Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The price of oil

There was an episode of "The Munsters" where Grandpa invented a pill for turning water into gas. He also accidentally put insomniac Marilyn into an enchanted sleep, so it was fortunate that the representative from the petroleum company was a handsome young man with the last name Prince.

One of the plot twists was that the company wanted to pay Grandpa to keep the pill off the market. They had no intention of stopping their petroleum production, and they didn't want the competition that the pill would provide. Does that sound far-fetched?

Extracting oil from tar sands releases three times the CO2 as regular oil production. It involves strip mining and is also water-intensive, requiring as many as five barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced. A large project is slated in the Amazon Rainforest Basin, which makes the CO2 production especially unfortunate.

The process has some similarities to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". Fracking is also very water intensive, but instead of releasing extra CO2 into the air, it is more likely to contaminate the groundwater. It release carcinogens into the environment, largely because there are so many chemical in the fracking fluid. Of the up to 600 chemicals involved, ingredients can include lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde.

Those sound pretty awful. With record-breaking high temperatures, increased release of CO2 sounds really irresponsible. With drought spreading, processes that require intensive water use should be weighed very carefully.

Do we need to pursue oil quite this rigorously? Probably not. Currently oil inventory is increasing, because production exceeds consumption.

You could really stimulate the economy (as well as help the planet) developing green technologies, but the oil companies don't want to do that, because oil is what they do. That's what they're used to. They don't want to change.

(Incidentally, one of the polluters there is an oil recycling plant.)

One of the scenes that stayed with me is a woman talking about her mother investing in that home. She bought it and improved it and hung on to it because she wanted there to be somewhere for her family to go. That is a heartwarming sentiment, and home ownership is economically responsible, but that home is not a safe place now. Every home in that neighborhood has someone who has died of cancer.

That is a lot of human suffering. There is illness and death, discomfort from the smell, and economic hardship involved. The water is unsafe, but has still been subject to manipulation by the water company.

The Supreme Court just ruled that regulators have to consider the financial impact on a business when they are regulating it. Were these companies required to consider the health impact of their polluting? The economic impact of making these homes - the primary assets of the residents - unsalable?

So my question is why do we keep putting the needs of companies ahead of people? It's not because they are morally superior, or a force for good. You can call them job creators, but are these good jobs? Would they provide better jobs if they weren't allowed to wreak havoc?

It shows up over and over again. It's not always obvious, but when you drill down into human suffering, there is usually someone making a profit on it.

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