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frazier-bio

Tom Frazier, former director of the COPS Office in the United States Department of Justice, Police Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, served twenty-eight years with the San Jose Police Department, and was a decorated Military Intelligence officer in Viet Nam.

Back in 1998 Thomas Frazier, then chief of the Baltimore Police, was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate to share his perspective on how to most effectively improve public safety.

“I speak very confidently for the major city police chiefs who in a conference a week ago endorsed the position that child care, early child care, before school care, and after school care, were really keys to crime prevention,” Frazier told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Today Frazier is the court appointed compliance director of the city of Oakland’s police department. Frazier is tasked with implementing whatever reforms are necessary to ensure that the OPD carries out a public safety mission without violating the civil rights of the city’s residents. The department has been bogged down and unable to comply with federally mandated reforms for over a decade stemming from systematic civil rights abuses perpetrated by numerous officers. Over this same time-frame, OPD has come to consume more than 40 percent of Oakland’s budget, crowding out other programs, including youth and children’s services.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s budget proposal for the next two years proposes a major cut to early child care. The cut results from a reduction of $1.7 million in federal funds due to the budget sequester orchestrated by the Obama administration and Republican members of the Congress. Mayor Quan and the Oakland City Administrator’s proposal is to leave this hole mostly empty, even though the city expects to collect millions in new revenues over the next two years from an improving real estate market and increased sales and other taxes.

Oakland’s budget proposal allocates most of these funds to the police department for the training and hiring of new officers. The new cops presumably will execute the crime fighting plan currently being developed by William Bratton and Robert Wasserman, two well-known former chiefs who advocate zero-tolerance policies, stop and frisk, and similar aggressive tactics developed during the 1990s war-on-crime model of policing.

Here’s how the cut to Head Start is described in the budget proposal:

“This will require reducing staff positions, the number of days of service at Head Start and Early Head Start sites, and eliminating 102 half day classroom slots for new families (closing the San Antonio CDC site that services 68 families and reducing Eastmont Town Center by 34 families, when there are already 396 families on the waiting list for these slots). The FY 2013-2015 budget proposal includes backfilling with the General Purpose Fund $184,000 of lost federal funding, which could sustain one part day classroom at Eastmont Town Center for 34 families ($114,000) and restore one Family Advocate ($70,000) to support the parents and siblings of Head Start children.” (p. A-4, 2013-2015 Proposed Budget)

Today Thomas Frazier avoids the limelight. He declined interviews during and after his investigation of OPD’s conduct during the Occupy Oakland protests, during which OPD repeatedly violated policies the department had agreed to under the terms of the federal Negotiated Settlement Agreement. Frazier keeps a low profile, choosing instead to focus on implementing change behind the scenes.

Still, Frazier’s opinions about how to best improve public safety can be gleaned from his past statements, and his policy record.

Frazier’s testimony to the Senate over a decade ago focused on the socioeconomic determinants of crime. According to Frazier, crime in Baltimore during his tenure was the outcome a long, historical process of de-industrialization, job losses, and disinvestment in the community. Frazier identified inequality and the creation of a privileged upper-class, and an impoverished working class with little mobility as the root of Baltimore’s violence:

“Let me paint the picture of a post-industrial city. Twenty-five years ago when Baltimore was fully employed and 925 thousand people lived in the city, we had an industrial economy. In an industrial economy you have a jobs pyramid. We have your well educated managerial at the top, union and manufacturing jobs in the middle, service sector jobs at the bottom. As right sizing, down sizing, all those things occur, your social economics change. If you’re computer literate and well-educated, there are more jobs for you at the top. The union and manufacturing jobs are severely diminished. There are more service sector jobs at the bottom. Our jobs pyramid has turned into a jobs hourglass. For a police chief that’s a recipe for civil disorder.”

“Our middle class is gone. We are stratified economically,” the chief concluded.

So how did Frazier respond to this crisis as the top cop in what was then America’s most violent city? Frazier advocated a well-funded and staffed police force, but repeatedly told politicians in Baltimore and Washington D.C. that without investments in social and economic programs to reduce inequality, there would be little change in crime rates, no matter how many cops were put on patrol, and no matter the aggressive tactics they were urged to use.

Instead of waging a war on drugs, Frazier told his cops to de-emphasize possession and use of drugs as crimes – even though he firmly opposed decriminalization proposals floated by then Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Instead of adopting stop and frisk, hot spot policing, and zero tolerance tactics that were being implemented in other big city departments, Frazier advocated the community-oriented policing model which is based first and foremost around having officers who are respected by the communities they work in, and who do much more than simply profile, stop, and arrest targeted populations. It was a policing philosophy that set Frazier apart during the war on crime-era that raged through the 1990s, and from other top cops like Bratton.

Frazier departed Baltimore upon the election of Martin O’Malley. O’Malley, a Democrat, and technocratic city manager, ran on a zero-tolerance platform that required a dramatic boost to police spending and staffing levels. O’Malley dissed Frazier when the latter took a job at the justice department. A reporter asked what O’Malley thought of Frazier’s promotion; O’Malley said “sic semper tyrannus” – the meaning of which translates “death to tyrants.”

A press report from 1999 described O’Malley’s platform as the same “strategy embraced by cities such as New York”:

“The plan has five points that include giving police civil citation powers to keep lesser crimes out of courts. The plan also calls for prosecutors to charge suspects, allowing police to get back on the streets more quickly after an arrest. Other antidotes include using minimum mandatory sentencing to keep repeat offenders behind bars and placing a judge in the central booking center for swifter justice.” (“MD: Mayoral Hopefuls Offer Cures For High Murder Rate,” The Bulletin’s Frontrunner, July 27, 1999)

Frazier’s now forgotten Senate testimony, coming near the end of his career as a big city cop, was unique in that it focused on police work that sounds more like social work. Of the Police Athletic Leagues he set up across Baltimore, Frazier told the Senate:

“We know that we have to provide services for kids from seven to seventeen. That is a population who is at risk. That is, in the older end of that, our offenders. Those are the kids that need an opportunity to make good life decisions. We know that we have to provide services from two in the afternoon till ten at night. I would love to see schools go till four o’clock and we’d run PAL centers four till mid-night. Because then we have a safe space with positive activities and good role models, we put our very best men and women police officers in there to be the role models for these kids. Now what has the result of that been? In our center that has been the center in operation the longest, about two and one-half years now, the kid’s grade point average went from 66 to 81.”

And per the main measure by which police chiefs are judged, the crime rate, Frazier noted that: “Crime in that neighborhood went down 42 percent the first year, and it can’t go down 42 percent every year after the year before. It’s holding in the 30’s. That neighborhood has become a neighborhood of choice.”

In the current budget proposal for Oakland, most of the changes in spending levels for parks and recreation, libraries, human services, are reductions, transfers, and eliminations that cut budget resources for these city functions.

Picture 2

A table summarizing changes in funding to “Human Services” budget items in the 2013-2015 proposed Oakland budget. Numbers in parenthesis are negative, indicating cuts.

Akin to Baltimore under Frazier’s watch, Oakland has relatively lax attitudes toward the possession of marijuana – indeed the city has earned considerable tax dollars by regulating pot shops.

But the presence of Bratton and Wasserman as advisors to Oakland’s City Council and Mayor indicates that the city’s leaders are looking to adopt zero-tolerance strategies, the sorts of which Frazier steered away from years ago in Baltimore.

How all this will translate into policy now that Frazier is effectively running OPD remains to be seen.

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Atmosphere

Part of San Francisco’s Union Square hyper-lux retail offerings, the De Beers store which features armed guards at the entrances. Ferrari recently opened a store a block away on Stockton Street. Haute Couture names obscure fill the district’s buildings offering items of conspicuous consumption.

Through the Financial Crisis and the Great Recession, inequality has intensified through income, housing, and public debt in the Bay Area. Black and Latino communities have lost wealth and power, while white and Asian communities have mostly to recovered. At the top, the wealthiest 5 to 10 percent, have made enormous gains.

Imagine a place where the hills are lined with the mansions of millionaire families, some of them billionaires. Their residences sit atop forested ridge lines with views of a peaceful ocean, or upon oak-studded peninsulas that jut into an azure bay. In this place they want for nothing. De Beers opened a retail store in one of their favorite shopping districts a few years ago, next to haute couture names like Bulgari, Cartier, and Gucci. An investment bank opened a “coffee shop” just a couple blocks from the headquarters of no less than seven Fortune 500 corporations, to catch their employees after work for talks over lattes about what to do with all that money crowding their bank accounts. Posh towers filled with luxury apartments sprout from the city center where multiple cranes seem to perpetually dot the skyline. iPhones pop from the palms of pedestrians like third hands, and newfangled apps like third eyes give them instantaneous information about the latest opulent consumer activities. Everything glows with money and power, a lot of it.

Below the hillsides glittering with wealth are even more expansive terrains of crumbling homes and apartment buildings —many foreclosed upon and awaiting some kind of financial death— packed with families that barely scrape together twenty thousand dollars a year to live on. Their views: smokestacks, port cranes, freeway overpasses, and scrap yards, or, sometimes on a clear day, if they ever think to pause from survival mode, they can see the hills, the mansions, the gleaming skyscrapers beyond reach, the towering campaniles of universities where they can never afford to send their children.

This place is characterized by the crowding of impoverished human beings, most of them of African and Latin American descent, into hollowed out industrial zones where factory buildings and abandoned warehouses echo the bustle of past decades. This economy of yesterday was exported to the new shop floors of China. Among the only things left are the toxic plumes of chemicals spreading slowly under fence lines. In this place entire generations face severe poverty and a decimated public sector – especially the schools. Tens of thousands of adults exist, persist, somehow without meaningful work or income. Tens of thousands of house-less persons —likely no longer even part of the statistical surveys used to calculate joblessness and income— wander the streets and sleep in the cracks of weathered concrete each night. Every few months the police slay a youngster under questionable circumstances. Crime is rampant. Violent crime is hard to avoid, part of the overall suffering.

The splendid heights and stratospheric wealth would not be so contemptible was it not hanging directly over such desperate poverty. Of course the two things are not unrelated.

Welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area, in the Golden State of California.

The West Coast financial center of the United States.

The epicenter of the tech industry.

The global vortex of venture capital.

One of the most brutally unequal places in America, indeed the world.

If measured by the same metrics that are used to gauge income inequality within nation states, the Bay Area’s internal divide between its rich and its poor would place San Francisco between China and the Dominican Republic, making it roughly the 30th most unequal state in the world. China is now the estimated home to 317 billionaires. California counts perhaps 90 billionaires. Half of these, mostly white men, live in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The Census counted 4.2 million persons slipping below their definition of poverty last year in California.

In the distribution of income and wealth, California more resembles the neocolonial territories of rapacious resource extraction and maquiladora capitalism than it does Western Europe. Oakland is more El Salvador than it is EU. The Bay Area metropolis is more Bangladesh than Belgium.

California is just one of seven states that has the distinction of ranking higher than the national average on three basic metrics of income inequality, as measured by the Bureau of the Census. Its gini coefficient of income inequality was most recently measured at 0.47.

The ratio of income between the top 10 percent and the bottom ten percent, as well as the ratio of income between the top five percent and the bottom twenty percent show staggering divides in economic power that few other places in America, indeed the world, surpass.

IncomeIneqUSNeighborhoods2009

Source: Weinberg, Daniel H., “U.S. Neighborhood Income Inequality in the 2005-2009 Period,” American Community Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, October, 2011.

The only states that compare to California’s harsh inequalities are deep southern states structured by centuries of racist fortune building by pseudo-aristocratic ruling classes, and the East Coast capitals of the financial sector.

StatesIncomeIneqCensus2009

Source: Weinberg, Daniel H., “U.S. Neighborhood Income Inequality in the 2005-2009 Period,” American Community Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, October, 2011.

The economies of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama remain bound by racial inequalities founded in slavery and plantation agriculture; the wealthy elite of all three states remain a handful of white families who control the largest holdings of fertile land, and own the extractive mineral and timber industries, and the regional banks.

Texas, with its sprawling cities, global banks, energy corporations, universities, and tech companies, is more like California in that its extreme economic inequalities are as new as they are old. Stolen land and racial segregation combine with unworldly new fortunes built on the Internet and logistical revolutions in manufacturing and markets to manifest a gaping divide in power and wealth between the few and the many. The Texas border, like California’s, opens up vast pools of Mexican and immigrant labor for super-exploitation by agribusiness and industry.

The same goes for New York, Connecticut, and Washington D.C. the other most unequal places in the United States. New York and Connecticut, like California, have become societies divided by an upper stratum of financial-sector workers and corporate employees whose salaries and investments simply dwarf the bottom half of the population’s earnings, and unlike the South, this extreme level of inequality is rather new in its source of valorization. Washington D.C. is split between the federal haves, mostly fattened contractors who run the military, or who represent the interests of the billionaires in California and New York, and the have-nots, mostly Black and immigrant service sector workers who wait on these technocrats of empire.

It’s a strange club, the super-inequitable states of the U.S. This exclusive list pairs the bluest coastal enclaves of liberal power with the reddest Southern conservative states. In terms of wages and wealth these places have a lot in common.

Picture 4

San Francisco’s real estate roller coaster. The Financial Crisis cut 20% off home values in San Francisco, but the U.S. Federal Reserve’s bond buying program, coupled with broader tax and fiscal policies, has created a rally in securities markets, handing the wealthiest Americans enormous gains in net worth. These economic policies benefiting the rich are evident in San Francisco’s real estate prices. Secondarily is the Tech 2.0 boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, pulling in thousands of new residents to work in Internet, biotech, and other industries where six figure salaries are the norm.

In San Francisco homes now routinely sell for millions. Not mansions. Not even particularly large houses. Just simple homes built decades ago. In most other markets they would fetch the national median home price of about $170,000. San Francisco, which locals like to call “the City,” sees dozens of real estate deals every month in which a cool million or two pass hands, and afterward the new owner, usually someone with freshly minted tech or finance money, has the modest structure demolished and scraped away. The new thing is to build upward, and lavishly, from scratch. Heated stone bathroom floors and wine cellars are popular. Securing a pad in Noe Valley or Bernal Heights for a few million is seen as a reasonable way to spend money.

In San Francisco the western end of Broadway is known as “billionaire’s row.” Quite a few of the side streets and parallel avenues like Jackson, Pacific, and Washington are lined with estates that trade hands on occasion for a few tens of millions. No tear downs here. The villas and manors along these avenues were built by sugar barons and banking tycoons of centuries past. Silicon Valley’s most senior executives, and the City’s hedge fund managers, buyout barons, bankers, and a few celebrities make up most of the neighborhood’s owners. Their children attend exclusive private schools in Pacific Heights where they are preened for Stanford and Princeton.

It is becoming hard to identify any part of San Francisco as an “elite” enclave. Tech 2.0, as the Google and Facebook-led regional boom is being called now, has vested thousands of twenty somethings as well as senior executives with billions in IPO cash and billions more in salaries to hunt for real estate, and they have chosen San Francisco, nearly all of it, as their preferred stomping grounds. Maybe it will only be another decade until Broadway starts getting called trillionaire’s row.

Picture 5

Sea View Avenue, Piedmont, California. 71 percent white, only 5 percent of Piedmont’s population is Black or Latino. Median household income is $200,000, and wealth holdings are much more. Piedmont supports its own public schools, police force, parks, and libraries.

Across the Bay is a slightly more modest version of billionaire’s row, probably better called a millionaire’s row running across the ridge line from Oakland north to Kensington. In the middle of Oakland, in fact completely surrounded by the scrappy industrial city by the Bay, is the city of Piedmont. When it was founded in the 1920s its first residents gave it the nickname “city of millionaires.” They restricted housing to single family residential homes on large lots from the start to prevent Black and immigrant families from moving up the hillside. Sea View Avenue is where the big money that wants to show off buys real estate, but the entire city boast a median home price of $1.4 million. The Berkeley hills are similarly rich and populated by an unusually high number of lawyers.

Lawyers, especially tort defense, corporate, and tax lawyers who serve the wealthy and defend corporate America from labor unions, environmentalist, and consumer advocates, also love Marin County. Across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, Marin is not much more than a bedroom community for corporate lawyers and CEOs who want a little more room and sun than San Francisco provides. If Piedmont was a city shelter to exclude the working class, then Marin is similar, but on the level of a county. Despite growing pockets of Latino poverty in older towns like Novato and San Rafael, Marin remains one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. on a per capita basis. Marin’s Black population is segregated into the tiny Marin City, one of the only places public housing was allowed to be built. Marin City’s residents work in the retail sector and some of the industry along San Rafael’s waterfront. They earn near the bottom of the region’s wage scale and subsist on a fraction of the income their wealthy neighbors take in each month.

Picture 7

Hagenberger Road, East Oakland. Oakland is over 50 percent Black and Latino. Sections of the city such as the area pictured above are 90 percent non-white. In the typical pattern of environmental racism, residential homes are in close proximity to major roadways, highways, rail lines, industrial facilities, scrap yards, and utilities.

Unemployment stalks the working poor of the Bay Area, threatening to force them into insolvency and bankruptcy, foreclosure and displacement. During the first Dot Com boom of the late 1990s unemployment was at five percent for white Bay Area residents. For those living along the billionaire’s and millionaire’s rows, unemployment is a meaningless concept. The capital invested by the rich, by their clever advisers who run the hedge funds and private equity shops, earns interests and returns on equity far larger than any years honest wage labor can eek out. The tax code provides for this with carried interest and the lowest personal income tax rates for top earners in many decades. Hordes of tax lawyers, many who live in Marin, the Oakland hills, and San Francisco, will eagerly structure a family’s investments and bills to minimize taxes, so long as they possess a minimum of $5 million in liquid assets – preferably more.

Black men in the Bay Area have consistently suffered an unemployment rate double that of white men. Through the entire George W. Bush presidency, a period characterized by an economic policy to benefit the wealthiest with low taxes and interest rates, Black men endured double digit unemployment rates, reaching about 13 percent when Obama took office. The Financial Crisis sent Black unemployment rates skyrocketing in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Vallejo, upwards of 22 percent in 2010.

UnemploymentCAbyRace1999-2012Economic policies under Obama —both those he championed, and those he compromised on— have been very good for the wealthy, and that’s reflected best by the real estate and consumption bubbles frothing over places like San Francisco. The Federal Reserve Bank’s unprecedented purchases of bonds and its low lending rates have produced rallies in stock and debt markets which have greatly re-inflated the fortunes of the rich.

Pew_Uneven_RecoveryThe Pew Research Center recently summed up this polarizing redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top by noting simply that since 2009 the wealthiest 7 percent of Americans experienced an increase of 28% in their net worth, while the bottom 93 percent actually lost 4 percent of their savings.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s current tech boom is further dividing the wealthy few from the impoverished masses. Companies like Google, Apple, and Oracle are among the least diverse workplaces places where men outnumber women, and white and Asian employees dominate the ranks of lowly programmers and senior executives. The need to hire thousands of engineers is drawing waves of college graduates to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and they’re washing over the current residents like a tide of suffocating oil. Some of the tech buses —private transit systems operated by Silicon Valley’s largest firms to shuttle employees from San Francisco to their suburban campuses in Santa Clara County— now run lines into Oakland and Hayward, a sign that their employees are increasingly colonizing formerly undesirable zones of real estate.

The drift apart between the pale wealthy few and the impoverished multitudes of darker-skinned peoples is evident on the level of whole cities. San Francisco enjoys robust public finances, high credit ratings, low per capita debt to income ratios, and many well funded public services. However, two decades of intense gentrification mean that this healthy public sector increasingly caters only to those “citizens” who can afford to live in San Francisco.

Pushed out of the region’s urban core, in the 1990s and 2000s Black, Latino, and some Asian immigrants found themselves in the affordable locales of Vallejo, Stockton, Richmond and Oakland. Further out towns like Antioch, Brentwood, and Pittsburg became increasingly non-white and working class. In the Financial Crisis these cities hemorrhaged residents and revenues due to some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Vallejo and Stockton went bankrupt after slashing the most basic services. Vallejo is 75 percent non-white. Stockton is 80 percent non-white.

The wealthiest Bay Area communities, the “towns” of Hillsborough, Woodside, Atherton, Los Altos Hills, and the city of Piedmont are three quarters white with median incomes in the six figures. Public finances barely flinched during the Great Recession. A few of these local governments in fact have no outstanding public debt.

Atherton and Los Altos Hills have zero bonded public debt.

Oakland has almost a billion just in bonded debt.

In the tony Marin hamlet of Fairfax the public debt burden resting on each resident is about 1.7 percent of their annual income.

In Richmond the ratio of public debt to personal income for each resident is 16 percent.

Richmond, a quarter Black and a third Latino, is a tangle of oil and chemical refineries run primarily by Chevron. Not a year ago a massive fire at one of the company’s plants spewed toxic vapors and smoke into the sky, poisoning thousands of residents.

Chevron is headquartered in San Ramon, another exclusive, mostly white suburban environment with low municipal debt and a household median income of $121,000 a year.

Far from being an epicenter of ‘cleantech,’ the Bay Area actually is host to some of the largest oil corporations exploiting Canada’s oil sands.

Sidney Martin Blair, Bechtel's man in Canada, an early proponent of mining the oil sands of Alberta.

Sidney Martin Blair, Bechtel’s man in Canada, an early proponent of mining the oil sands of Alberta.

In 1951 Sidney Martin Blair, the vice president of Bechtel Canada, visited Alberta at the behest of the regional government to examine the economic case for mining the thick deposits of bitumen resting underneath much of the boreal forests and grasslands that reach up and around frigid Lake Athabasca. Blair was no stranger to what are known popularly today as the tar, or oil sands. In 1924 Blair, who grew up in the northern clime of Canada’s interior, submitted his thesis for a Master of Science degree from the University of Alberta: “An Investigation of the Bitumen Constituent of the Bituminous Sands of Northern Alberta.” His later study of the oil sands for Alberta came to be known as the Blair Report and served as the founding document for what is becoming one of the largest industrial projects in human history, and one of the most dire environmental threats we have ever faced.

On the economic end Blair concluded, importantly, that extraction of a barrel of oil from the Alberta sands had reached a cost of $3.10, while that same barrel would be worth $3.50 in the regional and Western U.S. markets. It was still high above the cost of pumping sweet crude from plentiful wells in Canada and south of the border in America’s abundant oil plays of Colorado, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, but the price arrangements were headed toward more parity over the long-term, Blair and others surmised. Easy to drill gushers would disappear by the 1980s in the United States, leading to increasing imports of more expensive oil, and finally to the fracking boom which requires much higher levels of capital and investment to squeeze petroleum from fickle rock formations. The economic price per barrel of oil from Alberta’s bituminous sands would only become more attractive.

Blair’s affiliation with Bechtel was no accident. The secretive corporation was by the 1940s a major player in the petroleum industry, building pipelines and other infrastructure for oil giants, and national oil corporations all over the world. Bechtel’s close ties to the U.S. military and CIA gave the company access to the highest levels of government in the Middle East, South America, Europe, and Asia, where newly rich princes and anti-communist dictators flush with cash, and with U.S. foreign aid, sought to build gargantuan energy projects. The Bechtels and their close associates made billions many times over.

Where once existed a Boreal forest, now an open pit oil sands mine worked by shovels and trucks.

Where once existed a Boreal forest, now an open pit oil sands mine worked by shovels and trucks.

The Bechtel family viewed Canada’s oil sands as a potential source of profits many years before the regional government and oil corporations were willing to invest. Blair gave Bechtel entry when the time came; in 1962 Bechtel began construction of the Athabasca Tar Sands project in Alberta’s northern reaches for the Greater Canadian Oil Sands company. It was the first large scale attempt to mine and refine the bitumen into oil and other hydrocarbon products. Imitators, from smaller independent companies to the big majors like Exxon and Chevron, would eventually pile aboard.

Over the next several decades Bechtel built many of the “upgrading facilities” as the giant cookers that heat and separate the filthy mixture of bitumen, sand, and water, are called. Today Bechtel, along with its subsidiary Bantrel, remains one of the largest oil sands engineering firms in the world. Bantrel designs and Bechtel builds. Over the last two decades Bantrel designed and Bechtel built several massive upgraders for Suncor, the corporate successor of the Greater Canadian Oil Sands company.

Picture 2Suncor’s open pit mines lie northwest of Fort McMurray. Miles of scraped-bare earth crawl with one-hundred ton shovel excavators and trucks capable of hauling four-hundred tons of earth across miles of devastated moonscape to waiting crushers and conveyors. The tar sands mines are visible from space, probably even from the moon.

Suncor’s bitumen is processed on site resulting in the equivalent of over 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent extracted each day. In-situ extraction, a process of pumping oil from deeper sand deposits after its is heated and precipitated into thick veins within the soil using steam and other injectants, provides another 100,000 barrels, much of which is piped to a refinery in Denver.

Suncor aspires to produce a million barrels of oil a day from its tar sands holdings. Bechtel will likely build the facilities.

Bechtel today actually plays second string to another San Francisco corporation when it comes to providing engineering and construction services to exploit the oil sands. Last year URS, the giant engineering company that Dianne Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum once owned a big stake in, bought out Flint Energy Services, a Canadian oil and gas production services provider, for $1.25 billion. Flint is less well-known that other oil services companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton, but it does the same work.

In-situ oil sands mining utilizes steam and other heated injectants to emulsify bitumen deep in the ground. It is then pumped to the surface and piped to nearby separation and treatment plants. As much as 80 percent of Canada's tar sands is too deep to pit mine, meaning that in-situ extraction is of paramount importance to the fossil fuel industry's plans.

In-situ oil sands mining utilizes steam and other heated injectants to emulsify bitumen deep in the ground. It is then pumped to the surface and piped to nearby separation and treatment plants. As much as 80 percent of Canada’s tar sands is too deep to pit mine, meaning that in-situ extraction is of paramount importance to the fossil fuel industry’s plans.

One of URS’s biggest and newest oil sands contracts is a $130 million project to lay 43 miles of pipes that will shoot steam deep underneath the surface of the Wood Buffalo region, a remote and mostly forested plain northeast of Fort McMurray. This single in-situ tar sands project will extract 85,000 barrels of bitumen a day according to the application filed by Canadian Natural Resources, Inc. URS is carrying out several similar projects to heat up enormous expanses of the Canadian landscape far beneath the surface in order to liquify and suck out bitumen.

The in-situ tar sands extraction method is less destructive to the immediate landscape than open pit mining, but it poses the greater risk in terms of climate change. Approximately 80 percent of the oil sands are buried too deep to excavate. Thus in-situ extraction methods being engineered by URS and Bechtel are being used to tap these hundreds of billions of barrels equivalent of oil. Needless to say, if this happens levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will surpass the counts that most scientists say will lead to catastrophic rises in global temperatures.

The roads, pipelines, and “pads” —the patches of cleared earth upon which drilling rigs operate and where valves and other machinery are built— required for in-situ oil sands mining are also visible from satellite photos of the region. From high above the roads and pads of the region’s in-situ oil plays look like tan nets cast over the landscape, covering hundreds of square miles, cutting wild boreal forests into neat, logical grids.

Expansion of the open pits and in-situ fields of the tar sands will all happen regardless of whether the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, but URS noted in their annual report for the last year that such a decision would impact their earnings as it would significantly restrict expansion. “Should the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project application be denied or delayed by the federal government,” explained the company, “then there may be a slowing of spending in the development of the Canadian oil sands.”

Martin Koffel, CEO of URS Corp. URS is also one of the largest U.S. military contractors, and co-operates the multiple sites within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the nation's two primary weapons design and testing labs.

Martin Koffel, CEO of URS Corp. URS is also one of the largest U.S. military contractors, and co-operates the multiple sites within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the nation’s two primary weapons design and testing labs.

Regardless, San Francisco’s URS is going all in for the tar sands. On a recent conference call URS’s long-time CEO Martin Koffel said, “Flint, in our view, is the perfect fit for us, given our long-held ambition to expand our position in the oil and gas market.” Koffel noted that 20 percent of URS Corp’s revenues are now dependent upon oil and gas projects, and most of these will involve the Canadian oil sands, or fracking projects in the United States. “We’re more than enthusiastic about this sector,” said Koffel.

Other Bay Area corporate giants have been eager to invest in the tar sands in recent years. San Ramon-headquartered Chevron owns interests in the Athabasca Oil Sands Project near Fort McMurray, an operation that pipes out over a quarter million barrels each day. Chevron has been one of the most aggressive oil and gas corporations in the political sphere. The company has contributed millions in recent years to campaigns aimed at gutting state and federal environmental laws. Chevron’s army of lobbyists are active on Capitol Hill and across various oil and gas-rich states pressing to keep lucrative subsidies in place, and to prevent climate change and other environmental bills from being considered. Chevron is also one of the sponsors of MIT’s Energy Initiative, the pro-oil, gas, and coal think tank from which Obama’s current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz hails.

Fluor Corporation, an engineering rival of URS, has an office in the East Bay city of Dublin that employs approximately one hundred engineers. When it opened its Dublin office in 2008, Fluor cited its proximity to Chevron’s East Bay operations and headquarters as a deciding factor for the move.

Fluor’s global headquarters is in Irving, Texas, just one mile down the road from another of the company’s key clients, the world’s largest oil corporation, ExxonMobil. Fluor’s East Bay office employes about one hundred engineers who plug away full-time on oil and gas projects. For Chevron Fluor is designing and building facilities at the Muskeg River Mine, a giant oil sands site 75 miles northwest of Fort McMurray that will spit out 155,000 barrels of bitumen each day for three decades. This will result in a total of 1.6 billion barrels of bitumen that will be refined into upwards of billion barrels equivalent of oil.

That the San Francisco Bay Area is now an epicenter of oil sands engineering and services is ironic given the region’s reputation for environmentalism, and strong pushes for renewable energy development by various local governments. San Francisco, Sonoma County, Marin County, and Richmond are all developing community choice aggregation programs to replace PG&E as their utility, and to develop local renewable sources of electricity. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted just last month to urge the city’s pension system to divest about half a billion dollars from stocks in oil, gas, and coal companies, some of them the same corporations named above. Berkeley’s mayor is urging similarly, and is even pressing California’s massive public employees pension system CalPERS to divest its stock and bond portfolios from fossil fuel energy companies.

The Bay Area’s business community plays up its green credentials, even if it’s undeserved. Every company touts “sustainability” as a major goal. Even URS and Bechtel both publish glossy annual sustainability reports touting beach clean ups, community garden volunteer days, light bulb replacements in their offices, and the number of their employees who bike or take the train to work.

If they succeed in their quest to exploit Canada’s mostly un-tapped oil sands, in the not-too distant future URS and Bechtel employees might be cleaning up beaches that have shifted miles inland from calamitous rises in sea level, and they might be biking to work in 120 degree heat.

According to James Hansen, the recently retired chief climate scientist of NASA, the oil sands are an end game for the environment.

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history,” wrote Hansen in a New York Times op-ed last year.

“If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

In February of this year the main airport of Puerto Rico was privatized under a deal that allows a New York private equity group to take control the facility for 40 years. The firm is called Highstar Capital, and their link to Oakland is through the city’s port. In 2009 the Port of Oakland awarded Highstar a lucrative concession to take over the Outer Harbor Terminal for 50 years. Concessions are a form of privatization in which the underlying ownership of a public asset remains legally with a public authority, municipality, or the state, but control over the asset’s revenues, capital investments, and operations is effectively handed over to a private company.

A map of Ports America's terminal leases and concessions. The company, owned by Highstar Capital, is the largest operator of port infrastructure in the U.S.

A map of Ports America’s terminal leases and concessions. The company, owned by Highstar Capital, is the largest operator of port infrastructure in the U.S.

Highstar runs the Oakland port berths through Ports America, a terminal operator the firm purchased in 2007. The Oakland deal gives Highstar a monopoly over a major terminal at the Port in exchange for lease payments made to the Port of Oakland.

Highstar also controls a marine terminal in the Port of Baltimore under a virtually identical 50-year privatization deal. Ports America is the largest terminal operator in the United States, leasing more waterfront facilities than any other company under more traditional lease agreements that usually only extend three to seven years. In California alone, Ports America operates facilities at the ports of Concord, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Port Hueneme, Sacramento, San Deigo, and Stockton, in addition to its privatized Oakland property.

The Concord operation focuses on shipping military goods and ammunition overseas. Several of Ports America’s other operations handle similar military cargoes. The company’s major port operations pass through millions of containers every year with products bound for U.S. and overseas markets.

This is partly why Highstar, through Ports America, controls such a vast swath of the U.S. maritime acreage. Back in 2006 P&O Ports, an independent company, operated most of these marine terminals, but P&O was bought that year by Dubai Ports World, an aggressively expanding terminal operator based in the United Arab Emirates. Various members of the U.S. Congress objected to a company from a Arab nation taking over a good chunk of the U.S. port infrastructure. Behind the scenes Highstar, which was then still a subsidiary of the AIG insurance company, maneuvered to purchase P&O Ports from Dubai Ports World.

Highstar is among a growing number of infrastructure privatization funds focusing on U.S. public assets. These companies utilize their access to cheap debt, their considerable equity (much of it sourced from wealthy individuals and institutional investors like pensions), and their political connections, to take control of highways, bridges, ports, railroads, and other goods.

Highstar is also one of the biggest owners of oil and gas pipelines in North America. And in addition to its ownership stake in Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marin Airport, Highstar also owns the London City Airport in the U.K.

Wayne Berman, lobbyist, Highstar "adviser," current Blackstone government relations director.

Wayne Berman, lobbyist, Highstar “adviser,” current Blackstone government relations director.

Integral to Highstar’s business strategy is the cultivation of friends in high places, and influence in the halls of government. The company’s executives have never been shy about showering money on political campaigns, and buying the most connected lobbyists to push their interests. Highstar executives have spent over $900,000 to fund the campaigns of federal candidates and the Republican Party since 1990, with most of this spending concentrated in the mid to latter 2000s.

Highstar has spent $3.8 million over the past decade lobbying Congress. Most of this money was used to obtain the services of Wayne Berman, a Republican Party fundraiser who has been on the inside of numerous GOP presidential administrations.

Berman is a super-lobbyist who raises millions of dollars for conservative candidates. Individually Berman has contributed over $800,000 to federal elections campaigns since 1990. Berman is directly employed by Highstar as a “senior advisor.” Currently he is the in-house lobbyist for another private equity group Blackstone, but he remains in the employ of Highstar also.