Tag Archives: oil

Too little, too late

nigerian oil spillThe chief executive of Shell is scheduled to visit Nigeria, according to a recent article, to win support for clean-up efforts in the Niger Delta.

This after a Unep report called for $1 billion to clean up oil spills in Ogoniland, which, according to Nigerian government data, number more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000 alone.

After decades of inaction, Shell is finally making some moves in the right direction. Undermining such moves, however, is the fact that Shell blames spills on attacks on its installations – rather than on decades of lax environmental standards, evident in the flaring of methane that is a part of everyday life for residents of the Delta.

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Filed under environment, imperialism

Why I Will Be There

From August 20th to September 3rd, a massive demonstration will take place in Washington, D.C. to protest the planned Keystone XL Pipeline, which is slated to bring tar sands oil all the way from Canada to the refineries along the TX gulf coast.  Bill McKibben has described this as an action to defuse the largest carbon bomb in North America.

Looks like fall is going to be a season of discontent.  A series of powerful videos have recently been posted by activists who plan to attend a demonstration in October 2011 to protest our current state of militarized austerity, which of course also has an incredibly destructive effect on the environment.  Journalist Chris Hedges’ explanation of why he plans to attend this event and engage in civil disobedience is particularly powerful, and also serves as a useful explanation for why one might protest the Keystone XL pipeline later this month.

Hedges’ video is one of many powerful pieces that articulate the need for nonviolent direct action at this crucial moment in the struggle for climate justice.  It’s a hard-hitting critique of capitalism’s insatiable need to expand, and, in doing so, to consume the planet.  This is scary stuff, and Hedges delivers his indictment in a pretty dour manner.

Perhaps, in addition to such searing indictments, what the Climate Justice Movement also needs is a bit of humor.  After all, we need to win hearts and minds as well as engage in uncompromising analysis.  In this vein, it might be useful to juxtapose Robert Newman’s brilliant and funny History of Oil with Hedges’s video:

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The Global Oilscape

After water, oil is perhaps the most vital fluid for contemporary life.  It’s also the most invisible.  Huge amounts of effort are expended in hiding the impact of its extraction, refining, and mass consumption.

This is perhaps what makes President Obama’s comparison of the Macondo blowout in the Gulf to the Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. so radical.  For the first time, the global oilscape was presented front and center as a huge problem to the American public.

The centrality of oil in U.S. politics, its corrupting influence on government agencies such as the Minerals Management Service, the seamy global networks that oil links us to (after all, Osama bin Laden’s family made their money working for the oil potentates of Saudi Arabia), and the massive military expenditures that we must shell out to maintain its flow – all of these factors have been highlighted by the Macondo blowout.

Now we find the government telling us that the spill has magically evaporated.  I remember a similar story being told after 9/11.  I was teaching then, as now, at the College of Staten Island, commuting from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  This meant that I had to wait downtown for an express bus to take me to Staten Island.  I would come up out of the subway every day and smell a cutting steely smell on the air.  Most people walked around as if things were normal, in that bizarre seeming simulacrum of everyday life that took over from the time of the attacks.  But every now and then I would see someone wearing a heavy mask of some sort, and I would think that they really had things sussed out.  Had I been waiting around longer for my bus, I probably would have invested in a similar mask.

Of course, years later, the government’s assurances that air pollution in downtown Manhattan was negligible after 9/11 have been revealed for the shocking canard that they clearly seemed to me at the time.  But such mendaciousness continues, this time in the Gulf of Mexico.  We’re told that all the oil has evaporated or been mysterious consumed by microorganisms.  This after BP’s policy of spraying toxic dispersant in a clear attempt to hide the extent and gravity of the spill.  Such transparent lying beggars the imagination.

I want to close this piece on the Macondo blowout and the global oilscape by recommending an excellent article by the wonderful writer Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books.  Solnit provides a wealth of important information about the Gulf and New Orleans, putting the Macondo blowout in the context of a long history of environmental destruction in the area.  New Orleans and its surrounding bayous and waters, one of the most ecologically and culturally vibrant parts of this country, has been dealt yet another death blow.  We all stand to lose a great deal if this unique and vibrant place is destroyed.

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The Oil Curse

We Americans are very attached to our oil.  It’s the ultimate lubricant, greasing our dreams of limitless horizontal velocity in fast cars across wide vistas, and of unlimited vertical ascent through the rarefied cultural strata of philanthropists and socialites. Best of all, oil is both ubiquitous and virtually invisible – most of the time.

I remember watching old reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies as a kid, a show whose situational comedy derived from the immense wealth suddenly conferred on a bunch of Appalachian yokels when someone strikes oil on their land.  The joke of course was that you can take the hick out of the hills but you can’t take the hills out of the hick.  But the Clampetts are noble savages, and their lack of pretension is used to mount a scathing critique of the excesses of Los Angeles’s fleshpots, just as Montaigne had done to the ancien regime using his cannibals.

Yet the show never questioned oil.  It was simply assumed, common sense, that the discovery of oil would lead to instant and enduring wealth for the lucky proprietors of crude-rich land.  We should have known better.  Already back in 1927, Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! had shown how the discovery of black gold could tear apart not just a family, not just a community, but the entire nation, as the flow of easy crude-derived money jammed into the veins of the polity like a huge syringe, spreading decadence, corruption, and violence to all the corners of the land.

In his recent book Crude World, Peter Maass travels the world, visiting oil-blighted countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador, the violence-ridden Niger Delta, and the corrupt oil oligarchy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Everywhere he goes, Maass finds that oil exemplifies the so-called resource curse: rather than bringing Beverly Hillbilly-style instant, uncouth wealth, it exacerbates existing problems and creates intractable new ones.  Oil has not enriched such places, but has instead brought lower growth, higher corruption, less freedom, and more warfare.  Maass comes across some graffiti in Ecuador’s Amazon region: “Más Petróleo = Más Pobreza” [more oil = more poverty].

Usually Americans don’t think much about such issues.  But oil has become all too visible of late.  The massive leak following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon has revealed all the shadowy, corrupt webs of power that sustain oil extraction within the U.S.  It is very timely, then, that a scathing critique of Chevron, the world’s 4th largest oil company, should have been published today, right in time for the annual shareholder meeting.  The report, The True Cost of Chevron, details the environmental, political, and social costs of oil production around the world.

For we should remember that, as horrifying as the Deepwater Horizon spill may be (hopefully we’ll find out the true extent of the problem one day), in many places around the world exposure to the toxic products of the petroleum industry is a normal part of life.  The images of peasants from the Niger Delta walking nonchalantly past gas flares, which burn day and night, constantly emitting toxic fumes into the air, underline the banality of this evil.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster offers us an opportunity to rally opposition within the U.S. to the “oil curse,” and to push for a just transition to a truly sustainable economy.  A good way to start would be by putting the CEOs of corporations that pollute the environment with massive oil spills or gas flares in prison.

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