Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Perfect Storm

State unemployment program bankrupt amid record jobless rate


By Todd Morehead

An economic hurricane has finally made landfall over South Carolina and state legislators seemingly didn’t have the foresight to pack an umbrella. It was widely reported last week that the jobless rate in S.C. has hit a record 12.6 percent, well above the 10 percent national average. At a time when scores of out-of-work South Carolinians are looking to the state for unemployment benefits, many taxpayers may not realize that the Employment Security Commission’s unemployment insurance reserves ran dry over a year ago and the state government is relying on federal loans to keep the program afloat.

South Carolina, a state that made national headlines for attempting to reject federal stimulus dollars, has already borrowed over $723 million from the federal government since December 2008 to cover the unemployment insurance shortfall in order to keep paying out benefits.

Following a federal law passed during the Great Depression, each state may set its own unemployment insurance policies and set parameters for funding those policies within broad federal guidelines. The programs were designed for states to pad their reserves during times of economic stability, so that unemployment insurance could aid unemployed workers and continue to stimulate the economy during downturns –in short, to keep consumers spending and businesses open long enough to weather the storm. Over the years, however, enough state legislators nationwide vowed to increase benefits while lowering taxes, and effectively chipped their unemployment systems into the red. Currently 17 out of 50 state unemployment insurance programs have gone bankrupt and are forced to borrow money from the federal government in the middle of the worst recession since the Depression that gave birth to the programs.

South Carolina was among the first eight states to show a declining trust fund balance starting around 2005. The fund had close to $800 million in reserves in 2000, but massive tax cuts kept incoming revenue from sustaining it.

So far, the federal loans have kept the state unemployment insurance program from going belly up, but an unfortunate side effect is that the loans pass along costs to federal taxpayers, many of whom live in states that properly funded their unemployment programs. South Carolina taxpayers, in the long term, will cover tens of millions in interest charges on the federal loans, which likely will have to be paid out of the state’s general budget.

South Carolina has responded with short term planning, so far only restructuring the parameters of benefits payouts to the unemployed. Recently the House almost unanimously approved a temporary measure that will make it harder for workers who were fired for legitimate reasons –such as insubordination, sleeping on the job, intentionally damaging property, and other reasons—from collecting benefits. The measure moved to the Senate last week.

A number of other measures on the legislative agenda include a bill to require mandatory drug screenings for persons receiving unemployment; redefining the words “unemployed” and “wages” to tweak S.C. Employment Security Law and to increase the taxable wage base, respectively; and to allow a state tax credit for employers hiring an unemployed individual receiving unemployment benefits.

House representatives also plan to enact the “Employment Security Funding and Reform Act,” which is currently still in committee (House Ways and Means).

While state legislators hammer out ways to plug the leak, it could be years before South Carolina taxpayers are out of the water.

Special thanks to Olga Pierce and the Pro Publica journalism project for compiling a portion of the data used for this story.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Vocal Booth

Greetings!!!  2010 is underway and the time keeps rolling.  2010 has seen many good days, but a couple of bad ones for my brothers and sisters in Haiti who fell victim to one of the worst earthquakes (and intense aftershocks) ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.  I really hope those out there with a heart are doing more than just watching the news.  Please find a reputable charity and donate your time, money, or more to help.  Being that this is the 1st quarter of music releases, labels are working gearing up for February & March dates, I figured I’d give you a list of some of the best artists ever to hold a microphone, but for some reason they are no where to be found. Let’s get it!!!!

Where Are They Now???? (In No Particular Order)

D’Angelo

Deborah Cox

Jade

Zhane (Pronounced Jah Nay)

DMX

Paris

Phife Dawg (A Tribe Called Quest)

Olu

Nine (Whutcha Want!!!)

Cypress Hill

Kam

Foxy Brown

Nikki D

Naughty By Nature

Rob Base

Dana Dane

Slick Rick

Kool Moe Dee

Da Youngstas (Remember Crewz Pop!!!)

Chill Rob G

D-Nice

Jurassic 5

Killah Priest

The Born Jamericans

Mad Lion

Stetsasonic

House Of Pain

Digital Underground

Bahamadia

Jeru Da Damaja

***************************

HONORABLE MENTION- Craig Mack…from ‘Flava In Ear Fame’…one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

WORDS OF WISDOM

Rest in peace to Teddy Pendergrass…one of the greatest singers and performers of all time.    From ‘Wake Up Everybody’ and ‘Joy’ to ‘Love TKO’ and ‘Close The Door’, Teddy P had one of the smoothest and most distinctive voices ever.  May he, his spirit, his family, and his legacy forever remain blessed.  Stay Up!!!!

DJ Kingpin-Villain Of Vinyl        kingpinvillianofvinyl@gmail.com


Greetings!!!  2010 is underway and the time keeps rolling.  2010 has seen many good days, but a couple of bad ones for my brothers and sisters in Haiti who fell victim to one of the worst earthquakes (and intense aftershocks) ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.  I really hope those out there with a heart are doing more than just watching the news.  Please find a reputable charity and donate your time, money, or more to help.  Being that this is the 1st quarter of music releases, labels are working gearing up for February & March dates, I figured I’d give you a list of some of the best artists ever to hold a microphone, but for some reason they are no where to be found. Let’s get it!!!!
Where Are They Now???? (In No Particular Order)
D’AngeloDeborah CoxJadeZhane (Pronounced Jah Nay)DMXParisPhife Dawg (A Tribe Called Quest)OluNine (Whutcha Want!!!)Cypress HillKamFoxy BrownNikki DNaughty By NatureRob Base Dana DaneSlick RickKool Moe DeeDa Youngstas (Remember Crewz Pop!!!)Chill Rob GD-NiceJurassic 5Killah Priest The Born JamericansMad LionStetsasonicHouse Of PainDigital UndergroundBahamadiaJeru Da Damaja***************************HONORABLE MENTION- Craig Mack…from ‘Flava In Ear Fame’…one of the greatest songs ever recorded.
WORDS OF WISDOM Rest in peace to Teddy Pendergrass…one of the greatest singers and performers of all time.    From ‘Wake Up Everybody’ and ‘Joy’ to ‘Love TKO’ and ‘Close The Door’, Teddy P had one of the smoothest and most distinctive voices ever.  May he, his spirit, his family, and his legacy forever remain blessed.  Stay Up!!!!
DJ Kingpin-Villain Of Vinyl        kingpinvillianofvinyl@gmail.com

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Color of History



by Will Moredock

What is the lesson of history ignored?

January 18 was a beautiful day for a parade – 60 degrees and blue skies. A perfect way to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday.

I watched the annual King Holiday Parade from the front porch of my apartment, as it wound its way through my neighborhood.  It is a little ritual I have enjoyed since I moved to Charleston eight years ago.  I still get that childhood excitement that comes from hearing the bass drums and brass blasting on the street and there were several high school bands in this parade, delivering lots of verve and volume. There were also the floats and  convertibles bearing beauty queens, politicians and television personalities, who waved enthusiastically at the crowds along Sumter Street. A motorcycle club and a Corvette club cruised by with their respective machines. Churches and civic organizations were recognized with their floats or just pickup trucks with signs on the side. It was a wonderful  moment of Americana, the kind of moment that has almost been lost in 21st century.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Where in the World is Brunel Athis?

By Arik Bjorn

Twenty years ago, at the age of 16, I found myself roaming the tiny republic of Haiti by myself.

I was the product of an ultraconservative upbringing and had already made several “evangelism trips” to one of the world’s poorest nations.  Haitians needed “saving” by the bucket-load, I was convinced—despite the fact that the Haitian people are the most spiritually faithful people you could ever visit, no matter the unthinkably deplorable comments recently made by Pat Robertson in the wake of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake.

[caption id="attachment_1020" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Photos by Catherine Lainé"][/caption]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

“Daddy Loves His Craps”

A chat with mayoral candidate, Aaron Johnson

[caption id="attachment_998" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="AARON/GRANT 2010 campaign team from left to right:  Claire Sprague Media Specialist, Shigeharu Kobayashi, Staff Advisor, Aaron Johnson Candidate for Mayor, Grant Robertson Candidate for City Council, Abby Thames Staff Advisor,  Rachel Thomason - Campaign Manager"][/caption]

Interview by Todd Morehead

The Columbia mayoral election has a wild card this year, a man with a vaudevillian wit, the iron gullet of a sailor and the fashion sense of a young Chester Arthur. Meet candidate Aaron Johnson, co-owner of the F-Stop Camera Shop and Pretty Penny Productions. Sure, he may have recently appeared on local TV wearing a homemade astronaut suit, but don’t let his penchant for theatrics fool you. Johnson is dead serious about reforming city council and is surprisingly versed in civics. He has no questionable ties and, so far, no political debts to repay. Young, hyper intelligent and beloved in his local community, he is known for his work ethic, creative eye and philanthropic spirit.

The candidate was kind enough to humor us when we pitched him a few off-the-wall questions and this interviewer walked away from the exchange believing that Mr. Johnson and business partner Grant Robertson, who is challenging Tameika Isaac Devine for her city council seat, could be the breath of fresh air this town needs. The pair might just surprise everyone on April 6 if they can fill their war chests early enough to effectively run each respective campaign...

COLUMBIA CITY PAPER: The city has two major problems: homelessness and city accounting. What would you say to a proposal to kill two birds with one stone and employ the homeless to take over city accounting?

AARON JOHNSON: Well, I can tell right away this is not going to be a puff piece. There is merit to your idea. Homeless people have some admirable talents that our city financial officials could stand to use as an example. They have to stretch very small budgets a long way to accomplish their goals. I would wager that they also, as a rule, know how much money they have in their coffers at any given time.

CCP: Some other cities have passed ordinances in favor or the Urban Chicken movement. Taking the current economic situation into consideration, would you allow Columbia citizens to raise and slaughter their own chickens within city limits?

Regional Briefs - Jan. 14

BENNETTSVILLE

Deputy accused of beating girlfriend

[caption id="attachment_970" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Deputy Robert Paul Grimsley has been accused of domestic violence "][/caption]

A Dillon County Sheriff’s deputy has been accused of beating his girlfriend and trying to coerce a Dillon police officer to cover up evidence in the case.

Cpl. Randy Grimsley, 38, of Latta, is charged with stalking, obstruction of justice, malicious injury to property, criminal domestic violence, and violating a protection order. A circuit court judge denied bond for Grimsley.

Investigators said Grimsley grabbed his live-in girlfriend by the throat and kicked her at his home. A month later, they said, he violated an order of protection against him, when he was arrested for slashing her tires in front of her home. That day, prosecutors say, he tried to convince a Dillon officer to destroy evidence taken in the case. According to the Florence Morning News, the alleged victim told the court Grimsley drove by her home 18 to 20 times a day.

“I really loved that girl, but I’m not in love with her,” Grimsley said during the hearing. “She ain’t got to worry about me ... I just want to tend to my children.”

MYRTLE BEACH

Woman slapped with taco, multiple arrests follow

A man, his girlfriend and their friend were arrested at a Myrtle Beach motel after police responded to a disturbance call.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Coffee Art in a Gallery Space

By Judit Trunkos

[caption id="attachment_964" align="alignleft" width="167" caption="Jonathan Brilliant with his coffee object installations"][/caption]


Photo By Kati Szollossy


McMaster Gallery opens the new year with Jonathan Brilliant’s coffee object installations.  The temporary pieces of art are built exclusively for each hosting gallery. Brilliant uses unaltered everyday objects from coffee shops, such as sticks, straws, and sleeves to install his work. “Sticks, Straws, Sleeves and Lids” is part of Brilliant’s nationwide “Have Sticks Will Travel Tour” which takes him to various galleries to build massive, suspended sculptures from coffee stirrer sticks.

Brilliant is inspired by natural, everyday objects and sees coffee shops as a natural environment for modern urban dwellers. He ultimately finds art in objects most of us would use and throw away.

“Running through my work is a genuine interest in the inherent qualities of a material and the extent to which I can exploit it for making art,” he says.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Terror

By Baynard Woods

Jim DeMint recently criticized President Obama saying that “there is no question that the president has downplayed the risk of terror since he took office.”

When CNN’s Campbell Brown asked DeMint how Obama has downplayed the risk of terror, at first the senator looked a little befuddled. Then he puffed out, “Well,” and paused for something that was almost a laugh, “it begins with not even being willing to use the word.”

Of course, it was determined that DeMint was entirely off base and he actually came close to something like an apology, saying that Obama was actually “using the right approach” to terror.  So, DeMint’s claim tells us nothing about Barack Obama, but it can tell us a great deal about Jim DeMint. Remember, before he entered politics, DeMint was an ad executive and owned his own marketing research firm. In this context it is easy to see that DeMint was pushing a particular word in order to defend and redefine a brand.  But what word was it?


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Legislature has more work to do

By Andy Brack

A slogan from an old Virginia Slims cigarette ad – “You’ve come a long way, baby – just doesn’t apply to the South Carolina General Assembly.

But, the legislature took a few positive, progressive baby steps toward dealing with generational problems identified last year in Statehouse Report’s “Palmetto Priorities” list.

A year ago this week as the General Assembly prepared to open its annual session, we offered an agenda of “11 broad, continuing objectives for state legislators to consider and use as a bipartisan guide to creating a better South Carolina.” Why? Because lawmakers often seem to act independently and without a good look at the state’s big picture.

So today, it’s time to look at where they are. You might be surprised. Below is a short description of each objective, followed by a review of progress.

JOBS: Develop a Cabinet-level post dedicated to adding and retaining 10,000 small business jobs per year. Result? No action: Even though the state’s unemployment rate has rocketed to more than 12 percent, there seems to be little consensus or strategizing on how to get more jobs for South Carolina. This needs to be Job Number One in 2010. [Forget Gov. Mark Sanford’s embarrassing woes; work on more jobs.]

EDUCATION: Cut the state’s dropout rate in half by 2015. State Education Department spokesman Jim Foster says these days, educators focus more on graduation rates than dropout rates. (This appears as the flip side of the same coin to us). Interestingly, past policy actions are having incremental progress. According to Education Week magazine’s latest study, South Carolina had the top progress in increasing graduation rates over the last 10 years. Instead of being last in the nation in 1996 with 53.2 percent of students graduating, in 2006, we were 37th in the nation with 66.3 percent graduating. Congratulations.

HEALTH CARE: Increase the cigarette tax to $1 per pack and use revenues to maximize federal health care matching funds. No action. Again. This is a no-brainer. The legislature needs to pass this proposal this year to nab more federal matching health care dollars.

HEALTH CARE: Ensure affordable and accessible health care that optimizes preventive care for every South Carolinian by 2015. No action: While this is more of a federal government issue, the state could start to take more steps, instead of waiting in the wings.

ENVIRONMENT: Adopt a state energy policy that requires energy producers to generate 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Some action: In 2009, Santee Cooper backed off plans to build a new coal-fired plant. Duke and SCANA are moving toward building four more nuclear reactors. The state amended its state energy policy to promote clean energy, which now is defined to include nuclear. More work needs to be done to set measurable goals.

TAXES: By 2012, remove special interest sales tax exemptions that are outdated for the state’s 21st Century economy. Some action: A special legislative committee has been working on this throughout the summer. Look for some action this year.

TAXES: Reform and stabilize the tax structure by 2012 after following an overall nonpartisan review that seriously considers reimplementation of reasonable property taxes. Unfortunately, the committee (above) can’t consider property tax reform from three years ago that caused more harm than good.

ELECTIONS: Increase voter registration to 75 percent by 2015. No action.

CORRECTIONS: Reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2020 through creative alternative sentencing programs for non-violent offenders. A little action: State Attorney General Henry McMaster’s “middle courts” program is still in legislative committee. It likely would impact prison populations significantly. More work can be done.

ROADS: Strengthen all bridges and upgrade all state roads by 2015 through creative highway financing and maintenance programs. No major action. Mostly, it was business as usual.

POLITICS: Have a vigorous two- or multi-party political system of governance. No action: State Democrats don’t even have candidates in six of the nine statewide constitutional races at this point. Other bills are in the hopper that would increase partisanship, not foster bipartisanship.

Bottom line: South Carolina still has a long way to go, baby – but encouraging signs abound.

Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

Here We Go Again

By Will Moredock
As the Legislature convenes, we ask: Why bother?

You know the General Assembly is ready to convene for its 2010 session when legislators  start prefiling bills and you have that sinking feeling that when they go home in June not a damned thing is going to be better for this god-forsaken state. Our legislators will do anything to distract themselves, to distract the public, to pretend to be doing something to earn another term in Columbia. The artifice of governance goes on year after year and we never figure out which shell the pea is hiding under – and that it doesn't matter any way.

Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard has a reputation for grandstanding and making much ado over little. His latest stunt is perhaps his craziest. (I will resist the obvious pun which this story so richly deserves.) He wants to  allow guests at Charlestown Landing and other state parks to be able to collect pecans for five dollars a bag and then apply that fee toward the general budget. Of course, that budget got cut by hundreds of millions of dollars this past year. Does Gilliard really think he is solving a problem with this harebrained fund-raising scheme?

If that idea is silly, Sen. Chip Campsen's bill is downright insidious – insidious because it will allow our lawmakers and the public a smug sense of self-satisfaction, while doing almost nothing to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

Campsen wants to ban registered sex offenders from internet social networking sites for the purpose of protecting underage children from sexual predators. The bill, patterned after one in New York State, involves turning names of registered sex offenders over to social network managers, who then cancel their accounts.

Worthy goal, to be sure, and you really must admire Campsen for standing up to the powerful sexual predator lobby and saying, Enough is enough. And I have no doubt that our courageous General Assembly will fall in behind the senator from Mount Pleasant in telling sexual predators that our children are off limits. The Post and Courier has even gotten into this crusade with a recent column by editor emeritus Barbara Williams. Yes, she's against sexual predators, too!

After this law is passed – as I am sure it will be – I wonder what new steps our fearless leaders will take to make South Carolina children safe. They will certainly have their work cut out for them.

S.C. has one of the highest teen smoking rates in the nation, yet spends less than any other state on programs to prevent children from using tobacco. S.C. ranks eighth in the nation in teen birthrate; not surprising since our lawmakers would rather give sexually active teens Jesus than condoms.

S.C. students still rank 49th or 50th annually in SAT scores and the number of S.C. students eligible for free and reduced-price meals ranks second-highest in the nation. In fact, the Palmetto state was recently number one for the number of households with people who go without food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's a lot of children going to school hungry.

In other surveys, S.C. had the highest school dropout rate in the nation and ranked 41st in overall achievement, based on test scores related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates and Advanced Placement exams.

In the annual report from the Every Child Matters Education Fund, S.C. ranked 45th in the nation on overall child well-being. The ranking was based on 10 criteria, including infant death rate, death rate of older children, births to teen mothers, births to women receiving late or no prenatal care, children living in poverty, uninsured children, juvenile incarceration rate, child abuse fatalities, and per capita child welfare expenditures. Nowhere did the study factor in the the threat of sexual predators on the Internet – the great danger that seems to keep Chip Campsen and Barbara Williams awake at night.

Another irony in Campsen's bill is that children cannot encounter sexual predators online if they do not have a computer and S.C. ranks 44th  in the nation for Internet access in the home. Slightly less than 60 percent of South Carolina homes had Internet access last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Computer access in S.C. public schools is also among the lowest in the nation.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if Campsen were as worried about providing Internet access as he is about dirty old men hanging out on social networking sites? But he probably considers lack of Internet access to be a way of protecting children from predators.

With leadership like Gilliard's and Campsen's I am confident we will soon feel much better about our budget and the future of our children. And feeling better is what's important.

Read more about S.C.'s official child neglect at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Impossible War

Obama commits more troops to Afghanistan -- with the wrong strategy

Story and Photos by DAVID AXE



[caption id="attachment_847" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Staff Sgt. Ashley Hess from Able Troop, in Logar on Oct. 15. 2009."][/caption]

BARAKI BARAK, Afghanistan -- The soldiers from Able Troop knew the attack was coming. Not only had they received several ominous warnings from some sympathetic local farmers in this agricultural district 50 miles south of Kabul, in mountainous central Afghanistan -- they could also feel it in their bones. Some Afghan towns, on some nights, practically seethe with potential violence. Oct. 21 was such a night.

Staff Sgt. Ashley Hess, a toothy, heavy-smoking man, had first felt the building tension six days prior. "Let's go get blown up," he'd muttered as he strapped himself into the passenger's side of his eight-seat armored vehicle, while preparing for a reconnaissance mission to the outskirts of Baraki Barak. Hess' feeling was right -- it was his timing that was off. Hess' patrol returned to base unscathed. It was a separate patrol on the 21st that found itself caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of the now eight-year-old Afghanistan war.

It was a war launched with the clearest of objectives: to hunt down the men responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, and to disrupt their group's ability to plan further attacks. In the beginning, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was clearly focused on Al Qaeda -- although, at the time, that meant also disrupting the Taliban, the Islamic regime that had harbored the terror group.

But then something happened. Al Qaeda all but disappeared from Afghanistan, fleeing into neighboring Pakistan, where vast swaths of the country are under the control of the Taliban's Pakistani branch. The Taliban, too, melted into the Afghan countryside, its ranks depleted and its leaders under constant threat of assassination by U.S. commandos and drone aircraft.

A couple years after the first company of U.S. Marines leaped out of their assault helicopters at a former hunting lodge outside the southern city of Kandahar, in November 2001, we had effectively won the war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda no longer used the country as a base in any meaningful way. The Taliban, once a functioning government, had been reduced to a guerilla movement, albeit a highly deadly one. "The extremists have lost sanctuaries and popular support in Afghanistan," then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote in 2005.

Still, we stayed. Worse, we dug in deeper, steadily adding troops, building new bases and pressuring our NATO allies to expand their own commitments to a now aimless war effort that, to date, has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 coalition soldiers. In the absence of clear enemy, our goals in Afghanistan shifted. No longer were we just finding and killing terrorists. From late 2002 on, we drifted into nation-building, laboring to establish a Western-style democracy in a vast, rugged country of poor, illiterate, xenophobic and corrupt people.

Pentagon officials tried to link counter-terrorism and nation-building, as though the two were obviously the same thing. "Democracy is the opposite end to the [traditional Islamic] Caliphate, which is what Al Qaeda is trying to establish," one unnamed military official said in a 2006 news release, implying that justified the effort.

But nation-building rarely works, especially at the barrel of a gun. Afghanistan, one of the world's most corrupt, fractured countries, is particularly resistant to external reform. Nevertheless, eight years into the war the U.S. military is trying to persuade Afghans to act like ideal Americans -- obeying laws, voting in free elections, respecting human rights and due process -- all in pursuit of the unproven theory that representative democracy can be forcibly exported to corrupt, non-democratic societies, and that that democracy is the only way to truly suppress terrorism.

That conflation of counter-terrorism and nation-building lies at the heart of U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to add 30,000 troops to the current force of more than 60,000, and to pressure NATO allies to add as many as 7,000 to their combined 30,000-strong Afghan contingents. The reinforcements "will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans," Obama said as he announced his decision, in a speech at the U.S. Army's Military Academy in West Point, New York, on Dec. 1.

But everyday Afghans have a say in the direction their society takes. And in a contested, fraudulent election this fall and with innumerable smaller acts of corruption, Afghans have said a resounding "no" to democracy. For that reason, the U.S. war effort is doomed. Deploying tens of thousands of extra troops in a failed bid to reform an entire society just means putting tens of thousands of extra troops in the cross-hairs of the tattered remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which fight on despite their serious setbacks. Not to mention, the reinforcements will cost $1 million per person per year, according to the White House's Office of Management and Budget -- this during the worst economic crisis this nation has suffered in nearly 100 years.

"Winning" in Afghanistan does not mean reforming Afghan society. Winning means disrupting terrorists, and that does not require nation-building. We must get back to our original and realistic war goals, and bring home the tens of thousands of soldiers currently laboring to export democracy to an Afghanistan that wants nothing to do with it. Until we do, our soldiers are fighting, and sometimes dying, for nothing.

Back in Baraki Barak on Oct. 21, the ambush began with a chest-thumping boom. A bomb, buried in the middle of a dirt road, exploded underneath one of Able Troop's vehicles. The blast shattered the truck's front half; the soldiers inside were miraculously unhurt. Taliban fighters hiding in a tree-line opened fire with AK-47s and Rocket-Propelled Grenades, peppering the now-stalled American convoy.

The Americans fired back. For 20 minutes, fields burned, cows died from stray bullets and walls and canals collapsed amid the fighting. The Americans had come to Baraki Barak to build a democracy, but that had proved impossible. That night, it was all they could do just to stay alive, pinned down as much by the U.S. government's fundamentally-flawed nation-building strategy as by the Taliban's bombs, guns and rockets.

There would be a deeply ironic coda to Able Troop's October battle. In the hours after Obama's West Point announcement, the top officer for Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stan McChrystal, held a press conference where he highlighted examples of success in Afghanistan -- models for the way the war would be waged, from now on. His major example: Baraki Barak.

“Some months ago it was almost under complete insurgent control," McChrystal said of the district. "Now with a partnership between coalition forces, Afghan forces and local government and some smart counter-insurgency techniques, some reinforcement of local leadership, violence is down something like 80 percent and it is all because we link up and partner and we make it work.”

A closer look at Baraki Barak undermines McChrystal's claims, and challenges the Obama Administration's assumptions regarding the Afghanistan war. Baraki Barak is less an example of gradual progress towards a democratic, peaceful Afghanistan, and more an example of the depth and permanence of a traditional Afghan society that rejects Western-style democracy, and will not mold itself to Obama's notion of "success" in Afghanistan, no matter how many troops we send in.



[caption id="attachment_848" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption=" Baraki Barak district sub governor Mohamed Yasin Ludeen on Oct. 18, 2009."][/caption]

A Tale of Three Districts

A year ago, there were just 100 Americans in all of Logar, just south of Kabul. One of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Logar is home to an estimated half a million people and, with its fertile soil irrigated by the Logar River and by snow melt streaming down the mountains, is one of the country's major bread baskets. Looking down from the mountains on a fall day, you can see heaps of orange corn drying on rooftops.

At the time, the 100 Americans occupied a fortified hilltop compound that once belonged to a Turkish gravel manufacturer. They represented an insignificant force, especially considering Logar's role in a previous war. The province was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. A Soviet formation of some 400 vehicles was cut off in Logar's southernmost Kherwar district -- a natural "bowl" ringed by mountains and accessible by a single narrow road -- and systematically destroyed by U.S.-funded mujahideen fighters.

Many of Logar's so-called "muj" would eventually join the Taliban and turn their weapons against their own former patrons, the Americans. U.S. officers were worried that sending more soldiers to Logar, on top of the original 100, might doom them to the same bloody fate that befell the Soviets. For years, however, the issue was moot, for there simply weren't enough Americans in Afghanistan for every province to have its own large contingent. Then, as one of his first acts as president, Obama ordered an extra 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, boosting the occupying army to a new high of around 60,000. Several thousand of those reinforcements made their way to Logar.

They initially avoided Kherwar and its deadly "bowl," instead setting up at a former Soviet prison in Baraki Barak, a northern district that intelligence reports indicated would be friendlier towards foreigners. The Americans beefed up the prison's defenses and replaced a wall still bearing hundreds of bullet holes from a mass execution of Afghan prisoners in the '80s. Baraki Barak would be the wedge for gradually inserting more forces into Logar.

The Pentagon had big plans for Logar. The province would be a test case for a new phase of the Afghan war -- Obama's phase -- characterized by more troops, more resources and a more determined push to reform Afghan society. Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen, the gruff, bulldog-faced commander of U.S. forces in Logar, including Able Troop, named the campaign for the province after a popular American reality show in which producers descend on a needy family and pay to refurbish and improve the family's home. "It's my 'Extreme Makeover: Afghanistan Edition,'" Gukeisen said. He was seemingly unaware that many makeover recipients on the reality show end up losing their "new" homes, when they discover they can't afford higher taxes and upkeep. The makeovers are often illusory.



[caption id="attachment_849" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Able Company Capt. Paul Shepard interviews Afghans at a mosque in Baraki Barak on Oct. 18, 2009."][/caption]

Gukeisen's soldiers identified the villages and neighborhoods that were safest for Americans, and began offering small reconstruction projects to the local elders. Marginal communities that wanted their own projects had to rally against the local Taliban, and other criminal and insurgent elements, before the Americans would help them, too. All it took to active the American projects was for someone to hand over to the Army a list of names of known Taliban. Or, the Afghans could detain the Taliban themselves. It was an approach that hinged on creating what Gukeisen called "dislocated envy" between villages. "It gives us the carrot and the stick," Gukeisen said.

In this way, the Americans spent nearly a million dollars in Logar in just over six months time in mid 2009. Projects included new public toilets; paint, carpet and new loudspeakers for mosques; and greenhouses for growing winter crops. Gukeisen's intelligence agents kept an eye on the toilets. Based on growing traffic at the latrines, the agents estimated that Baraki Barak's population nearly doubled in 2009, as more and more villages signed onto Gukeisen's plan and thousands of war refugees returned home.

That, plus some high-profile Taliban arrests and the reported 80-percent decline in insurgent attacks, told Gukeisen that his strategy was working. Gukeisen told McChrystal. McChrystal told his boss, Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus surely told the president. Word circulated that Logar, and Baraki Barak in particular, was a worthy model for the whole war effort. A legion of senior officers, think-tank analysts and reporters descended on Logar to see for themselves.



[caption id="attachment_851" align="alignright" width="300" caption="An Able Troop soldiers in Baraki Barak on Oct. 23, 2009."][/caption]

In October, hawkish historian and analyst Max Boot -- a mousy, bespectacled man -- landed in a Blackhawk helicopter, and spent the day chatting with Gukeisen and Capt. Paul Shepard, one of Gukeisen's subordinates. Gukeisen sketched out ambitious plans to extend his influence across Baraki Barak, into neighboring Cherkh district and ultimately into the feared Kherwar district. As Gukeisen saw it, he would gradually change Afghans' attitudes about the U.S. and their own government. The strategy, Gukeisen said, is about "changing human behavior."

For all of Gukeisen's optimism, there are cracks just under the surface of the so-called Extreme Makeover: Afghanistan Edition. Local improvements in Baraki Barak are immediate reactions to the larger American presence and the influx of American money. But when the Americans leave, as they eventually must, the villages will surely back-slide -- for there has been no commensurate improvement inside the Afghan government that might maintain the province's forward progress. Gukeisen's strategy amounts to a band-aid on a festing wound. Only internal improvements can heal the wound.

So the question is, is the Afghan government in Baraki Barak making any effort at all to truly govern the place? Or is it business as usual in a country that hasn't had effective centralized rule in centuries?

The Sub Gov

The Americans call him by his nickname, "Sub Gov." Baraki Barak Sub-Governor Mohamed Yasin Ludeen, a deeply tanned man with a carefully trimmed moustache and a sharp, distinctive nose, is the top government official for the more than 100,000 farmers, herders and their families that live in Baraki Barak's lush valley. Ludeen was appointed, not elected. His uncle is the provincial governor -- in other words, Ludeen's theoretical boss, in a country where hierarchy is considered very important, but rarely actually works.

Ludeen, and the district governments he represents, is key to building a peaceful, Western-style democracy. In a lawful democracy like ours, local government provides essential basic services, without which people might resort to violence in order to care for themselves and their families. Local government also serves as a bridge to higher levels of government, all the way to the national level. In the U.S., layers of government and society are connected by innumerable links: voting, paying taxes, phoning in tips to police, traveling between jurisdictions on roads maintained by one layer of government or another -- these are all links for everyday people. Our networks of local, state and federal laws -- and the taxes, grants and police assistance flowing in all directions -- are links between layers of governments.

These links do not exist in Afghanistan. Government does not interact with the people, except to extort them. Government provides essentially no services. The people do not support the government with taxes, because they do not respect the government -- nor need it in their daily lives. They don't follow written laws. They may not even be aware of the law, because the government has never tried to educate them. In the vast spaces between the people and "their" government, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and criminal gangs have ample space to hide. People accept the bad guys' presence because there's no way to get rid of them or because they're no more offensive than the occasional, corrupt Afghan National Army patrol that comes through and steals everyone's valuables.



[caption id="attachment_850" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="4) Able Troop patrols past a marijuana field in Baraki Barak on Oct. 21, 2009."][/caption]

Ron Barkley, a tall, soft-spoken State Department official, is all too aware of Afghanistan's lack of good governance. Barkley is the State's Department's top advisor to the U.S. Army in Baraki Barak. "It doesn’t multiply," Barkley said of the Army's reform efforts in the district. "It stays in one little area." What he was describing is a society that lacks all the links that we, as Americans, take for granted.

"What we’re trying do is to take the Sub Gov" -- that is, Ludeen and his government -- "and expand out to other villages," Barkley added. "Let’s expand up from the district. From the district to the province. That’s where we’re going to make our money. That's where people are going to see their government doing something.” And that, in turn, would reinforce those new links that would, eventually, result in an American democracy in the mountains of Afghanistan. Terrorists and radical Islamists would be anathema. Peace would reign. And the U.S. and NATO could leave Afghanistan, job well done.

Too bad that'll never happen. Ludeen is supposed to be the solution to Baraki Barak's lack of governance. But he's actually part of the problem. Ludeen, like practically all Afghan officials, seems to see a government post not as an opportunity for public service, but as a way of lining his own pockets. When the U.S. Army first moved into Baraki Barak, Ludeen -- who doesn't even live in Baraki Barak, rather drives in from Kabul several days a week -- helped arrange the contract to provide gravel for the Army's main base. In return, Ludeen demanded, and received, a roughly $20,000 kickback, according to an Army source.

Not that he doesn't talk a great talk. "There's not one good almond in the bunch," Ludeen said through an interpreter, when Boot asked the Sub Gov about Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet.

"So how should we root out corruption in Afghanistan?" Boot asked.

"Impossible," Ludeen said. "There's just one way to get rid of corruption. You've got to get rid of the current cabinet. Change all of them. Bring in fresh views."

As guilty as he is, Ludeen was not wrong: corruption is endemic to Afghan society. It was just four months ago that incumbent president Karzai rigged the country's presidential election. He got caught by a U.N. watchdog group and ordered to repeat the vote. But when his sole challenger dropped out, Karzai won anyway.

Earlier, a paramilitary force established to help NATO patrol outlying provinces had to be scrapped soon after its creation, because the militiamen were supplementing their $70-a-month incomes by shaking down Afghan motorists. In Kabul, mini-bus drivers must bribe traffic cops just to pass through key intersections.

In Kandahar, in the south, the commander of the local Afghan air force wing, Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, is related to the provincial governor, who is allegedly also the major player in the drug trade. The Sherzai family owns one of the region's biggest construction companies, and Brig. Gen. Sherzai is suspected of using air force helicopters for company business -- and for smuggling, as well.

"Corruption in Afghanistan is endemic," Kai Eide, the U.N.'s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said last year. The nonprofit group Integrity Watch Afghanistan estimated that the typical Afghan family pays a third of its income in bribes; the value of all bribery in the country runs to half the roughly $500-million internationally-funded development budget, the group asserted.

You can't get rid of corruption in Afghanistan, because everyone is corrupt. As along as that is true, "Afghan governance" will remain a contradiction in terms, and military-led efforts to build connections between layers of Afghan society will fail. Local development work, like that Gukeisen's troops are doing, will work only as long as the Americans remain. If we are in Afghanistan to build a nation, then we will be in Afghanistan forever.

Another Way

Remember that building a democratic Afghanistan was not our original goal. The goal was disrupting Al Qaeda. For that, there is a cheaper, less bloody way.

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. Special Forces dropped into Afghanistan and, with the support of the CIA and the Air Force, mobilized sympathetic Afghans -- and paid off many hold-outs -- to fight back against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In northern Afghanistan, just a few dozen Americans and their local allies defeated a 25,000-strong Taliban army.

All over the world, small numbers of American commandos, with a big boost from the growing fleet of inexpensive, armed drone aircraft, have managed to keep terror groups off-kilter by way of precision raids. In 2008 alone, drone strikes picked off as many as 80 Al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Pakistan. A lightning-fast commando raid in Somalia in September killed a Kenyan man suspected of orchestrating several terror bombings.

Victory in Afghanistan does not mean leaving Afghanistan with an American-style government. Besides, that's an impossible task. Victory means disrupting terrorists -- something we already know how to do, on the cheap.

Oddly, Obama seemed to acknowledge this, in his West Point strategy speech. "I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies," the president said. "Since then, we've made progress on some important objectives. High-ranking Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we've stepped up the pressure on Al Qaeda worldwide."

So why are we also trying to reform, by force, an Afghan society that has no interest in changing? With Obama's announcement, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will soon reach 100,000. That's a hundred thousand, mostly young Americans, who like Able Troop must continue absorbing Taliban bombs and bullets, as they labor towards an impossible goal.

For Able Troop, there's an especially ominous note to the Administration's ongoing support for Afghan nation-building. As Gukeisen expands his influence in Logar with money and small projects, the Army edges closer and close to the natural "bowl" in Kherwar district where the Soviet division was massacred, two decades ago. As the U.S. war effort expands, young soldiers will find themselves marching into killing fields that have claimed the armies of empires, for centuries.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The 2000s: South Carolina’s lost decade

By Andy Brack

Looking back over the last decade in South Carolina, there’s not a lot to be proud of. As it did in previous decades, South Carolina struggled with being at or below average in many areas.

Sure, there were some accomplishments. Compared to 2000, the state now has a lottery that pumps hundreds of millions into higher education. But that helped to fuel a move by the state to lower the amount of tax dollars it sent to higher education, which led to huge tuition hikes. In 2000, the average in-state tuition for a four-year public college was $3,695. This year, it’s $8,957, according to state statistics.

Another positive accomplishment was the creation and continued funding of public kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Studies show that the sooner kids start learning, the better they’ll be in the future.

Also, the state helped to preserve more land in recent years than ever before. Gov. Mark Sanford has said one of his biggest accomplishments as governor was to boost land conservation.

So yes, some things are better. But the 2000s for South Carolina have tended to be “The Big Zero,” the description New York Times columnist Paul Krugman gave to the decade. Maybe there are some better names for what happened to South Carolina in the last 10 years. Take your pick:

The Leaderless Decade. Remember “Leadership,” the sole description that accompanied Sanford’s election bumper stickers? Well, there’s not been a lot of leadership across the state over the last few years. Sanford, outed this year as a philanderer, bickered constantly with the Legislature. Lawmakers argued back and greased squeaky wheels. Meanwhile, unemployment grew to record levels. People grew more cynical about government.

The Lost Revenue Decade. State government currently is operating on about the same amount of revenue as it did 10 years ago. There are fewer state employees now doing the same jobs – or even more – than in 2000. A mid-decade economic boom sent revenues soaring. But things that go up sometimes crash hard as they have the last couple of years. The General Assembly passed property tax reform that, on balance, helped the rich pay less in overall taxes, which led to most people paying a little more. Meanwhile, state sales tax exemptions – special tax breaks for the special interests – grew dramatically so that the state loses $2.5 billion in revenue annually.

The Minimally Adequate Decade. Thanks to a lower-court ruling, South Carolina’s public education system now is classified as requiring a “minimally adequate” education for K-12 students. In other words, the state has institutionalized being average. Great. Something else to be proud of. At least kids are starting kindergarten earlier … so they can be in a minimally-adequate system longer.

The Lost Opportunity Decade. State lawmakers have bypassed multiple opportunities to restructure state government. They’ve thwarted efforts to raise the cigarette tax to generate more revenues for increasing health care costs. They’ve all but ignored a state corrections system that is teeming with inmates who live in conditions said to be a “powder keg” of potential problems. They’ve got hundreds of millions of road maintenance problems.

The Ostrich Decade. South Carolina public officials seem to have a penchant for sticking their heads in the sand. One year, there’s an attempt to refuse federal stimulus money. Another time finds missed warnings about a broken unemployment system. Elected officials seem so scared of losing their elected positions that they generally refuse to see the big picture – that if state government is going to help to make things better for everyone, they’ve got to invest in South Carolina. That means raising revenues. If we won’t invest in ourselves and our future, who will?

So maybe the best way to sum up the 2000s is that it has mostly been a lost decade. About the best thing to come out of the state may be comedian Stephen Colbert, who like his peer Jon Stewart, periodically pokes fun at … the crazy stuff that happens here.

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Underused Drilling Practices Could Avoid Pollution

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica


Versions of this story were published in the Albany Times Union and theTimes Herald-Record.

As environmental concerns threaten to derail natural gas drilling projects across the country, the energy industry has developed innovative ways to make it easier to exploit the nation's reserves without polluting air and drinking water.

Energy companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals, enclose wastewater so it can't contaminate streams and groundwater, and sharply curb emissions from everything from truck traffic to leaky gas well valves. Some of their techniques also make good business sense because they boost productivity and ultimately save the industry money -- $10,000 per well in some cases.

Yet these environmental safeguards are used only intermittently in the 32 states where natural gas is drilled. The energy industry is exempted from many federal environmental laws, so regulation of this growing industry is left almost entirely to the states, which often recommend, but seldom mandate the use of these techniques. In one Wyoming gas field, for instance, drillers have taken steps to curb emissions, while 100 miles away in the same state, they have not.

The debate over the safety of natural gas drilling has intensified in the past year, even as the nation increasingly turns to cleaner-burning natural gas as an alternative to oil and coal. In Congress, one group of politicians is writing a climate bill that would encourage the use of more natural gas, while another group is pushing a bill that would put a key part of the process under federal regulation and force the disclosure of chemicals used in the drilling process. Neither bill addresses the question of how to encourage energy companies to use existing techniques that lower the risks of environmental damage.

Interviews with state officials and industry executives in states across the country show the industry tends to use these environmental safeguards only when political, regulatory, cost or social pressures force it to do so.

When states have tried to toughen regulations aimed at protecting the environment or institutionalizing these practices, energy companies have fought hard to defend the status quo. They argue that current laws are sufficient, that mandating practices imposes specific solutions on regions where they may not work best, and that the cost of complying with additional laws and safeguards would bankrupt them.

"Sometimes environmental considerations aren't the same as the public considerations, and many times the economic considerations don't fit," said David Burnett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University's Global Petroleum Research Institute and a founder of Environmentally Friendly Drilling, a government and industry-funded program that identifies best practices and encourages their use. "There could be better management practices used. We have to find a balance."

Michael Freeman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice, says there is no escaping some damage from drilling. But if the best available precautions were routinely followed, environmental harm could be minimized and the industry may face less resistance from the public as it taps the vast new gas deposits that have been discovered in recent years.

"It would certainly address a lot of people's concerns," Freeman said. "But the government agencies that regulate the oil and gas industry need to be aggressive about making them clean up their act."

Good Chemistry

Few notions have sparked more hope among environmentalists than the possibility of replacing toxic chemicals used in drilling with what are being called "green" or non-toxic drilling fluids.

A review of scientific documents and interviews with drilling companies and the chemists who supply them shows that the transition is more than theoretical. It's starting to happen.

EnCana, a Canadian company that operates on both sides of the border, recently said it stopped using 2-Butoxyethanol, a solvent that has caused reproductive problems in animals. BJ Services, one of the largest fracturing service providers in the world, has discontinued the use of fluorocarbons, a family of compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants.

Neither company would say what it is using to replace these chemicals. But a presentation made by Denver-based Antero Resources and obtained by ProPublica says that plant-based oils are occasionally replacing mineral oil and that soy can replace some toxic polymers. David Holcomb, director of research for the Texas-based drilling chemistry company Frac Tech, offered more specifics: He uses orange citrus to replace some solvents, and palm oil in place of a common slicking agent that has been prohibited in Europe but is still allowed in the United States.

The "single biggest move" the industry has made to reduce the toxicity of its fluids, according to David Dunlap, chief operating officer for BJ Services, is phasing out diesel fuel, a solvent that contains the potent carcinogen benzene.

Diesel was once a common solvent used in hydraulic fracturing, the process where water, sand and chemical additives are pumped underground at high pressure to break apart rock and release gas. In some fracturing jobs -- like those in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York -- more than 40,000 gallons of fracturing chemicals can be used at a single well.

Today, many companies have replaced diesel with mineral oil, a less toxic hydrocarbon solvent, in most of their fracturing solutions. The shift began in 2003, after the EPA pressed the nation's dominant fracturing companies to voluntarily eliminate diesel from some of their fluids.

"It sounds like a simple thing, but it's the largest single volume other than water that is used in a frack job," said Dunlap, whose company is being acquired by Baker Hughes, the international drilling company. BJ no longer uses diesel in its fracturing fluids, Dunlap said, though it may still be used in other applications.

Despite these improvements, it is still difficult to say how safe the drilling and fracturing fluids are for people, and for the environment. The EPA says "green" chemistry should not be dangerously toxic and should not build up in plants or organisms. But because there are no laws that dictate what chemicals can be used for drilling on U.S. soil -- and because most companies still keep the exact makeup of their fluids a secret from state and federal regulators -- the definition of "green" remains subjective. "Green" is often shades of gray.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation raised the "green" issue in its new environmental review for drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The report said that while non-toxic fracturing fluids would be preferable, "it may not be feasible to require the use of 'green' chemicals because presently there is no metric or chemicals approvals process in place in the U.S."

Actually, such standards do exist, but only for the fracturing fluids used in offshore drilling. Both European law and the regulations of the U.S. Minerals and Management Services dictate that chemicals used in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico must be safe enough that they won't kill fish and other organisms if they are dumped overboard.

"You can always do it," said BJ Services' Dunlap, whose company has been a leader in innovating sustainable materials. But, Dunlap said, the chemistry costs more, and is justifiable to his shareholders only because the regulations for offshore drilling left no choice.

"There are places around the world where the type of adherence is not required," he said, "and where the cost of using those chemicals is something operators are not required to pay for."

A Breath of Air

The natural gas industry has also found ways to reduce the greenhouses gases and volatile organic compounds it contributes to ozone pollution and climate change.

Although natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, the drilling and production of oil and gas is responsible for some 18 percent of the world's human-caused emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. More methane is produced in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world except Russia.

Under the guidance of an EPA program, EnCana, the Canadian oil and gas giant, is curbing those methane emissions -- and might save money doing it. Using infrared cameras, the company finds and seals methane leaks on wells and pipelines that would otherwise be invisible, sharply curtailing levels of some the most dangerous heat-trapping atmospheric gases. According to Richard Haut, project director for the Houston Advanced Research Center, a partner on the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Project, such programs could pay for themselves within two years, and then turn a profit as the extra gas captured goes to market.

The industry has also found ways to reduce another set of dangerous emissions that has been blamed for air quality problems in Texas, Wyoming and Colorado, among other places: CO2 from trucks and processing plants and the ozone-causing volatile organic compounds. Last winter, when tests showed that high ozone levels had put sparsely populated Sublette County, Wyo., out of compliance with federal air quality laws normally applied to the nation's big cities, the industry took a number of straightforward steps to curb the pollution.

Questar Exploration and Production, a prominent Rocky Mountain drilling company, eliminated 62,000 truck delivery trips and the diesel exhaust that came with them by building a network of pipes to transport its fluids.

EnCana began using natural gas instead of diesel fuel to power its 150-foot-tall drilling rigs, a seemingly small change that resulted in 85 percent less volatile organic compounds being spewed into the air. EnCana also installed other, less polluting new equipment, including refinery-grade combustors.

Doug Hock, a spokesman for EnCana, said the company has spent some $25 million on such efforts since 2005.

"Technology is the key driver in all of this," Hock said. "It is important for policymakers to first understand the technology being used and secondly, allow operators the flexibility for further innovation to occur. This, rather than blanket mandates, will ensure continued reductions in impacts."

But the industry's efforts in Sublette County were triggered by an aggressive push by the federal government.

Before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allowed more drilling in the Jonah Field, one of the gas development areas on public land in Sublette County, the companies had to agree to reduce their emissions there. Companies understood that if they did not agree to the BLM's conditions in the Jonah Field they might not get more permits to drill in other parts of Sublette County. "There is kind of a big hammer hanging over their heads," said Chuck Otto, the BLM field manager there.

Dirty Water

One of the most challenging environmental problems associated with drilling is disposing of its wastewater, which is typically laced with heavy metals, chemicals and hydrocarbons. Usually the waste is collected in open, dirt-brimmed waste pits where it sits until it's hauled off to treatment facilities or injection wells. In the meantime, the fluids can evaporate or seep into the earth, or overflow if rain or snow overfills the pit.

A 1992 congressional report found that one of "the greatest opportunities" to prevent this type of pollution is something called a closed loop system, a series of pipes that gathers the waste as it comes out of a gas well, separates some of the water for reuse, and confines the concentrated leftovers in a steel tank. According to EPA findings quoted in the report, closed loop systems can reduce the volume of drilling fluids -- and the chemicals used -- by more than 90 percent. Because the waste is enclosed, chemicals can't evaporate, fluids are less likely to spill and permanent pits aren't needed.

Closed loop systems are rarely required in state regulations, but they are increasingly used, in part because they can save money for the companies that use them.

A 2001 case study by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates gas drilling in Texas, focused on a small gas producer that tested such a system. Building the pipes and tanks cost the company more initially, according to the report, but the company -- which it did not name -- didn't have to construct a waste pit, remediate the land when it finished drilling, haul its toxic materials to a disposal site or pay the slew of environmental fees levied by the state. According to the Railroad Commission, the company saved at least $10,000 for each gas well that was connected to the closed loop system. At that rate, the savings from the use of such a system on all the roughly 4,500 wells in Sublette County could tally $45 million.

Yet the industry continues to fight laws that would lead to increased use of closed loop systems.

In 2008 New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's administration passed some of the nation's strongest rules prohibiting the use of unlined waste pits and thereby encouraging the use of a closed-loop system as an alternative. The regulation was inspired by a study that found that leaks or seepage from waste pits had contaminated water supplies in some 400 cases.

The industry mounted a public relations, lobbying, and legal war to stop the law, claiming that it would weigh down business with excessive costs that would ultimately result in lost jobs. In early 2009, Richardson relented and directed his administration to relax several of the rule's requirements and timelines.

What Spurs Change?

When change does happen, it is usually foisted on the industry by excessive costs, fear of catastrophe, or regulations.

Chesapeake Energy began a pilot program to recycle wastewater from its Texas wells after drought and aquifer depletion threatened the industry's water supply there. The pressure to reuse rather than dispose of wastewater also may have been increased by a series of earthquakes this year near Dallas. Researchers said the earthquakes may have been caused by the company's normal disposal process: injecting wastewater underground.

Drillers in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania speeded up their search for new water recycling technologies last year, after Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection sharply limited treatment plants from accepting large quantities of drilling waste. Range Resources now recycles much of the wastewater from its Pennsylvania wells. "In the long term the biggest problem is going to be wastewater treatment," said spokesman Matt Pitzarella. "And we have to figure out how to deal with it."

Asked why his company pursued "green" drilling and fracturing fluid innovations for drilling in the North Sea -- products that it now sometimes uses onshore too -- BJ Services' Dunlap was unequivocal: The law made him do it.

"It's because of local regulations," Dunlap said. "That's typically what drives us to develop and bring to market these environmentally friendly products."

But given the choice, energy companies prefer that they, rather than government regulators, decide when, where or whether to use the environmentally friendly technologies they've developed. They oppose state-wide or regional mandates, arguing that a best practice may be less effective -- or less affordable -- in one place more than another. They also say that formal regulations can institutionalize technologies that may later be proved ineffective, or could be improved on.

"No matter what we do we are capitalists here in the U.S.," said Richard Haut, the Houston Advanced Research Center project director. "We do have to look for a balance between environmental issues and development."

Write to Abrahm Lustgarten at Abrahm.Lustgarten@propublica.org.