By John Earl and Lisa Wells
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama accuse each other of bowing to “big oil,” and Huntington Beach mayor, environmentalist and Democratic candidate for congress, Debbie Cook, has taken hits in the local media for having large investments in oil corporations that many people blame for the global energy crisis that she has warned the public about for years.
Cook’s corporate investment records have always been on file at City Hall and open to the public, as required by law, but they have gained attention lately due to her desire to be the opponent of incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, and be elected in November to represent the 46th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Cook’s fossil fuel related investments, including natural gas, totaled between $72,000 and $710,000 from March 2007 through March 2008.
As an investor, she probably made the right choices: ExxonMobil, which made a record $40.7 billion last year; BP, the world’s 2nd largest oil producer; and, CanArgo Energy Corp, Chevron, El Paso Corp, Schlumberger Ltd Netherlands, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and the Brompton Oil and Gas Income mutual fund.
But Cook’s alleged hypocrisy was the main topic of analysis in news accounts and editorials by the Orange County Register and the Huntington Beach Independent.
The Independent excoriated Cook for investing in oil companies that harm the environment-instead of companies that “make money off of environmentally friendly technologies.”
And Register opinion editor Steve Greenhut wrote in his blog that “It’s just funny when environmental advocates preach one thing, then do another with their own dollars.”
Editorial cartoons in both papers showed Cook greedily awash in oil stocks while advocating energy conservation.
But both papers overlooked Cook’s other provocative, non-oil, investments, including General Electric, which has a “a lengthy record of criminal, civil, political and ethical transgressions, some of them shocking in disregard for the integrity of human beings,” according to Corpwatch.org, and the Walt Disney Company, which has a record of severe labor rights violations in China and other developing countries.
Also of interest are up to $100,000 of now disposed of stocks that Cook held in Archer Daniels Midlan, “Supermarket to the World,” in 2006. The company is the largest American producer of corn derived ethanol fuel, which creates its own harmful pollution and raises food prices, thus contributing to a worldwide food shortage for people living in poverty.
Cook, clearly frustrated by the attention to her portfolio, told the Voice she is “a bit amused by the media [and] how it labels us and then wants us to defend those labels.”
It’s simply about creating a financially secure retirement for her and her husband, Cook has said.
“I don’t have any other way to invest my money so that I can have a retirement,” she argues. “There’s no way. Probably the least risk is energy investment. If someone can figure out a way to invest money profitably [and ethically]” she would like to know.
Despite her conflicting investments, Cook’s environmental record is impressive. She played a leading role in passing Measure C, which protects the city’s parks from arbitrary development, and successfully sued the Coastal Commission to stop development in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.
She is also widely respected as a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for energy conservation in response to “peak oil” and serves as chairperson of the Environment Committee for the Southern California Association of Governments.
One of her greatest accomplishments was a resolution passed by the city council that signs Huntington Beach on to the U.S. Mayor’s Agreement on Global Warming.
On a personal level, Cook often rides her electric bike or uses public transportation to get around. Her yard grows native plants instead of a water guzzling lawn. She is a vegetarian. She lives in a luxurious Sea Cliff home, but pays $0.00 in electric bills because of a state of state of the art solar panels installed on the roof.
Conflict of Interest?
Cook’s investments have not been related to her local city council votes, but as a congressperson she would certainly be voting on important oil related issues with national and worldwide implications.
In February, the Democratic Party controlled House approved legislation to end tax breaks for oil companies and use the saved revenue to develop renewable energy sources and encourage conservation.
The bill is far from becoming law, but Democrat Edward Markey, chairman of the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, challenged the oil industry to give up $18 billion in tax breaks and pledge 10 percent of all profits toward renewable energy.
Executives of ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Conoco Phillips declined the offer.
Cook said that the “rational for providing subsidies to oil companies no longer exists” and that “The private sector and the national labs need to be able to count on a continuing commitment to funding no matter which party is in power.”
Conflict of interest won’t be a problem if she is elected to Congress, Cook promises, claiming that she is no more conflicted than government employees, including teachers, who “are heavily invested in the energy sector.”
“Had I known I would be running for office,” she reflected, “I would have placed all of our holdings in a blind trust. If I am fortunate enough to be elected, I will do just that.”
Although some of Cook’s strongest supporters were angered when they read about her oil investments, she has been consistent over the years. Despite her past clashes with local developers, Cook is no Ralph Nader; like the anti-corporate populist, she advocates individual responsibility, but unlike him she has carefully avoided criticizing the corporate power structure, especially “big oil.”
In a Voice interview in March, Cook acknowledged that the Iraq war, which she opposed, was about oil, but said she doesn’t blame corporations because “…we have only ourselves to blame,” referring to Americans’ insatiable desire for oil.
“Industry isn’t irresponsible, people are,” she says.
Oil companies are scapegoats for the gas guzzling public and are living up to their obligation to look for energy alternatives, Cook told the Register.
That claim might hold true with Chevron, which claims to invest over $300 million yearly in developing alternative energy sources, especially geothermal; believing that by 2050 oil may not be its main source of income.
But ExxonMobil makes no such pretense, preferring a more tried and true road to profitability over investment in alternative or renewable energy technologies that, like Cook, it considers less economically viable.
‘Greenwashing’ & Oil Crimes
Other big oil companies have been accused of “greenwashing,” the practice of putting up a false pro-environment front for the public in order to boost sales and profits for their brand.
Shell, for example, promotes its green credentials through its “Profits or Principles” marketing campaign, but spends only between 0.6 and 1.1 percent of its annual investments on renewable energy, according to environmental and corporate watchdog groups.
BP, the world’s second largest oil producer, renamed from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum” as part of a public relations campaign to remake its image as a leader in green energy, bought Solarex, a large solar energy corporation, for $45 million, but spent over $2 billion exploring for oil in Alaska in 2006.
Accusations of corporate crime, gross damage to natural resources and human rights violations in other countries also impugn the reputations of some of the oil companies Cook has investments in, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP.
ExxonMobil, for instance, still hasn’t paid the $2.5 billion it owes to 33,000 fishermen and other business owners whose careers were ruined by the massive oil spill that occurred when a company tanker crashed off the coast of Valdez, Alaska in 1989.
Until recently, the company provided millions of dollars to fund the Global Climate Coalition and similar groups that debunk global warming.
And, according to human rights groups, ExxonMobil provided funding to the Indonesian military which engaged in massive human rights violations against protesters, including torture, rape and murder.
Similar allegations have been made against Chevron in Nigeria, a country with a huge wealth in oil supplies, but whose people live in abject poverty and are allegedly denied jobs by the company that is exploiting their natural resources. A lawsuit charges Chevron with collaborating with the Nigerian military to kill local activists and burn their village in retaliation for protests.
Cook’s response: Other industries commit environmental and social crimes too.
“What about all the ‘silent’ killers in the paper industry, agribusiness industry, meat production industry,” she asked.
“One of the MOST polluting industries in the world is the PRINTING industry,” Cook claims, implying that the media is overlooking its own complicity in abusing natural resources for personal profit. “Oh well, I guess even YOU have to compromise your principles,” she concluded.