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Excuse Me, But...

Inside Track


Published April 4, 2007 at 4:00 p.m.

Has this not already been the best frickin' week for America's Mama Earth and her environmental kids since the first landmark environmental legislation was passed by Congress back in the 1960s and early 1970s?

In a trio of major federal court decisions in Washington, D.C., and in San Francisco, California, the judicial hammer has suddenly fallen on Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Auto.

Pinch me, is this really, truly happening?

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-4 decision, said yes, Vermont, Massachusetts, California and 10 other states are right. The federal Clean Air Act actually does apply to all that nasty greenhouse gas crap - particularly carbon dioxide - that's been spewing out of humanity's tailpipes for the last century. In fact, George W. Bush used to think so, too - that the Clean Air Act should apply to carbon dioxide. At least he thought so until he started sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Then, in a separate case - and this time in a unanimous decision - the same Supreme Court declared another setback for the coal industry. America's coal plants, said the high court, do have to install pollution-control equipment to reduce the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide that pours out of their very profitable smokestacks and into our diseased lungs.

Clean air. What a radical idea, eh? Are these justices taking drugs, or are they finally opening their eyes to the mess we, our children and their children are actually in?

And last but not least, out on the "left" coast in San Francisco, a U.S. District Court judge rejected the Bush administration's increasingly pathetic-sounding arguments that the effects of "global warming" and "climate change" are "too remote and speculative" to be taken seriously. Especially, argued the Bush administration lawyers, when it involves billions of dollars invested in overseas, greenhouse-gas-spewing energy plants.

'Course, the same Bush administration used to say Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction" and was involved in the 9/11 terrorist/suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

Like global warming's nonexistence, neither of those claims proved true, either.

Instead, out in the city where Tony Bennett left his heart, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White sided with the arguments made by an attorney from the left coast of New England.

Ron Shems, 46, a Vermont Law School graduate, worked in the Green Mountains for 15 years as an assistant Vermont attorney general specializing in environmental cases. He was the environmental unit's senior attorney. Shems left a few years ago to co-found, with Brian Dunkiel, the hot Burlington environmental law firm of Shems Dunkiel Kassel & Saunders (Kassel, by the way, was Vermont's environmental secretary back in the 20th century under some governor named Howard Dean.)

In the case before Judge White in the Northern District of California, Ol' Ron of Burlap represents the environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, as well as Boulder, Colorado, and the California cities of Oakland, Santa Monica and Arcata.

Shems has been on this particular international climate-change case since 2002. If one can't be patient, one should not practice law, eh?

Shems argued, and Judge White agreed, that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank of the United States are not, as the George "WMD" Bush legal team argued, "exempt from National Environmental Policy Act."

It means if U.S. agencies want to pump $32 billion into building pipelines in Chad and coal plants in China, the environmental impact of those projects on you and me is subject to U.S. law. We're all on the same planet, folks, with the same atmosphere.

Yours truly has noted in this space: The times, they are a-changin'.

"I hope so," replied Shems. "The tide does seem to be turning. Everyone seems to be recognizing there is a need to balance conventional energy with alternative energy, and that alternative energy needs to be developed as one of the answers here."

As Vermont Congressman Peter Welch noted at his Monday presser in Burlington's Old North End, "It's been bad in Washington. When you think the last Congress gave $13 billion of your money - taxpayer money - to oil companies that had $125 billion in profits, it tells you we've got a problem."

No argument there.

Monday's U.S. Supreme Court decision says the federal Clean Air Act does allow the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set tailpipe emission standards.

"It means," said Vermont's lone congressman and former president of the Vermont Senate, "we're going to have a fighting chance to get the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment and our health." The United States Supreme Court, noted Pedro with a touch of sarcasm, "came to the stunning conclusion that carbon emissions are actually pollution. This means that, under the Clean Air Act, they will be subject to regulation."

It was "quite astonishing," said Welch, that the Bush administration fought this as long and as hard as it did. But that strategy, he noted, "is consistent with what has been their approach on global warming, which is to deny that it existed, then reluctantly acknowledge that it does exist."

The court victories this week for the save-the-planet side, and defeats for the oil and auto industries, provide "a tremendous opportunity for us to get focused on addressing what is the issue of our time," said Rep. Welch, "and it is global warming."

Ol' Welchie is not alone. The fact is, what we Americans heard or read on Monday confirmed the reality that everyone - everyone - is now on the same page.

As with cigarettes and lung cancer, no one with a functioning brain - not even the president of the United States - disputes any longer the existence, and rapidly growing danger, of global warming. Nor does anyone dispute what continues to cause it.

"That's absolutely correct," replied Shems, the distinguished Vermont environmental lawyer. "It's inescapable now in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that climate change is for real, and the Bush administration arguments that the effects can't be discerned, and that this is natural, have been rejected."

Paul Burns, veteran environmental trooper and director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, had a good one, too.

"This is perhaps the greatest example in recent times of science winning over politics," said Burns. "In the face of overwhelming, worldwide evidence, President Bush and his administration have been ignoring the facts, attacking the messengers and stifling their own scientists in an effort to block action against global warming. The Supreme Court's unambiguous rebuke in this case has removed the last fig leaf in the administration's defense of industrial polluters."

Pinch me! Pinch me! Pinch me!

You know, it's a good thing thing Monday was April 2, not April 1, because everyone would have thought the U.S. Supreme Court was just having a little April Fool's joke with their landmark pro-environment rulings.

But, let's not forget one thing, folks. This spring flush of three court victories for the good guys may feel good, but it remains a very, very steep climb ahead.

The battle has only just begun.


Speaking of Battle - Rep. Welch continues to receive criticism in some circles for voting "yes" last week on the bill that would continue funding the Iraq war (and a whole bunch of other stuff) while imposing a deadline to begin pulling out.

It's also a bill that Georgy-Porgy, our presidential embarrassment, has already promised to veto.

Asked about that this week, Welch had a pretty darn good comeback for those who would insist he vote "no" on any bill that authorized one more U.S. dollar spent fueling that dishonest, corrupt war effort in Iraq regardless of other restrictions.

"The opposition is right," said Peter the Congressman. "We've got to end that war. If I had had a vote, we never would have gone to war. If I had the bill passed that I want, we'd be out of that war yesterday. But here's the question: Every decision I make on the war is based on, will that decision accelerate and hasten the day when we end the war, or will it delay it?"

In Congress, he pointed out, it all comes down to getting 218 votes in the House and 50 votes in the Senate.

"The question is," Welch added, "are you going to make the unattainable perfect be the enemy of the barely achievable good?"

Good line - the "unattainable perfect" the enemy of "the achievable good."


Shummy for Gov? - Well, State Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) sure acted like a 2008 gubernatorial candidate when he met in his Statehouse Senate President's office Tuesday with three citizen supporters of the George W. Bush impeachment resolution, which is currently going nowhere in the Vermont Legislature.

The resolution was adopted in 38 Vermont towns on Town Meeting Day, including Middlebury, the hometown of Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and the Town Meeting that Douglas himself moderated.

At first, Shummy tried to dodge the impeachment ball by suggesting such a resolution would, under legislative rules, have to start in the House. There, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington has adamantly insisted her House is too busy and does not have time to deal with such a symbolic measure.

It bought Shumlin a little time, perhaps, so he could give a fiery pro-impeachment speech at the recent Democratic State Committee Meeting, but reality has finally caught up with him. The resolution can start in either chamber, and it would surely pass the Vermont Senate if Peter Shumlin simply allowed it to move.

After meeting with Sen. Shumlin, Liza Earle, a 27-year-old Richmond baker/nanny, told "Inside Track" the senator had told her and her colleagues he "doesn't want to bother taking it up in the Vermont Senate if it can't pass in the Vermont House." Shumlin told Earle that "Gaye Symington is part of his team right now working against Jim Douglas, and he doesn't want to break up that team."

God forbid. What gubernatorial candidate would?

Shumlin also, she said, tried to lay the blame on Democrats in Washington for not addressing impeachment.

"Everyone's saying everyone else is dropping the buck," said Earle, "and from the top down, no one is willing to use the power that they do have at the level that they're at."

Good observation, eh?

Even if Democratic House Speaker Symington won't touch impeachment with a 10-foot pole, passage by the Vermont Senate, she said, "would send a powerful message."

Yes, indeed.

However, Peter Shumlin is certainly aware of a little recent political history. You see, the last three Democrats to run for governor of Vermont, all of whom lost to the state's favorite Republican, Gentleman Jim Douglas, were lefties: Doug Racine, Peter Clavelle and Scudder Parker.

The last Democratic governor of Vermont was Howard Dean, and that was before Ho-Ho's 2003 political "sex-change" operation, back in the good old days when nobody called him a lefty. Back when an alliance of Republicans and conservative Blue Dog Democrats formed his legislative majority over the liberal/progressive left.

One question in Shumlin's mind has to be: If he were to run for governor in 2008 as the fourth consecutive "lefty" Democrat, what would his chances be?

Based on the way he's keeping the George W. Bush impeachment resolution off the Vermont Senate calendar at all costs, it appears that Candidate Shumlin has already come up with an answer.

P.S. Joining Ms. Earle in Tuesday's meeting with Shummy were former U.S. Army Sgt. Adrienne Kimme of White River Junction, who's with Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Burlington attorney James Leas with the National Lawyers Guild. Earle said they have an appointment with Speaker Symington next Wednesday.

"Her secretary said she's been getting a lot of visits about impeachment," said the Richmond baker/nanny, "and Gaye has said they need to be limited to five minutes."


Speaking of the Speaker - House Speaker Symington's latest Friday "brown-bag lunch" with the Statehouse press got a wee bit intense at times. Speaker Gaye had a rough week. Despite the biggest Democratic majority in Vermont history, she had to pull her education "reform" bill because she couldn't get 76 votes for the turkey. It would have saved all of $9 million out of $1.2 billion-plus in public school spending.

The Democratic speaker attempted to blame the bill's demise entirely on Republican Gov. Jim Douglas. As the Associated Press reported, Symington, a born-to-riches, back-to-basics type who aspires to lead by consensus, "became emotional a few times out of frustration."

But a revealing back-and-forth during lunch revealed Symington had never actually received a commitment on Republican votes from Douglas, and her Democratic leaders had never approached the six Progressives for their votes.

One left the session wondering why this lovely person got into politics - a game, art form and battlefield with winners and losers - if she detests it so much?

For the full Q&A, check ," the daily version of "Inside Track" online.