For thousands of years, the Kitanemuk Indians made their home in the Elk Hills of central California. Come February 2001, the last of the 100 burial grounds, holy places and other archaeological sites of the Kitanemuks will be obliterated by the oil drilling of Occidental Petroleum Company. Oxy's plans will "destroy forever the evidence that we once existed on this land," according to Dee Dominguez, a Kitanemuk whose great grandfather was a signatory to the 1851 treaty that surrendered the Elk Hills.
Occidental's planned drilling of the Elk Hills doesn't only threaten the memory of the Kitanemuk. Environmentalists say a rare species of fox, lizard and the kangaroo rat would also be threatened by Oxy's plans. A lawsuit has been filed under the Endangered Species Act. But none of that has given pause to Occidental or the politician who helped engineer the sale of the drilling rights to the federally-owned Elk Hills. That politician is Al Gore.
Gore recommended that the Elk Hills be sold as part of his 1995 "Reinventing Government" National Performance Review program. Gore-confidant (and former campaign manager) Tony Coelho served on the board of directors of the private company hired to assess the sale's environmental consequences. The sale was a windfall for Oxy. Within weeks of the announced purchase Occidental stock rose ten percent.
That was good news for Gore. Despite controversy over Dick Cheney's plans to keep stock options if elected, most Americans don't know that we already have a vice president with oil company stocks. Before the Elk Hills sale, Al Gore controlled between $250,000-$500,000 of Occidental stock (he is executor of a trust that he says goes only to his mother, but will revert to him upon her death). After the sale, Gore began disclosing between $500,000 and $1 million of his significantly more valuable stock.
Nowhere is Al Gore's environmental hypocrisy more glaring than when it comes to his relationship with Occidental. While on the one hand talking tough about his "big oil" opponents and waxing poetic about indigenous peoples in his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," the Elk Hills sale and other deals show that money has always been more important to Al Gore than ideals.
From California to Colombia: Native Lands Threatened
The Kitanemuk are not the only indigenous group threatened by Occidental's oil operations. The 5000-member strong U'wa of northeastern Colombia, have threatened mass suicide if Oxy proceeds with plans to begin drilling oil on their ancestral homeland. The U'wa, who retain their language and traditions, understand the introduction of oil would devastate their culture. They also understand that oil facilities would put them in the midst of Colombia's fierce civil war.
"To the U'wa, oil equals violence," explains Danny Kennedy, director of the Berkeley, California-based Project Underground, which has helped wage an international campaign of support for the U'wa. Oil installations are a favorite target of leftist guerillas at war with the Colombian government. After guerillas bomb the installations, the army occupies the area. "Then comes the paramilitary, who are basically soldiers with hoods on at night. Then comes the terror campaign" says Kennedy. The U'wa, who have little contact with either the government or the guerillas, would end up becoming targets.
The U'wa have attracted international sympathy, but their efforts to enlist the support of Occidental's most famous shareholder -- Al Gore -- have come to naught. Gore publicly met the outcry over the U'wa with silence. The Vice President even refused a request by a Democratic member of Congress that he meet with an U'wa representative who had traveled to Washington to see him.
Meanwhile, Occidental pressed for the massive military aide package for Colombia the administration recently pushed through Congress. Occidental Vice President Lawrence Mirage testified before Congress in favor of the military aide package during the February deliberations, throwing in that those opposed to Occidental's drilling were a bunch of "extremists."
Two things set the U'wa struggle and the Elk Hills sale apart from the corporate welfare so typical of the New Democrats: Al Gore's direct financial interest and his close relationship with Occidental Petroleum that dates back to his father.
A Family Affair
Gore senior first met long-time Occidental CEO Armand Hammer at a cattle auction in the 1940s. When zinc ore was discovered on some of Gore's land, Hammer and Oxy bought it for twice the amount of the only other bid. Hammer then sold the land back to Gore while retaining the mineral rights. The elder Gore then sold the land to his son, Al Jr., who has received $20,000 yearly in mineral royalties from Occidental ever since. Two years after Gore Sr. was defeated in a bid for re-election to the Senate, he joined Occidental as a member of its board of directors and was rewarded with a $500,000 a year job working for an Oxy subsidiary.
Throughout his political life, Al Gore Jr. has received the favor the patronage of Occidental and Hammer's successor, CEO Ray Irani. And for every campaign finance violation Gore has committed, Irani seems to be lurking in the background. He was one of the contributors who slept in the Lincoln bedroom (a couple days later Irani wrote a $100,000 check to the DNC). When Al Gore made illegal fundraising calls from the White House, Irani was one of the recipients (he ponied up $50,000, according to a Harold Ickes memo unearthed during the investigation). In the Elk Hills sell-off , Irani and Oxy finally got the payoff worthy of their long patronage. It is a payoff crooked businessmen have dreamed of ever since the land was stripped from the Kitanemuks during the Gold Rush. Indeed, the history of Elk Hills and corruption is an old one. And it is a story most Americans have heard.
Gore's Teapot Dome Scandal?
In 1922, executives of the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company (now known as ARCO) bribed Albert Fall, President Warren Harding's interior secretary, to give them leases to two oil fields reserved for a military emergency. One was on field in Wyoming called the "Teapot Dome," the name by which we would forever remember the biggest bribery scandal in modern American history.
The other field in the scandal was the navy's 47,000-acre reserve in the Elk Hills, near Bakersfield in Central California. These were traditional lands of the Kitanemuk people, better known by the name the Spanish gave them, the Tejon. They were forced off the Elk Hills by treaties signed with the federal government in 1851 during the midst of the gold rush and have since lived on the nearby Fort Tejon reservation, now called "Tejon Ranch."
While the scandal scuttled ARCO's plans, Occidental succeeded in acquiring Elk Hills seventy five years later. In 1997, after Gore's recommendation the land be sold, Oxy bought the region from the federal government for $3.7 billion. The sale represented a tripling of the company's U.S. oil reserves. Mired for years by declining reserves, Occidental's revenues for the first quarter of this year showed a dramatic 87 percent increase from the same period in 1999, before it began operations in the Elk Hills.
To complete the environmental assessment, the Energy Department hired a private company to complete the environmental impact statement necessary for the sale. The company was ICF Kaiser International, and on its board of directors sat none-other than Democratic super-fundraiser Tony Coelho. Coelho would later become Gore's campaign manager before being dumped after the Democrat's early stumbles. He is currently the subject of investigations by former employers in the State Department and by the Census Monitoring Board, seeking to determine if he misused his positions (both were administration appointments) for personal gain. The Securities and Exchange Commission, meanwhile, is investigating Coelho's myriad financial empire.
The Elk Hills sale, not surprisingly, was quickly approved. "I can't say that I've ever seen an environmental assessment prepared so quickly," says Peter Eisner, director of the Washington-D.C. public advocacy group Center for Public Integrity.
Meanwhile, as it became clear that Oxy was looking to undertake massive drilling operations in the Elk Hills, the 500 remaining Kitanemuk sought assurances from Oxy that their native sites and burial grounds would not be destroyed. Company officials said they would protect their heritage. But it soon it became apparent that the last of the 100 archaeological sites identified by the tribe would be destroyed by February 2001. Occidental agreed to first allow the State Native American Heritage Commission to retrieve what it feels is most valuable for a future display at a Museum at the California State University in Bakersfield.
"They are going to take the last memories of our people, the last evidence that we once inhabited this land and put it in a box and ship it off to a museum," laments tribal member Dee Dominguez. "All the material culture of the Kitanemuk would be destroyed forever. (But) the oil they are extracting will be completely drained in twenty years."
Dominguez calls Occidental executives "cold" and "insensitive," unwilling even to consider slant drilling that would save pieces of the tribe's history for future generations. "We've never denied them taking oil," she says. "We are not asking for land. We are not asking for royalties. We are just asking them to leave something to show that we were here."
As for Al Gore's role in the whole affair, Dominguez says she has thought about writing him. But she doesn't think it will help. "[Clinton and Gore] sold us down the river," she says. "It turns my stomach every time I hear them talk about family."
Bill Mesler is a Washington-based reporter. His work has appeared in the Nation, Mother Jones and the Progressive, among other publications.