Greed, Thy Heart Is Black

A recent story about the production of oil in North Dakota caught my eye. It begins:

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Dr. Lyle Best traveled nearly 200 miles from the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch Tuesday to tell state regulators one thing: “Slow down.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering a proposal that would cut back on the state’s booming oil production as a means of controlling the amount of natural gas that’s being burned off at well sites and wasted as a byproduct of the more valuable substance, oil.

But oil companies are fighting the idea of slowing production, and want regulators to consider self-imposed steps to curb natural gas flaring, such as submitting plans for natural gas gathering before applying for a drilling permit.

North Dakota drillers currently burn off, or flare, a record 36 percent of the gas because development of pipelines and processing facilities to capture it hasn’t kept pace with oil drilling. The U.S. Energy Department says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.

Best, a Watford City physician, was among more than two dozen people who testified on the new proposal. Best said he lives within 200 yards of two oil wells that emit flares at least 20 feet high and produce a sound “similar to a jetliner passing nearby.”

The biggest issues with burning the gas, he said, is wasting it and the potentially harmful emissions that may be released from flaring.

Indeed, those flares can be seen from outer space: the central and western parts of the state of North Dakota appear to be on fire. But, hey! It’s all about huge profits. The serious risks from widespread fracking are totally ignored, as is the waste and danger to the planet from those natural gas burn-offs. And then there are the hundreds of oil cars that the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad haul daily from North Dakota through such environmentally sensitive places as Glacier Park to the West Coast where the oil is shipped to the Pacific rim: a routine practice that ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents, a likelihood that increases daily considering that a derailment occurs with alarming regularity. This is a dangerous game these oil barons are playing, but they have their blinders on and can only see, smell, and hear the profits mounting up in their off-shore bank accounts.

As it happens, I know a couple of people who work on the oil fields in North Dakota and am aware of the huge profits this activity yields to the workers themselves and the small businesses who cater to them on or near the oil fields. It’s a virtual gold rush. The state of North Dakota is one of the very few in this country that operates in the black (pardon the pun) and I get that. It’s nice to see that some of those who actually need money are getting some of the benefits of this gluttony. But the notion that is most disturbing, suggested in this story, is that those in charge can’t get the oil out fast enough and that they simply don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Our economy encourages folks to get as much as they can while the getting is good. I also get that. But it is an ugly feature of this economy that makes its successful practitioners ugly and one that costs us all a great deal in the long run — the future that those who call the shots are determined to  ignore.

One must ask in the final analysis if it is just possible that humans simply cannot resist the temptations of power and prestige that are promised by great wealth. I do wonder if in promising men wealth and power in this world through tearing from the earth its hidden treasures the genie was released from the bottle. It is just possible that the force of those temptations is too great for men to resist with wills weakened by habitual self-indulgence. The question is,  just how do we go about putting the genie back into the bottle?

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Half-Truths About Fracking

I will quote a recent story from Yahoo News (culled from the AP) in its entirety:

AP Wirephoto  (Thanks to Yahoo News)

AP Wirephoto
(Thanks to Yahoo News)

RIFLE, Colo. (AP) — Three hours west of Denver, across the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountains begin the long transition into high desert plateaus.

This sparsely-populated land is dotted with ranches and small towns that were once local hubs for mining the rich minerals found under the earth.

But over the past few years, this town and others have become increasingly a local center for the natural gas industry. Off the highway outside town in all directions, one can see evidence, large and small, of the latest local energy boom, from natural gas extraction all the way up the chain to refining.

Hydraulic fracturing — “fracking,” for short — pumps millions of gallons of water mixed with fine sand and chemicals deep into oil and gas wells.

The water splits open oil- and gas-bearing rock. Specially formulated fracking fluids help carry the sand into the newly formed fissures and keep the cracks propped open.

The rapid growth of the oil industry in the region has brought opposition from those who warn of environmental costs. In some places the practice has been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well water. But federal and many state regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.

To begin with, note the brevity of this article, given the immense complexity of the subject! Have we really become so stupid in the minds of the media that they think we can’t handle a lengthy article giving full details of a story that has major implications for all of us? In one brief sentence, almost in passing, the article notes the “opposition from those who warn of environmental costs” and assure us that “regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.” This is supposed to inform us about the millions of gallons of water that are used in this process that are rendered too contaminated for human or animal use thereafter — at a time when continued drought threatens the farming industry and farmers in Kansas are already importing water from Florida. Further, the snippet ignores the growing concern about the health of those who live in the region of the fracking operations who are beginning to experience a number of alarming symptoms — not to mention the carbon dioxide that is being expunged into the atmosphere, in North Dakota in particular, from fires triggered by the process. As we learn from Robert Krulwich, who reports for N.P.R., “When oil comes to the surface, it often brings natural gas with it, and according to North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, 29 percent of the natural gas now extracted in North Dakota is flared off. Gas isn’t as profitable as oil, and the energy companies don’t always build the pipes or systems to carry it away. For a year (with extensions), North Dakota allows drillers to burn gas, just let it flare. There are now so many gas wells burning fires in the North Dakota night, the fracking fields can be seen from deep space.”

North Dakota Aflame From Space

North Dakota Aflame From Space

(As you can plainly see, it makes for quite a spectacle when viewed from outer space: much of North Dakota seemingly on fire!)

In a word, the photograph showing the hard-working oil man set against the snowy mountains says more than the article below it: it’s man against nature with no thought for the morrow. We destroy the land, water, and air in the name of creature comforts — ignoring the reasonable alternatives of conservation and clean energy. And we sum it all up in a few words with a photograph that will suggest to many (who will miss the metaphorical implications) the jobs the oil industry has promised in order to help our economy get back on its feet. I don’t buy it. A half-truth is worse than a blatant falsehood, and this story and photograph tell a half-truth. What they ignore, or what is merely implied, is of major importance and will go right over the heads of most readers — if they bother to read it at all.

All Dressed In White

One of the more bizarre incidents I have come across recently involved three students who attended a high school hockey game involving Red River High School and Fargo Davies High School in North Dakota. A recent fad in the area is to attend high school hockey games dressed in white — as the students do at the University of North Dakota.  But these three students (?) decided to dress in Ku Klux Klan outfits, complete with hoods and eye slits. A photograph was taken by a visiting student who was aware enough to wonder if the three were “racist,” and the incident has drawn considerable reaction in the region.

But the thing that interested me the most was the comment by the Athletic Director, Todd Olson, presumably an adult. Olson attempted to dismiss the incident as a tempest in a teapot — you know, kids will be kids. No, Todd, kids just being kids is when they wear tee shirts to a game in a hockey rink where the temperatures are low enough to freeze the nipples off a brass monkey. But Todd persists,  “To be very honest, I think you’re looking for something that is not there.”  Wrong again, Todd, there is something there and it is called “ignorance,” and as an educator you should be doing everything you can to eradicate it wherever you see it.

Photo From "Inforum"

Photo From “Inforum”

In this day we have come to expect the unexpected from young people. Further, we also expect the kids to be ignorant of their history and have no idea how offensive those hoods might be to minorities in this country who have had to deal with the hatred and prejudice of twisted minds for years in the South. And, granted, the likelihood of a black student attending a high school hockey game in North Dakota is slim indeed, still one would hope that the adults in this school would try to make this a learning experience for those kids and perhaps teach them a bit about American history, race hatred, and white prejudice. At the very least someone might have approached the three and suggested that they remove the hoods — if not themselves.

One of the truly disturbing things about the incident is that it involved young people who are supposed to be open-minded and liberal in their thinking: many see them as the hope for our future, even though recent studies have shown that they are even more self-absorbed and stressed out than their parents are. But even if we assume that those three students, presumably, who wore those robes thought it would be funny and had no idea what they were doing — which is a distinct possibility — one would think that at some point before they sat down, or during the game, someone around them would have pointed out how inappropriate their behavior is. Clearly the student who took the picture realized how offensive it was, but he only made the comment later, after going public with the photograph.

Given all the negative fall-out from the incident, we can hope that the school will, in fact, turn the situation to their advantage and make of it an object lesson. And they might start by having a long talk with Todd Olson.

Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

A recent story in Yahoo News about Heidi Heitkamp, a newly elected Democratic Senator from North Dakota, is worth pondering. The story quotes Heitkamp as follows:

“I think, you know the one thing that has gotten lost by everyone is one of the best ways that we can perform here is by getting people back to work, making sure that this economic recovery, slow as it is, gets amped up and moves forward,” Heitkamp tells Politics Confidential. “It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been such a big proponent of the Keystone Pipeline. There’s a shovel ready, private sector jobs program, good paying jobs.”

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Heidi is disconcerted that President Obama seems to be concentrating on gun control and climate change and (she says) ignoring the economy. Good grief, how thick are some of the heads in Washington? Here’s a Democrat spelled with a capital “R,” talking about the necessity to pollute the earth some more in the name of profits while we ignore the health and well-being of our children and their children for generations to come.  But then she comes from North Dakota which is a very conservative state and where the bulk of the wealth (and it is very great deal indeed) comes from oil. Gee, do you think she’s pushing the Keystone Pipeline because of a debt she owes to Big Oil? I’m just askin’.

In any event, Heidi is dead wrong about climate change and I really do get tired of the conservative mantra that drones on and on about how a commitment to the environment and the pursuit of clean energy will invariably cost us jobs — and, by implication, if we want to help the economy recover and create more jobs we must go the route of fossil fuels.  It is a false dichotomy and yet we continue to hear it repeated as though it is beyond doubt. The facts belie the claim: we can have it both ways — clean energy and jobs. In fact we are already on our way.

Wind energy alone, as my blog buddy BTG recently pointed out, is currently employing 75,000 workers (more than the coal industry) and could employ 500,000 by 2030 if this Congress would get its collective head out of the sand (or wherever they have it at present) and commit the country to the pursuit of sustainable energy where we can be assured not only of more jobs, but also a cleaner environment, better health, and general economic recovery. Consider the fact that the solar industry also currently employs over 100,000 workers and could also take on more with a commitment from Washington. And we haven’t even begun to tap the potential energy from the ocean tides. Sustainable energy is the energy of the future in a world where we have become almost totally dependent on finite resources that pollute the air and raise the temperatures on the planet.

The old environment versus jobs argument simply won’t wash. It is a worn record and it flies in the face of every fact available to anyone who doesn’t happen to be in the pocket of the oil and gas industries. But that includes Senator Heitkamp, it would appear, who will continue to push for dirty energy while the rest of us wonder what it will take to wake up those closed-minded politicians in Washington who have lost sight of what really matters in this country — which is the health, well-being, and prosperity of ordinary citizens. What really matters is certainly not more obscene profits for Big Oil, though they play the tune and the politicians dance the dance.