Monday, November 24, 2014

When Dollars Won't Quite Do

A couple of weeks ago I cited some comments by Big Oil shill Anastasia Swearingen to the effect that, basically, there’s just no downside to drilling for oil. Whenever, wherever—it’s all good. She was excoriating the federal government for its stubborn unwillingness (so far) to grant drilling leases along the Atlantic Coast to the oil giants standing in line. What’s the hold-up, guys? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Just look at the Gulf, says Swearingen, where pessimists predicted an “uninhabitable wasteland.” But thanks to all the time and money BP has put into restoration, today the Gulf is faring “better than expected by most accounts” and “permanent damage seems less likely.”
You know what? That is some lame shit.
About the same time Swearingen’s column appeared, Huff Post splashed up the arresting headline “Gulf Oil Spill Left Rhode Island-Sized Oily ‘Bathtub Ring’ On Seafloor” (Oct. 27). AP writer Seth Borenstein had laid hands on a new study just out from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, arguing that roughly 10 million gallons of oil coagulated over a 1,200-square-mile area surrounding the Macondo well. Oil levels inside the “bathtub ring” registered as much as 10,000 times higher than outside it.
The study also notes that the oil is too degraded to still have its chemical signature. Which means that, you know, it might have come from any spill anywhere and just happened out of sheer coincidence to settle right there around that blown-out BP well. At least that’s what BP spokesman Jason Ryan said: “The authors failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found.”
A year ago, you might remember, a 40,000-pound “tar mat” was pulled from beneath the surf off Isle Grand Terre, 90 miles south of New Orleans. The huge mat—about 165 feet long by 65 feet wide—was actually 85 percent sand, shells, and water, so you could say that the 15 percent of oil residue (a measly 6,000 pounds) was insignificant, unless you happened to be part of the web of life on that oil-infused swath of ocean floor. Oh quit whining!—Jason Ryan again, slightly paraphrased—Look at the big picture: BP has recovered more than 2.7 million pounds of waste from Louisiana shores in 2013 alone, and only like 5 to 15 percent of that had anything to do with oil residue. Don’t you see? BP is cleaning up Louisiana!
And, frankly, BP’s getting a little tired of the lack of love. After all it’s done and continues to do, now some job-killing judge in Louisiana has ruled that the company is guilty of “gross negligence” in the spill, upping the civil penalty—under the  Clean Water Act—from $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil to $4,300 per barrel!!!  Which could mean as much as an extra $18 billion in fines!!! Sheeeesh. Comforting to know that BP will appeal, and in the years it takes for the case to be resolved, given the going rate of $24 billion in profit per year, it will rake in more than enough cash to cover the cost.
            In “The BP Oil Spill and the End of Empire, Louisiana,” recently published in the UNC Press journal Southern Cultures, Tulane historian Andy Horowitz does something Jason Ryan probably didn’t do. He talked to the people who live in coastal Louisiana. People like Karen Hopkins, manager of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, who recalled the time “before offshore drilling really started here,” before the erosion of the coastline and the destruction of the barrier islands: “This place was covered with huge oak trees. It was a paradise, and it still was a paradise before [the BP spill], but I feel it’s over now and the worst is yet to come.”
            Horowitz points out that Louisiana has the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States, as well as some of the highest rates of cancer, that oil companies like BP earn billions while Louisiana ranks third in the nation for the percentage of citizens who live below the poverty line.
            It’s in that context—of a people in bondage to an economic system that oppresses them and degrades their land and sea—that the BP damage needs to be but never will be calculated. As Horowitz writes, “Silencing work along the coast, making people fear that the food they eat is poisoned, that their very bodies may be poisoned, and that they have no recourse to the industry that caused the harm or the government that was supposed to protect them from it . . . these lessons will be difficult to unlearn and their costs will be hard to measure.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The 25 Percent

I’m not going anywhere. I got a lot of family in Georgia, and besides, there’s plenty to love here—mountains, sea coasts, the change of seasons, not to mention all those wonderful things about the South as a whole, like collard greens.
            But dang—sometimes you just have to yearn for bluer pastures. The election returns have been officially dissected, and it turns out that our two bright young Democratic standard-bearers, Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, received “25 percent or less of the white vote.”
            Twenty-five percent or less. This is the great triumph of the Republicans—and all the greater because it absolutely defies comprehension. Somehow three-fourths of white voters in Georgia have become convinced that the Republican Party has their interests at heart. I’m calling it gullibility, pure and simple. These voters don’t know what the Republican agenda is; they’ve only listened to what the Republicans—and all the howler monkeys on Fox News—have said about Obama and those job-killing Democrats.
            Point is: Georgia’s politics, and politicians, are so damn depressing. (Thank you, General Assembly, for overwhelmingly passing Georgia’s “guns everywhere” bill this last session.) But as I look around, wondering where to run, I have to concede: it could be worse.
Wait. Let me clarify: the ideas, beliefs, opinions of Georgia’s politicians couldn’t be any worse. You don’t get any more benighted than a Tea Party trio like Congressmen Tom Graves, Phil Gingrey, and Paul Broun. It’s also true that when you declare that the theory of evolution is nothing but “lies straight from the pit of hell,” as Broun, a physician, did, you’re going to get a couple of mentions in the national media.
            For the most part, though, Georgia’s leaders have refrained from becoming nationally recognized emblems of Republican inanity. Not every state is so lucky. You’ve got Kentucky, for example, where beleaguered lefties have to watch Mr. Coal himself, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, heap jowly scorn on the new climate agreement between the U.S. and China.
            Or Minnesota, which like Georgia has a lot going for it, but also has Michele Bachmann. Actually, Bachmann has decided to step away after eight years in Congress, but the damage to Minnesota, I’m afraid, is irreparable. Bachmann was in Washington plenty long to set a new record for Most Incredibly Stupid Things a Single Congressperson Could Possibly Utter Regardless of Tenure in Office. (“There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.”)
Texas has got Ted Cruz, whose TV face time is out of all proportion to his predictable Tea Party dogma: anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, pro-deportation, anti-Obamacare, blah, blah, blah. But, then, Cruz wants to be president, so he needs to be using up a lot of oxygen, "energizing the base," etc. (I’m actually worried about Cruz. He’s got the face of a Baptist preacher with the smile of a snake-oil salesman . . . oh, well, you get my point.)
            Cruz is reason enough to keep out of Texas, but he’s not a complete crackpot. For that, we have to look to Oklahoma and Republican senator Jim Inhofe, who, incidentally, will take control of the Environment and Public Works Committee in January. His plan upon ascension? “I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.”
            Staking his claim to the title of World’s No. 1 Climate Change Denier, Inhofe wrote a book in 2012 called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. You don’t have to read the whole thing; he offered a condensed version on a Christian radio program that same year: “God’s still up there. The arrogance of some people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is outrageous.”
            Yikes. Think I’ll just stay put.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

And So It Begins . . .

Looking at what lies ahead for the Republican-controlled Senate, Georgia’s Johnny Isakson talked about the bills he wanted to see drafted right away: “The first thing I’d send the president is the Keystone Pipeline.” In fact, the fate of “KXL” right now rests on the robed shoulders of the Nebraska Supreme Court, but Isakson’s post-election point is well taken: Earth, watch out.
 Let’s back up: The purpose of the Keystone XL pipeline is to ship “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast. Not surprisingly, given the South’s longtime prostration before Business, the southern leg of the pipe, from Oklahoma to the Gulf, has long since been completed without protest. For that matter, the “middle” leg of the pipeline also already exists, running from Steele City, Nebraska, to Oklahoma. So the controversy is all about whether to build the 1,200-mile “bullet” line from Alberta straight to Nebraska, replacing a patchwork of older, smaller pipes.
What’s the hold up?  Before Obama could respond to the State Department’s opinion, issued back in February, that there is “no compelling environmental argument” against completing the pipe, a Nebraska judge sided with landowners and overturned his state’s permit for the pipe’s construction. The state Supreme Court is supposed to settle the matter any day now.
In favor of the pipe, would be my guess, but so what? What if Obama gives KXL the green light? Hey, a pipeline is going to be built. Canada has vast reserves of this tar sands oil, worth a lot of money, and nobody is in favor of leaving it there. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is all about the pipeline, not surprisingly, since Canada is an oil giant right up there with Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, most of the nation’s oil reserves consist in this nasty tar sands bitumen, which is the consistency of asphalt and releases plenty of extra toxins at the refinery. Not to mention the nineteen bajillion additional tons of CO2 that will be rising into the atmosphere when the pipeline is delivering at full capacity.
It’s also unfortunate that the tar sands in question happen to be located under 54,000 square miles of (until recently) pristine boreal forest in east-central Alberta—the kind of forest the earth needs worse the faster they disappear. The Harper government is managing to not worry about that, or about the disappearing caribou, or the hundreds of square miles of chemical refuse lakes, or the ruined nesting grounds of millions of migratory songbirds. Its thinking, I guess, is that Canada is a huge country with plenty of wilderness areas, and if it wants to, by jiminy,  it can spare a little Florida-sized patch of ground in support of such a great industry and so many thousands of jobs.
Dirty or not, carbon-intensive or not, the oil is coming out of the ground. Canada is determined to ship it and sell it, if not out of the Gulf of Mexico then out of its own eastern and western ports. So if a pipeline is going to be built anyway, why not build it through the U.S. and put Americans to work? Why not just get behind old KXL and quit being such a party-pooper?
Writing about the pipeline in The New Yorker last year (9/16/13), Ryan Lizza lays hands on a report from a pro-oil Canadian think tank, which perfectly crystallized the issue. In the absence of Keystone, the steadily rising amount of oil produced would soon outpace the industry’s ability to export it. “If this happens, investment and expansion will grind to a halt.” Keystone’s capacity, on the other hand, would mean dramatically more oil coming down the line faster, which would increase, rather than inhibit, the speed with which this dirty oil is extracted and ultimately burned.
It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? KXL is simply a monster-sized enabler, and whether you support it or not depends upon whether you want to promote or retard the fossil-fuel energy business. Me, I want to retard it; I think that burning fossil fuels warms the atmosphere, and I believe the warming atmosphere is effecting changes in our climate that whoever’s around to deal with them will profoundly regret.
What I regret, today, is that the party now in full control of Congress wasted so little time announcing that it has less than zero interest in the health of the planet.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Drill, Baby, Drill! Still??

That was the subject of the “point-counterpoint” on the AJC opinion page the other morning. The “counterpoint”—on the bottom of the page—was a piece by Karen Grainey, chair of the Coastal Group of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. Sierra’s agenda is clear, and Grainey represented it in a plea on behalf of the beauty, ecological richness, and economic value of Georgia’s coastal marshlands.
            Her worry is that the Obama administration has given the go-ahead to seismic exploration along the Atlantic coast, and the oil companies are lining up for the leases. Grainey doesn’t want oil derricks off Georgia’s coast. She remembers that the herring fishery in Prince William Sound never recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill, and she doubts that we’re anywhere near assessing the ecological damage to the Gulf of Mexico from the 2010 BP catastrophe. She hopes Obama will put on the brakes, decide not to grant the drilling leases after all, and focus instead on developing green power.
            In other words, Grainey was saying exactly what all of us reasonable and thoughtful people say here in the early decades of the 21st century: that the earth matters, and that we need to stop trashing it.
            Hard as it is to believe, though, there is another way to look at things. The column on top of the page, “Protect nature, fill gas tanks,” illuminates this dark ideological terrain. Anastasia Swearingen, identified as a senior research analyst at something called the Environmental Policy Alliance (which is part of something called the Center for Organizational Research and Education), is pleased to confirm that all this relief we’ve been feeling at the gas pump is in fact a direct result of a “great boom in oil production” here in the U.S. And guess what? “Families could save even more money if the federal government wasn’t standing in the way.”
The U.S. holds “vast energy resources” in the Atlantic, but that infernal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management refuses to lease them. “The feds ought to open the spigot,” writes Swearingen, then spouts the predictable economic benefits: billions in “added economic value”—whatever that means—not to mention tax revenues and, of course, jobs.* Even figuring in the potential costs of the downside—ecological damage, oil-spill clean-up, increased carbon emissions—the benefits of exploring the Atlantic “exceed costs by 3 to 1.” Three to one? Wow. End of argument.
If any further reassurance were needed, Swearingen reminds us that “major oil spills are incredibly rare” and “the ability to clean up after tragic spills has improved immensely.” Just look at the Gulf, she says, where pessimists predicted an “uninhabitable wasteland.” But BP stepped up—hurray!—and “devoted dollars and man hours to Gulf restoration.” Today the Gulf is faring “better than expected by most accounts” and “permanent damage seems less likely.”
You’d swear it was a parody. But it’s not. A couple of clicks and you’ve discovered that the blandly titled Center for Organizational Research and Education is basically a PR firm representing big business and that the ironically titled Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA) is the Center’s pro-extraction, anti-environment wing. A trip to the EPA website, which describes the organization as "devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups," will confirm everything you suspect about this strange antiworld.
What is its appeal, anyway, except those who sit in the luxurious lap of Big Oil? That’s the mystery to me. Here on the same page of the paper are these two smart young people, one following the path of light and reason, the other fallen by the wayside, thrashing in the weeds of prevarication and hypocrisy. How does it happen? It’s like when poor and marginalized people vote Republican. You want to stand up and holler, Hey! Stop! Those people do not represent your interests!
I’m always hopeful that today’s young people are going to do a better job than their parents did of figuring out what’s what, and, particularly, who’s for ‘em and who’s agin’ ‘em. But then there’s Swearingen, working for that tired old man.  
I’m hollering. I’m waving. Anastasia . . . Anastasia . . . You’re still young . . . It’s not too late. . .

* See “The Jobs Thing,” October 9, 2014.