Corporate Think Tank Dives into Water Policy
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In May 2008, the major law firm Hunton & Williams launched the Water Policy Institute (WPI), a think tank-esque, industry-supported consortium formed "to address water supply, quality and use issues," according to its website.
After the initial flurry of press releases, WPI appeared to languish. Then, ten months after its formation, WPI issued its first white paper. "Water Wars: Conflicts Over Shared Waters" ( pdf) focuses on two river basins in the Southeastern United States. The paper urges the states involved -- Georgia, Florida and Alabama -- to put aside litigation and work with federal mediators to reach an agreement on water allocation. It also supports further study of seasonal water use, ecological issues and efficiency measures.
The white paper's conclusions seem reasonable, even obvious. So much so that it's unclear why Hunton & Williams felt the need to recruit major public relations and corporate powerhouses when forming WPI -- and what they, and the law firm, get out of the effort.
What is clear is that WPI, Hunton & Williams and their corporate allies have a long history of siding with (or being) polluters and attempting to undermine water quality safeguards. It seems reasonable, therefore, to worry that whatever WPI is up to, it's likely to do more harm than good.
WPI's usual suspects
The Water Policy Institute's chair is former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman. After leaving the EPA, Whitman founded her own public relations firm. The Whitman Strategy Group's clients include FMC Corporation, a chemical and pesticide manufacturer; the oil company Chevron's Environmental Management Company; and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry lobby group. Since 2006, Whitman has co-chaired the NEI-funded and Hill & Knowlton-managed Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a pro-nuclear front group.
"I have, for many years now, believed that water is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world in the 21st century," Whitman stated, in a speech at WPI's inaugural meeting. Since first being elected to public office 25 years ago, she said, "I have been wrestling with water issues." WPI "will help policymakers in every sector better understand -- and more effectively communicate and advance -- the need for action," she added.
There are also financial incentives for Whitman's involvement with WPI. Whitman "is now helping to bring clients to the law firm of Hunton & Williams as chairwoman of its new Water Policy Institute," reported Congressional Quarterly in June 2008. "Whitman's firm will get an undisclosed fee for its work."
In addition to Whitman's political star power, WPI presumably benefits from the connections and resources of its founding corporate members: BP, GE Water and the Central Arizona Project. As a multinational oil, gas and fuels company, BP's interests in water issues are significant. For example, the company is invested in Alberta's tar sands, where oil development requires -- and pollutes -- large volumes of water. Last year, BP was party to a $423 million settlement compensating U.S. public water systems for contamination from the gas additive MTBE.
GE Water describes itself as "a leading global supplier of water treatment, wastewater treatment and process systems solutions." In an August 2006 press release, the company enthused, "Globally, the water market is $365 billion and offers a high growth potential." Its products range from water treatment chemicals, filters and membranes; to industrial water management systems; to "mobile water" emergency back-ups. GE Water boasts "the world's largest base of desalination systems," which use an energy-intensive process to produce fresh water from seawater or salty water. GE Water is also involved with Canada's tar sands, as part of a $15 million effort "to improve water usage" during oil extraction.