Wednesday, September 28, 2011



When I was a little boy, I lived with my family in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, a town on the Orinoco River.  At times we would drive to the capitol city of Caracas, or to Maracaibo, where, as I recall, we would take a Grace Line boat back to the United States.  Both drives are quite long, even longer with the poor roads and the car tires of the years ca. 1946-50; rarely did we make the over 600 km. drive without at least two tire changes.

However, my strongest recollection of the trip was driving through the oil fields somewhere outside of Caracas and, most definitely outside of Maracaibo, which has some of the largest oil fields in the world.  Because of the length of these trips, we always entered Caracas or Maracaibo in the evening, and my most powerful memory was of gas flare-offs illuminating the distant night sky.  Bright tongues of fire, rising for what seemed to me like hundreds of feet, dotted the landscape beyond the relative safety of our road.  

Gas Flare-off from an oil rig

To me, these flare-offs were like threatening, prehistoric beasts, and I would feel uneasy until our car would leave them behind.  I was somewhere between the ages of seven and ten during these Venezuelan years, a fairly innocent young lad.  Still, I questioned my father about those flare-offs.  I would ask:  “Isn’t it a waste of perfectly good gas?”   “Why can’t they find some way to pipe and contain it?”   “Can’t they turn it to use for the people living in the region?”

I don’t recall many specifics from my father’s answers to my questions, but, essentially, he said this is the way oil extraction work is done, that the burn-off of gas is also done as a safety precaution,  and, anyway, there is no easy way to bottle or contain the gas.  Now, this latter statement, coming from a man who had taught me, early on, “never to say never,” did not sit well with me.  I thought:   “So what if it may not be easy?”   “There must be a way to contain that flare gas, and we should find that way to avoid such a waste of resources!”

But as the oil fields disappeared from view, I would drop the subject and accept my father’s explanations.  After all, my father was a highly-educated geologist and the head of iron ore exploration in Venezuela for US Steel.  Still, to this day, in my mind, the flame-off is a metaphor for thoughtless corporate greed, lazy technology, and inadequate science.  It reeks of complacency and sloppiness.

Now, keep in mind, these were the thoughts of a young boy under the age of ten.  The environmental movement which had its beginnings in the nineteenth century had waned by this time;  DDT was still the pesticide of choice; and Rachel Carson had yet to awaken the world with her wonderfully popularizing books, The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Silent Spring (1962).  Not that this particular boy, in 1951, would have ever read The Sea Around Us; reading, back then, was far from his favored activities, such as combining tree branches, strips of rubber cut from Mack truck inner-tubes, and leather patches to make slingshots, climbing mango trees, and taking pot shots at iguanas. 

All I was doing with my questioning was simply giving free rein to my common sense.  It hardly takes a grown-up or a college education to distinguish activities that are destructive from those that are constructive.  Common sense, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary constitutes “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.”

To me, those gas field flare-offs were neither reasonable nor safe.  And today, we have the data to prove this to be true.  Canadian researchers have measured more than sixty air pollutants carried downwind from natural gas flares, and among the air pollutants released, according to a California study of 2001, are: benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including naphthalene, acetaldehyde, acrolein, propylene, toluene, xylenes, ethyl benzene and hexane. [for more on oil industry harmful pollutants, see my blogpost “Our Water & Fracking, Sunday, February 6, 2011]

Moreover, these pollutants are merely the icing on this destructive “cake.” The cake itself is the tons of carbon dioxide and methane that are major contributors to global warming and to the (very likely) eventual destruction of life on earth.


But that was then, you may say. This is now. We have learned better. The environmental movement grew once more after the publication of Carlson’s Silent Spring (1962), and today’s world can even boast of green parties that promote sustainable societies based on environmentalism, social liberalism and grassroots democracy.

And yet, oil field flare-offs still exist. The worst examples are in Russia, Nigeria and Iran, but they can be found anywhere where oil is being extracted from the ground. In the past decade, Nigeria has received the most press, and rightly so. Shell Oil’s operations in the Niger Delta have polluted the region for decades, destroyed the lives and livelihood of the native tribes, most notably the Ogoni, and threaten the health of our global environment. Those operations also led to the murder of the now legendary and internationally-recognized activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Boy walking past gas flare-off near Port Harcourt, Nigeria

In an article written in 2010 on Nigerian oil production, Daniel Howden refers to the “destructive and wasteful practice of gas flaring” and notes ironically that “the gas flares, some of which have been burning constantly since the 1960s, are visible from space. In a country where more than 60 per cent of the people have no reliable electricity supply, the satellite images show the flares burning more brightly than the lights of Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos.”

Howden goes on to observe that the Nigerian flare-off, “If put through a modern, combined-cycle power station...could fuel about a quarter of Britain's power needs. It is equivalent to more than one third of the natural gas produced in the UK's North Sea oil and gas fields and would meet the entire energy requirements of German industry.” So, while our global oil corporations pretend to be the champions of western (and global) energy needs, they also disregard those needs and continue to squander potentially vast energy sources because they don’t want to spend any extra money to harness them.

Since Russia leads all countries in regard to the volume of flare-off, its pollution is even worse, although it most likely causes less deleterious effects on the local populations than in the Niger Delta.

Russia, natural gas flare-offs

But what of our country, the United States? My childhood memories in Venezuela were awakened by recent events in America: specifically, in yesterday’s New York Times. There, Clifford Kraus wrote an article titled, “In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie.” I could hardly believe my eyes.

North Dakota, natural gas flare-off

Kraus writes that, in North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields, on a daily basis, “more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way - enough energy to heat half a million homes for a day.”  He goes on to observe that, “all told, 30 percent of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is burned as waste. No other major domestic oil field currently flares close to that much, though the practice is still common in countries like Russia, Nigeria and Iran.”

How could this be happening in the United States of America?  Don’t we have regulations?  Even Nigeria has regulations:  flare-offs have been illegal there since 1984, only Shell and those in power whom it pays off simply ignore the laws. 

Of course, with our democratic system of checks and balances, our lawmakers can’t be bought off.  Well, at least not in the way of Nigeria, which is simply to turn a blind eye to illegal activity.  In America, our lawmakers have to work for their bribes.  They have to draft and then pass new bills that weaken governmental regulations, thus enabling the large corporations to do as they please with our land and its resources.  It’s all quite legal.

Our lawmakers, Republicans in particular, just let the major energy corporations help them write new legislation.  Dick Cheney’s task force, charged with developing America’s energy policy, held secret meetings and relied on the recommendations of Big Oil:  Exxon, Mobil, Conoco, Shell Oil, BP America and Chevron.  Moreover, during the Bush/Cheney years in the White House, “the oil and gas industry has spent $393.2 million on lobbying the federal government.”  [on our politicians appeasing large corporations, see my blog post “America’s Corporate Dragon,” Saturday, April 2, 2011]

Most of this money went to Republican members of Congress.  For example, in the 2006 election cycle, oil and gas companies contributed over $19 million to political campaigns (82% to Republicans); in 2004 it was over $25 million (80% to Republicans), and in 2000 it was over $34 million (78% to Republicans).  Some of this money surely purchased the weakening of regulations on flare-offs, and there’s not much that we can do about it except to vote in many more environmentally-conscious politicians.  The situation in America today is as dire as ever.  As Dan Froomkin has written, “Now that the House is controlled by the GOP, Obama's proposal [to repeal the enormous subsidies to the oil and gas industries] is deader than an oil-soaked pelican. Over the last decade in particular, the Republican Party's anti-tax policies and pro-drilling campaign rhetoric have become nearly indistinguishable from those of Big Oil.”

Thus, at North Dakota’s Bakken shale field, as Clifford Krauss notes, “the widespread flaring is a step backward for a domestic energy industry. Most oil and gas fields in the United States have well-developed facilities to gather and process gas. But the recent rise of shale drilling has changed the economic calculus....[and] in the Bakken, drillers have found it more profitable to just grab the oil and burn the gas.

Natural gas flare-off, Bakken shale field, North Dakota

We have better solutions to managing natural gas emissions. One can reinject it back underground. One can convert it into liquid fuel (although this is an expensive option). And one can convert it into jet fuel (a much more affordable process). But these solutions require a strong will, and such a will needs to be backed by strong regulations, which we no longer have.

Corporations do not willingly spend money on the common good. Instead, they spend money on television ads like the one making the rounds today in which Exxon geologist Erik Oswald assures us that fracking is harmless, that “technology has made it possible to safely unlock this cleaner burning natural gas...[that] these deposits can provide us with fuel for a hundred years...[and provide us with] energy security.” Oswald is photogenic and handsome; he looks at us and speaks so earnestly; it’s hard not to believe him. However, he is lying to us. One cannot “safely unlock” this gas any more than one can claim that the flare-offs are necessary or are safe.

I don’t know what we ordinary citizens can do. We don’t have the money to buy back our politicians (both the 80% who are Republicans and the 20% who are Democrats). We can’t afford to hire four lobbyists for every member of Congress, as Big Oil does. We certainly can’t rely on Congress to do what’s right for America and our earth, especially when half of these supposedly educated people find it convenient to deny the findings of hard science.

However, we are in danger of destroying our planet in the very near future, and the activities of the oil corporations are playing a major role in this destruction. Within the next twenty years, we are likely to reach the tipping point when nothing we can do will reverse the process set in motion by our irresponsible and greedy activities. Kevin Schaefer of the US Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, CO states in regard to global warming: “Our research shows that the release of carbon from permafrost will result in an irreversible climate tipping point in only 20 years... Once the frozen carbon thaws out and decays, there is no way to put it back into the permafrost.”

What are we to do?  A blog post like this won't reach many people (and what if it did?).  Anyway, it's too long for most readers (my apologies).  Maybe what we need are more naive, eight-year-old boys in charge of the world's oil corporations--or at least eight-year-old boys as young sons of the presidents of those corporations, exercising their common sense by asking their dads some tough questions about what they are doing to insure the future of our world.

1 comment:

  1. I too was very disturbed when I read that NY Times article the other day about the wasted Natural Gas from North Dakota shale fields. In addition to being extremely wasteful, it is polluting and ruining our environment, our planet. I feel as a nation we are thinking too short-term. I remember an interview that Bill Moyers had with Oren Lyons, Faith-Healer of the Iroquois Nation in which Oren Lyons said that one has to think about the consequences of actions to seven generations in making decisions. I hope we heed that advice now.