial use. And farmers out in the valley area, for example, are relinquishing water. They’re selling it to upstream municipalities. And I think the marketplace will take care of much of that. And the rice is a California example, and certainly the economics over there will come into play.

Q: I have a question for Julia. If you could write a new chapter to your book, Fight Club Politics, what are the two most important new developments you could cite in the current U.S. House of Representatives, and how do these developments impact the American West?

Eilperin: Okay. So one thing I should say is that a friend of mine has had — my book came out in ‘06 — and my friend said I could just re-publish it with the title “I Told You So,” which I actually think is fairly accurate. I mean, really, the phenomenons are fairly simple. So, I talked about how a couple of different — basically three — main factors gave rise to the intense partisanship in the House, and those are redistricting, first and foremost, in terms of packing voters of like-minded ideology into certain districts where they exercised an outside influence on primary incomes, which then determined who was elected because these members were coming from safe Democratic or Republican districts. The deterioration of the social fabric in Washington D.C., where people don’t spend time together anymore and therefore are much more willing to demonize one another, and then the rise of the control of the — because of the influx of money in politics, how essentially, part basically, the political party had more influence. To update it, I would say a couple of factors are that money has become even more important, and the role of outside groups, which really wasn’t much of a factor when I was writing my book, has become incredibly important and even more than the traditional industry lobbying groups. When you look at the Koch brothers on one side and the Democracy Alliance on the other, I feel like that has only exacerbated what’s happened in the House. The second thing is I would say we’ve certainly seen the same thing happen in the Senate, that really I talked about how polarization had begun to take root in the Senate. But interestingly — and you can’t blame this on re-districting — you just have seen such ideological outcomes, and we’ve seen this with all sorts of states in the West, that I think that that has made, essentially, the Senate largely similar to the House, which it was exercising a moderating influence on the House back in say, the 1990s and early 2000s. And I think its implications for the West, as we’ve kind of been talking about it — and Governor Babbitt alluded to the dysfunction that we’ve seen on immigration reform — there really isn’t a single significant public policy issue, which at this point we can expect to be resolved by our elected members of Congress. And so I think that that has tremendous implication, whether you’re talking about immigration, whether you’re talking about water policy or environmental policies more broadly, what we’ve seen is that essentially the executive branch is making all the decisions that are affecting citizens because lawmakers are at loggerheads and there’s such a political price to be paid for compromising with the other party.

Q: Let’s move on, Bob, to your observation about the safety of nuclear power. I imagine not everyone wants to accept that statement. So, you know, in the first part could you give some evidence to your statement about how safe it is, and then specifically how has the problem of disposal of nuclear waste specifically — especially in the Yucca Flat — played into your conclusion that it’s safe as a source?

List: The fact is, first of all, that it’s transported. Much of the criticism or concern about safety relates to transportation. It’s currently — nuclear fuel is currently — transported all around the planet by ship, by train, by truck. There’s never been a fatality. There’s never been a release of any significance that’s had any effect on public healthy anyplace in the country. The generation itself, at the plants, we had the one Three Mile Island issue in this country. Again, it was contained and there were no fatalities, no difficulties. Chernobyl is a very old technology. We’ve come a long way in terms of how the nuclear plants actually work. And they’re starting again to permit them to the nuclear regulatory commission. So there’s really no evidence of any danger ever having taken place, in this country, or any tragedies in this country, from it. There’s been a lot more people suffer from illnesses from coal emissions, certainly, than from anything that potentially happened from a nuclear standpoint. In terms of the waste, it isn’t really waste when it comes from the plant. About 90 percent of the energy is still within the rods that come out of the plants, and they can be recycled, and in much of the world they are recycled — in Japan, in Europe. It’s recycled and reused and transported all over the place. So it’s an efficient form of energy, and I happen to believe the Yucca Mountain, which is in Nevada, is a very safe place. We’re talking about one of the most arid regions in the world, about an inch of annual rainfall. The material would be stored about 1,000 feet underground, where there would be no water whatsoever and soil that seeps down or is present there. It’s 90 miles from the city, it’s next to an air force base. From a security standpoint — from a safety standpoint — it’s an absolutely good place to hold it during an interim period until it’s taken back out and recycled and reused.

Q: Could we — could you — both of you comment on the process of fracking? And specifically, in either of your — both of your — opinions, how important is the methodology? You alluded to that a bit, Bob. How safe is it as a technology and, specifically, how many more years do you think the Obama administration, or in our state, the Cuomo administration, needs to study the process of fracking?  

List: I would say first that there are some new technologies that are taking place in fracking that do not hydrological utilization. I’m aware of a company that is now in pilot projects all across America in a number of oil fields and gas fields, utilizing a different technology than hydrology. They do fracking with an explosive device that has the same effect and has a tiny amount of water by comparison. So, I think we do have to free up the energy in this country. There’s a certain amount of fossil fuel you’re going to have to use — you can’t fly an airplane on nuclear power. Although we’re moving in the right direction with automobiles, this nation is still highly dependent on natural gas and on oil. So fracking is a technology that can be done — if it can be done safely and without an overuse of water — I think we should do it.

Babbitt: You want an answer from me?

Q: Yeah.

Babbitt: Sure. Fracking is a necessary part of this energy transition. I don’t think there’s any question that we must move forward with the production of natural gas — particularly as we begin to push away from coal, the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas per unit of energy of natural gas is about half of coal. My concern is the lack of oil to impose regulatory standards. And it begins with the Obama administration and the Bureau of Land Management, which have woefully failed to step up to the industry and say, ‘Okay, but we are going to regulate how it’s done, how the land use planning is done, how the water is recycled.’ It’s, to me, incomprehensible that if the administration moves commendably over at the Environmental Protection Agency on the regulation of coal fired plants, that they have simply turned a blind eye to the regulation of fracking.

Q: So, attached to the issue of regulation and to the political football: What do each of you think about the Keystone pipeline? Should it built, and if so, when? And if not, why?

List: I favor building the pipeline. I am concerned, I will say, about the ultimate destination of the fuel when it reaches a port and is exported to Asia or elsewhere, there’s far less reason to build it, frankly. But I think that it can be safely done, I think it can be done within environmental standards, and will help generally produce oil that is utilized and helps with the overall world price per barrel.

Babbitt: The Keystone pipeline, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, became the environmental issue of this particular cycle. There’s less at stake than meets the eye. First of all, there are already thousands of miles of fossil fuel pipeline running up through the Midwest across most of this area. Secondly, if it is not exported via the Keystone pipeline, it will be exported either out of British Columbia to the Pacific coast, or through Quebec to the Atlantic coast. And the amount of oil that is put into the pipeline is not going to add to overall world consumption, it’s a fungible commodity. That leaves only one small issue, and that is, well, I’m not going to say small, but, one issue. And that is the additional greenhouse gas that is generated by the way this tar sands are ripped out of the landscape and treated in order to put into the pipeline. And I do think that that’s any issue. How would I vote on this? I don’t know. Finally, you see me without an opinion.

Q: I just want to breathe this in for a minute. So, does this phenomena of increasing urbanization — does this have an impact, in your experience, in both your specific states and in the West, in terms of politics? Either in terms of red/blue, or in terms of divisiveness.

Babbitt: Yeah, I think that urbanization does tend to shift politics from conservative toward liberal to some degree. I think you can see that in the demographic analysis of the West, and I frankly think that it is explainable in a very basic way that we’ve seen throughout the history of this country. As areas urbanize and people come more interrelated and more interdependent upon what your neighbor is doing or not doing, there is, to some degree, more impetus for the use of government at whatever level. And that as the West urbanizes, there will be some of that movement. I think the other big issue is going to be immigration and the role of the Hispanics. Interestingly enough, Governor List has a Hispanic governor who, lamentably, is a Republican.

List: Wait a minute. I would say that, certainly, there is a tendency for urban populations to be more Democratic party-oriented in the West. I put a lot of it on the fact that that’s mainly where the vast numbers of people who are so dependent — it was the word you used, and I think it’s the right word — so dependent upon government. And the Republican Party is perceived at least to not be quite as, shall we say, generous in that regard, a little tighter maybe. I know in my state, Clark County is where Las Vegas is, where two-thirds of the people live in Nevada, heavily Democrat. Northern Nevada is more Republican. It’s more rural. But we’re a state that voted twice for George W. Bush and twice for Barack Obama, so it goes both ways —

Babbitt: Interesting.

List: —depending on the economy.

Q: So, let’s finish with a question for all three of you about immigration. When we cite the number of children coming across from Central America in particular — Honduras most notably. Guatemala — much of what we talk about are the statistics of the children as they arrive. What we don’t talk about very much is why they’re coming in the conditions in which they live. So the question is, from a journalist’s point of view, what are we doing to investigate that and educate ourselves? From a politician’s point of view, do we have a responsibility and a capacity to address the problem at its core? That is, can we reach out to the originating problem and be part of the solution in a country other than our own?

Eilperin: Right. So, just to take the journalism part first, I would say that the Washington Post — along with many other organizations, whether you’re talking about the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio — has sent people both — we have people in place in Central America, and they have been writing about the gang problems and the incredible violence that, in many ways, are propelling this wave of migration, as well as interviewing people right as they cross the border that are in these detention facilities. So, I think that it is really incumbent on journalism to bring that part of the world to you, which is one of the reasons that it’s incredibly important to pay for your media. And so I leave you with that message. That I love for people to click on our articles, but really we need people to be invested in the future of journalism. And so that’s one way that we can bring those stories to you. And now I leave it to these two to talk about the policy.

Babbitt: The different thing about the current manifestation of this is the way it is, in some large nature, shifted from Mexico to Central America. Central America is in chaos right now. Obviously, our ability to influence events has got limits. We have not spent enough time trying to understand why the Central American countries have all of a sudden tipped into such instability. The administration is not paying enough attention to these issues developing down there. I know they’re distracted by few other problems, but we must really focus at the political and diplomatic and economic level at the quality of our influence and ability to be a positive presence in those countries.

List: I would note this: There is a great deal of confusion, and to some extent surprise, on the part of many people in the United States that, about the fact that we have this tremendous tide of children coming here. Can you imagine being a parent down in Honduras and sending a 10-year-old child off on a journey up through Mexico, which is such a dangerous place in so many ways, hoping they’re going to get across the border and into the United States and maybe find an aunt or an uncle up there? You’d have to be. You’d have to go through a lot of prayer to send a kid on that kind of journey. These people are motivated to do it and there’s good reason. I’m not sure yet whether we understand fully what it is — whether it’s entirely economic, whether it has to do with that child’s safety and their ability to stay alive or be healthy. But I know one thing: We do need to understand it, we do need to address it and if nothing else, we need to remind ourselves everyday how enormously blessed we are to live in this nation and to have a place like this to come to that they can’t even imagine.

—Transcirbed by Cortney Linnecke