The Force That Fights Deep-Pocketed Polluters and Wins

Recently, the OpenSecrets blog revealed that the oil and gas industry poured $174 million into the political system in 2009. We don't have numbers for 2010 yet, but we do know that oil companies have put up most of the $8.2 million raised to block California's clean energy law -- a law that passed with bipartisan support and was signed by a Republican governor.

When one dirty industry can purchase that much influence, who will step into the ring for average Americans? Who will say that public health and public interest matter more than private industries' desire to pollute?

I am a firm believer in the ability of citizens to stand up for themselves and fight against the tide of corporate pressure. But sometimes, we need an expert to help carry our voices into the courtroom and into Congress.

For four decades, John Adams has been one of those voices. Since he helped launch NRDC in 1970, Adams has been the toughest, most tenacious champion of the notion that Americans should be able to drink safe water, breathe clean air, buy products free of toxic chemicals, and protect our natural heritage.

In a new book called A Force for Nature, Adams and his wife Patricia explain how they helped build the modern environmental movement. Their account of how NRDC wrote the laws and won the battles that cleaned up the environment is galvanizing -- a bracing reminder of how much can be accomplished by dedicated individuals.

I have known Adams since 1973. Back then, lots of environmental organizations were springing up, and I worked with many of them. But when I met Adams, it was clear that NRDC had a unique power: They could go to court.

You have to remember that holding polluters accountable in court was a new idea in 1970. There were only a few environmental laws on the book back then, and only a handful of attorneys in the country viewed themselves as environmental lawyers. Adams hired most of them.

By the time I got involved with NRDC, it had already begun to prove it could defeat the worst corporate polluters. At the same time, it was infinitely pragmatic: The message was, work with us to design solutions, and we'll do all we can to find common ground. Oppose us and we will see you in court -- and more often than not we will win.

But Adams didn't fight only in the courtroom. He went wherever the battle took him. I remember that as soon as President Reagan's Interior Secretary Hodel set his sights on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, NRDC kicked into gear.

When proponents of drilling said it would lesson our dependence on foreign oil, NRDC got the geological data, ran the numbers and found that it would barely make any difference. And when oil companies up in Prudhoe Bay claimed their new extraction technology would prevent environmental damage, NRDC presented a report to Congress showing that between 400 and 600 hundred oil spills occurred every year on the North Slope and along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

This is the kind of expert knowledge we need to fight polluters' PR machines. Plenty of Americans want to keep the Arctic Refuge pristine and wild, but we don't always have access to information about what drilling would do to the landscape. It takes someone from NRDC to actually go to Prudhoe Bay, study it, and explain that "it is like flying over Gary, Indiana, for a hundred miles." That's not what we want to happen to the refuge.

NRDC is providing the same kind on information in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. In the face of BP's efforts to downplay the catastrophe, we need groups like NRDC to do independent analysis and identify the kind of clean-energy solutions that will prevent this kind of disaster from happening again.

The fact that America has witnessed a devastating offshore drilling accident more than 40 years after a massive spill occurred off the coast of Santa Barbara is a testament to why we still need people like Adams. It's why he built an organization that can fight for the long haul. There will be endless battles and frequent reversals of fortune. But in the end, you can outfight and outlast your enemies, and you can win.

So I say to my friend, John Adams, here's to the next forty years.