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World Reports

Energy Secretary’s dirty resumé

This guy ran a Texas-based chemical company that was one of the country's worst polluters

In President Bush’s world, it pays — literally — to be a miserable failure, a criminal and a corporate con man. Those are just some of the characteristics of the men and women tapped recently to fill the vacancies in Bush's second-term cabinet.

This guy ran a Texas-based
chemical company that was one
of the country's worst polluters

But one of the President's most outrageous decisions (besides appointing Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General after he concocted a legal case for torturing foreign prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay) has got to be choosing 66 year-old Sam Bodman to serve as Secretary of Energy. This is a guy who for a dozen years ran a Texas-based chemical company that spent years on the top five lists of the country's worst polluters.

It's not just a few clouds of smoke emanating from an oil refinery or a power plant that got Bodman's old company, Boston-based Cabot Corporation, those accolades. It was the 54,000 tons of toxic emissions that his company's refineries released into the air in the Lone Star state in 1997 alone that made Cabot the fourth largest source of toxic emissions in Texas. Cabot is the world's largest producer of industrial carbon black, a byproduct of the oil refinery process.

In 2000, the year Bodman left Cabot to join the Bush administration as Deputy Commerce Secretary, Cabot accounted for 60,000 of the more than half a million tons of toxic emissions released into the Texas air, according to the Texas State Summary of Emissions.

A loophole created in the 1972 Texas Clean Air Act exempted or “grandfathered” industrial plants built before 1971 from new, stricter pollution control rules. But in the mid-1990s companies such as Cabot were supposed to curb the pollution coming from its refineries. Environmentalists demanded that then-Governor Bush rein in the polluters and close the so-called grandfather loophole as the air in Texas became smoggier.

Instead, in 1997, Bush asked two oil company executives to outline a voluntary program that allowed the grandfathered polluters to decide on their own exactly how much to cut the pollution at their plants. The oil execs summoned a meeting of two dozen industry reps at Exxon offices in Houston and presented them with the program.

In a memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, one executive wrote that “the insiders from oil and gas believe that the Governor's office will 'persuade' the (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission) to accept what program is developed between the industry group and the Governor's Office.”

“And they did. And two years later this joke of a program was enacted into law by a bill written by the general counsel for the Texas Chemical Council who also lobbies for energy and utility companies. The bill was denounced by newspapers across the state,” according to a March 5, 2000 report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

According to people familiar with the legislation, Sam Bodman was part of the original working group that drafted legislation that then-Gov. Bush signed into law that basically permitted Cabot and other companies to continue to emit the same — and in some cases higher — levels of toxic emissions as they had years earlier without so much as receiving a slap on the wrist.

Bodman personally contributed $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign and $20,000 to Republican committees in the 1999-2000 election. Bodman is the wealthiest member of the Bush administration. His net worth is estimated to be between $42 million and $164 million, the bulk of it in Cabot stock, deferred compensation, and other benefits.

Bodman’s shoddy environmental record aside, he may also be complicit in one of Africa's deadliest wars.

In October 2002, Bodman's former company came under fire when a United Nations Panel of Experts produced a report accusing the company, along with several other US corporations, of helping to fuel the wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) while he ran Cabot by purchasing columbo tantalite (coltan), an ore from which the metal tantalum is extracted, from Congo during the conflict and illegally plundering the country's vast natural resources.

Cabot has publicly denied the allegations in the UN report, but a report by the Belgian Senate states that Eagle Wings Resources International had a long-term contract to supply Cabot with coltan, which it too purchased from Congo during the war. Eagle Wings was also identified in the UN report as contributing to the war.

In response, environmental group Friends of the Earth US (FOE) and the UK-based human rights group Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) filed a complaint with the US State Department last August against Cabot and several other western corporations for their role in aiding the rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo by conducting business there, essentially, if inadvertently, aiding a violent conflict that contributed to widespread human rights abuses.

RAID and FOE filed a complaint with the US State Department last August, claiming Cabot and other western corporations had violated the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) “Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises,” a set of international standards for responsible corporate behavior.

The UN panel said in its report that a “three-year investigation found that sophisticated ‘elite networks’ of high-level political, military and businesspersons, in collaboration with various rebel groups, intentionally fueled the conflict in order to retain control over the country's vast natural resources. The Panel implicated many Western companies for directly or indirectly helping to fuel the war.”

Coltan prices experienced a sudden
surge driven by a new generation
of mobile phones and the launch of
the Sony playstation 2.

The State Department is the agency in charge of deciding whether US companies breach the OECD guidelines. Despite the allegations included in the UN report and the complaint filed by the two activist groups, the State Department has refused to launch an independent investigation into whether Cabot, under Bodman's leadership, and the other US companies might have contributed to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 1999 and 2000, according to Corporate Watch UK, coltan prices experienced a sudden surge “driven by a sudden and steep rise in the demand for tantalum powder, caused by an overvaluation of the technology market triggered by a new generation of mobile phones and the consumer rush following the launch of the Sony Playstation 2.”

The UN report says the increase in world tantalum prices led to “a large increase in coltan production in eastern DRC. While the processors of coltan and other Congolese minerals in Asia, Europe and North America may not have been aware of what was happening in the DRC, the Panel's investigations uncovered such serious concerns that it was decided to raise the international business community's awareness.”

Cabot is the world's largest refiner of coltan. The other US corporations identified in the UN report, Kemet and Vishay, both purchased processed tantalum from Cabot. Under Bodman's leadership an unknown amount of the coltan Cabot Corporation was purchasing could have originated from the DRC. Cabot Corporation has stated publicly that to the best of its knowledge none of its coltan came from environmentally sensitive areas in Africa, but it can't be sure.

As Energy Secretary, Bodman will be looking out for the energy behemoths with whom he used to commiserate while he was chairman and chief executive of Cabot, Vice President Dick Cheney being one of them. Many of those energy corporations have donated millions to fund President Bush's inaugural parties. And Cheney wants Bodman to reward their pals by making a convincing case why the President's controversial energy policy should sail through Congress, the environment be damned.

Jason Leopold is the author of the forthcoming book Off the Record: An Investigative Journalist's Inside View of Dirty Politics, Corporate Scandal, and a Double Life Exposed (Rowman & Littlefield). Visit his Web site at jasonleopold.com.

   

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