A recent study out of Princeton University found we no longer live in a democracy. According to the authors, “[t]he central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” And an important component of this transformation is the rising incidence of secrecy.
Secrecy has increasingly become a standard operating procedure throughout our government and our society. Today, faceless bureaucrats and powerful corporations make sweeping decisions that affect every aspect of our lives. Yet even if we somehow learn about these decisions, we typically have little recourse to address them.
Congress and the states — including Alaska — passed freedom of information and open meetings laws long ago to help counter the inherent tendency by governments and corporations to work behind closed doors. Yet over time, these laws have been riddled with exceptions, or flat out ignored, leaving Alaskans in the dark about important decisions that affect our families, our economies and our natural resources.
For example, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) recently announced its intent to lease over 1.17 million acres of the rich fisheries of Lower Cook Inlet for more oil and gas leasing. BOEM initiated this process — which will cost taxpayers millions of dollars — upon request from one or more oil corporations. Yet BOEM refuses to disclose the names of the corporations driving this process, citing a confidential business information exception to our freedom of information laws. But Alaskans have a right to know if the corporation(s) driving this process — and spending taxpayer dollars in the process — have the financial wherewithal to respond to a well blow-out or safely implement a drilling program in the first place.
This secrecy around oil and gas operations is nothing new. It’s virtually impossible for the average citizen to understand the sweeping range of chemicals dumped into our marine and ground waters through drilling discharges and hydraulic fracturing. It’s similarly difficult to find out what chemicals comprise the dispersants increasingly used to “clean-up” spilled oil. Want to know how an oil company will address a worst case scenario such as a well blow-out in Cook Inlet? Forget about it, those plans aren’t public information.
Secrecy is not, of course, limited solely to oil and gas operations. For example, Alaskans don’t get to know about fish habitat permits — so-called Title 16 authorizations — which destroy or damage our salmon streams. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game issues thousands of Title 16 permits a year, typically with less than a week’s review time. Yet Alaskans have no way to know about — let alone weigh-in on — these vital decisions affecting one of our most precious resources.
For our democracy to work, we need at least three things. First, we need transparency. We need to know what our government is doing, when they are doing it, and we need to have access to the information on which it’s basing decisions.
Next, we need accountability. When governments or corporations break the law or subvert the public trust, we need the individuals responsible to be held accountable. This is especially important with corporations, because according to some misguided court decisions, corporations are “persons” under our constitution, enjoying the same rights as living, breathing Alaskans.
Yet while corporations enjoy the same rights as living persons, they rarely are held to the same obligations. Take the recent example of Shell’s contractor, Noble Drilling, which pled guilty to knowing criminal violations of federal law. As a corporation, it paid a fine — and a small one compared to its assets and revenues — yet no one went to jail. You can bet the outcome would be very different for any everyday Alaskan committing a similar offense.
Finally, our democracy demands participation, and this issue cuts two ways. First, it means Alaskans deserve an opportunity to participate, with public notice and the ability to offer comments on proposals. On the other hand, it also means Alaskans have an obligation to engage in the system, to get involved, and to have their voices heard. Several court decisions over the years, however, have equated money to speech, and as corporations increasingly assert their First Amendment rights, the notion of one person/one vote and the rights of Alaskans to meaningfully participate are increasingly diminished. If you need proof, look at the tidal wave of outside corporate money we saw flooding our TVs and airwaves last election.
Winston Churchill is credited with the now famous quote that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.” Our governments are imperfect, because they are reflections of us, and none of us is perfect. But our democracy is the best we have, and under the new leadership of the Walker-Mallott Adminisration, there’s renewed hope we can bring Alaska back to its proud tradition of open, accountable and participatory government.
For the past 19 years, Bob Shavelson has been executive director at Cook Inletkeeper, a member-supported public interest group working to promote democracy and protect Alaska’s water and salmon resources.