by Bill Onasch
The term oil boom took on a more literal character this past week. On Monday, a CSX train hauling fracked Bakken crude from North Dakota to an East Coast terminal derailed in West Virginia. With conventional oil the main danger would have been a spill fouling soil and water. But because of the higher volatility from methane residue of this shale oil, at least fourteen cars exploded in to flames that burned for days. One reportedly went in to a river supplying drinking water to nearby towns while another crashed in to and destroyed a building. These cars were of the new “safe” design built specifically for such hazardous cargo. Investigators confirmed the train was moving well within the posted speed limit for that section of track at the time of the accident.
On Wednesday morning there was an explosion that registered like a small earthquake, followed by fire, at the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles. Aljazeera America reported,
“Trade publication OPIS, citing an unidentified source, reported that an electrostatic precipitator (ESP), which reduces fluid catalytic cracker particulates, exploded as contract workers were doing maintenance on the nearby fluid catalytic cracking unit, or FCC.”
Four contract workers were injured. The Torrance facility was not among those then on strike by the USW. But the fact that there were nearly as many outside contractors as regular employees working in Torrance underscores the primary strike issue–safety. Oil refineries and chemical plants are intrinsically dangerous places. While the contractors may be skilled in a craft they often don’t have enough training or experience to be sufficiently aware of all the hazards. They are often responsible for—and victims of—high profile accidents. Among other safety and environmental demands, the union wants more maintenance work done in house by well trained, well rested, adequate numbers of regular employees.
If I were as religious as most of the tea pot global warming deniers, I would say it was a miracle that there were no fatalities in either West Virginia or Torrance. But regardless of views on Higher Authority, most reasonable people don’t count on divine intervention to save us from human folly. Mortals created a big oil mess that goes far beyond refinery or rail safety —and it’s up to us to clean up after ourselves or suffer dire consequences.
Lump of Clay
More long lasting danger to humans and other living things begins when oil—and its fossil relatives coal, natural gas, and bitumen—is consumed by end users. That’s when greenhouse gas emissions that are the principal cause of global warming are released.
This process was first postulated by scientists in the late nineteenth century. The United Nations has been organizing gatherings to discuss it for nearly three decades and UN scientists have issued successively alarming reports about the early warning signs of resulting climate change. A global treaty with goals for reducing carbon emissions was adopted in 1997 in Kyoto.
But last year was the warmest ever recorded. This may seem counter-intuitive to those living east of the Rockies in North America where snowfall is often measured this year in feet and two of the three Niagara Falls have been turned in to ice sculptures attracting cliff climbers. But this severe cold and precipitation that is usually the lead story on television news is more than offset by heat waves and drought elsewhere. California is turning to building desalinization plants to obtain drinking water from the ocean and the water supply of the largest city in South America is literally being tapped out.
With overwhelming scientific consensus identifying fossil fuels as the main culprit in the climate change crisis, it doesn’t require Vulcan logic to conclude we should stop burning them post haste. There are energy alternatives—both good and bad.
Nuclear power doesn’t emit greenhouse gases but the mining, refining, and transport of the fuel sure does. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are examples of the potential for catastrophic accidents. And there are still no known proven methods for safe, secure disposal of waste that can remain dangerous for centuries.
Once hailed as the next big thing, corn ethanol additives proved ineffective in reducing carbon emissions and actually increased other forms of harmful pollution.
But there are clean, renewable and free sources of energy available wherever the sun shines, winds blow, oceans tide. These alternatives are now used on a modest scale on every inhabited continent. The technology for using them to produce electricity is constantly improving as is developing storage batteries that can power transportation off the grid.
In the last WIR I promised this time to look at the results of the latest, specially scheduled UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathering that took place in Geneva February 7-13. An informative AFP story explains,
“Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen conference failed to deliver a world agreement, the 195 nations gathered under the UNFCCC have been working on a new project for adoption by the end of this year. The pact must enter into force by 2020 to further the UN goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Scientists warn that at current greenhouse gas emission trends, Earth is on track for double that, or more — a recipe for catastrophic droughts, storms, floods and rising sea levels.”
So will Geneva go down in history as the place where world leaders finally took decisive action to restructure the global economy around clean renewables, leaving the fossil menace—and uranium–in the ground?
Well, first of all, it wasn’t that kind of meeting. It was added to the schedule only because the government, corporate, and NGO leaders who jetted in to Lima last December essentially dumped in to the hopper a lot of raw notes and outlines wholly unsuitable for developing a discussion, much less an action plan. The lower level bureaucrats in Geneva were charged with “streamlining” this mess to frame the debate in Paris this December.
After six days of due deliberation they released a svelte new draft of a mere eighty-six pages. It included much science fiction about geo-engineering, pipe dreams of carbon capture/sequester for clean coal, a place at the trough for nukes, and continued life support for moribund carbon tax and cap-and-trade schemes left over from Kyoto.
One participant characterized this draft as a “lump of clay.” A lump no doubt. But clay might be more appropriate in a metaphor about the feet of the world’s movers and shakers. And, further mixing the image, what ever happened to holding their feet to the fire?
Last Fall, on the eve of the UN annual General Assembly, there were mass Peoples Climate Marches around the world. Particularly impressive was the 400,000 strong march in New York that included thousands of workers mobilized by their unions. But there has been nothing near that scale of action since—even after the utter failure of the Lima Climate Summit.
The civil rights movement did not abandon the streets after the 1963 March on Washington. Opponents of the Vietnam war didn’t rest our feet after the first SDS-led march against the war in April, 1965. Ongoing visible mass protest around clear aims has been essential to every successful movement for substantial social change.
350.org, then led by its founder, the prominent environmental commentator Bill McKibben, played a valuable role in spreading the word about the People’s Climate March through social media. Since then, McKibben has taken a sabbatical to work on other projects leaving 350.org to others. Certainly it is the duty of veterans to train, and ultimately step aside for, younger leaders. But I am concerned about the direction 350 may be heading.
In an e-mail to the 350 list from Jason Kowalski praise is heaped on “our friends at MoveOn.org” for a video hailing an expected “one-two punch” veto of legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline. While the symbolic victory of defeating KXL is worth celebrating the credit goes not to the Fracking President but to mass pressure in part mobilized by 350.
Let me be brutally frank about MoveOn.org. They certainly move alright, latching on to whatever is trending among progressives. They do this not as movement builders but as exploiters of initiatives of others. They act as a Judas Goat marching the naive in to the Democrat slaughterhouse of independent mass movements. I sincerely hope this message from Jason is a passing mistake of inexperience and not the beginning of a disastrous detour.
Transforming the world economy from a base of destructive fossil-nuclear to sustainable clean renewables will not be easy by any means. But the needed science, technology, and reserves of wealth are available. It is a realistic, achievable goal. It is our only viable alternative.
Much harder is taking power away from the climate wreckers determined to hang on to the present system that has made them the richest ruling class in history—even at the risk of permanently destroying civilization as we know it. This makes climate a political fight, a class fight—a fight we cannot afford to lose. Expect ongoing news and commentary in future editions of the WIR.
* From the St Paul Union Advocate, “More than 100 activists gathered in a Minneapolis union hall Sunday night to begin the work of raising the minimum wage within city limits to $15 per hour. Lest anyone suggest tempering expectations, 15 Now organizers invited Kshama Sawant, the city council member who spearheaded Seattle’s successful fight for $15 just over a year ago, to recount how labor, faith and community activists there turned an improbable goal into a reality for working people. ‘Minneapolis is one of the cities that is poised to win $15 this year,’ Sawant told activists. ‘Let the fight for $15 in Seattle be your guide, that with only one member of the City Council (initially supportive), we were able to get this done.’”
* My old friend Jerry Gordon, who has taught me a great deal about the labor and antiwar movements over the past fifty years or so, asked me to inform readers about a Labor Fightback Network conference at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, May 15-17. You can find out all about it here.
That’s all for this week.
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