Monday, October 24, 2005

October 18-20

A Stolen Map and Old Trolleys

What does this story have to do with turn of the century Los Angeles Trolleys?

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 - Maps matter. They chronicle the struggles of empires and zoning boards. They chart political compromise. So it was natural for Republican Congressional aides, doing due diligence for what may be the last battle in the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to ask for the legally binding 1978 map of the refuge and its coastal plain. -- It was gone. No map, no copies, no digitized version. (Full Story)

The map, the only one in existence, had been stored behind a filing cabinet in a locked room in Arlington, Va. It was still there in late in 2002, but by early 2003, just when drilling in ANWR became a hotly debated issue, the map disappeared.

In politics timing is everything. Last Wednesday the GOP-controlled Senate Energy and Commerce Committee passed a measure based on a new map that opened to drilling 1.5 million acres of coastal plain in the refuge. Of course, before they could make that decision they need a new map because the old one was missing. Conveniently that missing map did not include in the coastal plain tens of thousands of acres of Native Alaskans' lands -- but lo and behold, the new map did. That made it possible to open those areas to oil exploration and drilling. (The final measure is scheduled to be in the budget reconciliation bill to be voted on next month.)

So, who lifted the old map? No one knows. But my guess is it was the same kind of folks who destroyed the once robust system of Los Angeles trolleys – and for the same reasons.

Bear with me.

Back in the 1930s most folks in urban Southern California went shopping and commuted to work on an efficient system of interconnecting electric trolleys. Those trolleys and trains were so convenient and efficient that there was no compelling reason to buy one of those newfangled gasoline automobiles.

So, on June 28, 1932, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., president of General Motors, organized the National Highway Users Conference, and began pushing (and paying) Congress to restrict transportation taxes to just highway construction. Joining GM were others with an interest in the matter like Firestone Tire and Standard Oil.

Their political efforts directly resulted in the destruction of Southern California's electric light rail systems -- and later systems in other cities across the country. GM bought up rail rightaways, pulled down the electric wires that powered the trains, ripped up tracks. By 1955 approximately 88 percent of the nation's electric streetcar and light rail networks had been eliminated.

It was a stunningly successful operation. In 1936 40,000 streetcars were operating in the United States. By 1965 fewer than 5,000 remained in operation. General Motors was not just in the auto business by then, but the business of building city buses as well. In December 1965 GM bus chief, Roger M. Kyes, crowed that, "The motor coach (diesel buses) has supplanted the interurban systems and has for all practical purposes eliminated the electric trolley"

The rest is history. LA, and most other US cities, are now clogged with gasoline powered cars and diesel powered buses and the air has become so filthy because of it that the earth's very climate is changing.

So, what does any of that have to do with that missing map of Alaska?

First, let's not pussyfoot around it, we all know who took that inconvenient old map. We may not know the individual who took it, but we know the industry. Like GM, oil companies are driven by priorities that do not necessary have anything to do with what's right or wrong, smart or dumb, good for mankind or bad. Companies do have a sense of responsibility to mankind – but only those who are shareholders. Everyone else is either a potential shareholder or simply in the way - collateral damage.

Please understand, I am not blaming companies for being that way. That's the nature of the beast -- what bears do in the woods - so to speak. It's not up to company's to control their voracious appetites. That's our job, and the job of the people we send to Washington to regulate and set the boundaries of corporate behavior -- and reel them in when they run amok, hopefully before.

So, we know the oil folks stole that map, or had it stolen. I know it, you know it, they know it, and members of Congress know it. Back in the first half of the last century Congress also knew what GM was up to when that company got them to pervert the use of transportation tax money in order to destroy competing light rail systems.

GM made hundreds of billions of dollars over the decades that followed, but left the rest of us with clogged highways, filthy air and hooked on Arab oil – for which Americans soldiers are now dying.

But don't try to convince GM they did anything wrong. They were just doing what a bear does in the woods. And, likewise, don't waste your breathe lecturing oil companies on the environmental damage they have caused and want to now extend to ANWR. Oil companies are pulling the same stunt right now in Alaska that GM pulled 70 years ago in LA. Only this time they did not have to tear up railroad tracks or pull down transmission lines.

All they had to do was steal an old map.