Fossil Fools

We are fossil fools. In fact, fossil fuel companies have been playing us for fools for so long that we barely notice their power, their control, and the destructive consequences these monolithic companies have over us; that is, until directly affected. Subtle exploitation is all around, but special harm has come through deepwater drilling off our coast or penetration of our shale with the ravages of fracking.

We have taken our beatings at the gas pump and believe their oligopolistic dribble about market forces pushing up prices. We let our representatives refuse to eliminate subsidies to companies like Exxon-Mobil ($20 B/yr profits) and British Petroleum (BP) ($10 B/yr profits) who pollute our shorelines in Alaska and the Gulf, and use their power to cheat the victims.

Whole swathes of the Gulf community have been devastated by the BP oil spill and continue to be deprived of a livelihood even some five years since the spill. Three years ago a federal judge who had picked lawyers for 120,000 victims of the Deepwater Horizon blow-out in 2010 oversaw an out-of-court agreement which saved BP billions. The settlement was $7.8 billion which, with what was already spent by BP, was billions less than what President Obama forced them to set aside — $20 billion. Greg Palast, an economist who calculated damages for plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, declared it would not nearly cover the damage.

After five years there is no recovery for the majority of fishing enterprises in the Gulf. Mobile, Alabama is indicative of the financial devastation brought by the BP spill in all Gulf communities. Skyland Seafood closed shop in the summer of 2014 after 17 years.1 Near Mobile, few locals catch blue crabs in their traps anymore. Oysters are now a rarity and fish catches are less than before the spill. With the national pressure on BP rectification now gone, the corporation is squeezing victims for superfluous documentation and delaying and reducing payments for years rather than months, knowing that many victims will die before settlement, and that the will of victims and their resources to fight will dwindle. Consider that long term, men, women and children face cancer or neural disorders, and short term respiratory illness from exposure to leaking crude or to the treatment chemicals BP used.

Then eminent domain is a powerful tool in the arsenal of big business, another way to conquer the little guy. Eminent domain is something that can be a nightmare if we are directly affected. In effect, for the good of your state or your nation, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that governments could take property and transfer it to private developers for the public good. It was this provision that enabled the Williams Company to take swathes of land away from landowners in central New York to construct a natural gas pipeline through their land. Land was torn up and pipelines installed, which experience elsewhere saw pipe ruptures and explosions from underground pipes near homes.

Another tool is global trade agreements.

Something presaging the sovereignty-stealing issues of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) secret trade deal, Lone Pine Resources Inc. brought a $250 million suit against the Canadian government for canceling a natural-gas exploration permit to frack gas deposits under the St. Lawrence River. The suit claims that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been violated. Thousands of Canadian citizens had pressured the Canadian government to stop the fracking by Lone Pine. Other companies have used this protection against the US, for the US itself has been sued eleven times under the NAFTA trade provisions.

If Congress passes the Fast Track provision for TPP, it will rubberstamp whatever provisions the rich elite negotiators came up with for the agreement, much of which robs us of our independent decision-making as a nation, this, while jobs are again exported to trade partners that have lower labor costs.

Fracking is literally taking its toll on communities that happen to be near oil train tracks that transport fracking’s product, crude oil, to foreign markets.

To feed the oil consumption beast, the Bakken shale oil fracking in North Dakota is almost in a state of frenzy. With it comes shipping of comparatively volatile crude by railroad. Railroads have increased numbers of oil tanker cars and lengths of trains, some lines averaging over a mile per train. Shipments of crude oil by rail have increased by more than 4,000 percent since 2009. Railroad transit sweeps through many sleepy towns on its way to the West coast.

Meanwhile unaffected fossil fools are somewhat docile about more frequent fire and explosions. There have been six already this year in North Dakota. In Canada, the Lac-Megantic. Quebec, disaster in 2013 involved an unattended oil train rolling into the city’s downtown, sparking an explosion that sent massive fireballs hundreds of feet into the air and killing 47 people.  The whole town was consumed in the conflagration.

Recently an oil train derailed and caught fire in Heimdal, North Dakota, hauling crude from the state’s oil patch. Helpless in extinguishing the inferno, the local fire departments let it burn until all oil was consumed, while the whole town was evacuated.

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) recently imposed new rules. The proposal enhanced tank car standards, including braking and speed controls, and a testing program for mined gases and liquids. The older DOT 111 tank cars, subject to relatively easy puncture when derailed, will be phased out in two years. When criticized about DOT 111 tank cars not being banned, Secretary Anthony Foxx said that railroads would just do the alternative tanker trucks to make up for lost transport capacity until replaced in the future.

Reporting on the fiery accidents of the past and the changes of the new DOT rules, Rachel Maddow outlines the risks that townspeople face in the towns transited by oil trains most days of the week. It seems that the new rules will no longer require publically sharing information to towns about oil shipments coming through, only with the town’s first responders. For the public, the information is considered to be proprietary, something that reminds us of withholding information about fracking chemicals forced into the ground by fracking companies, thus not knowing what chemicals occasionally pollute the water supply and the air while making residents sick.

Most of us do remain fossil foolish until our families or friends are violated. They are chased or burned out of homes by eminent domain, toxic chemicals, polluted water, fireballs of exploding trains, unpaid bills after losing our livelihood, or by sick kids.

By then, it’s far too late.

  1. Katy Reckdahl, “Slimed: BP’s Forgotten Victims”, The Nation Magazine, May 4, 2015. []
James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.