Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Downwind from Standing Rock


For the last few years Alaskans have been arguing over a hole in the ground.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t just any hole.

This hole is filled with a treasure vast beyond imagination.

It’s quite literally the stuff the future is made from. Gold. Silver. Copper. Molybdenum. Palladium. Rhenium. Thousands upon thousands of tons of it. It’s one of largest deposits of its kind ever identified – maybe the largest, we won’t really know until we get to the bottom of the hole.  If we ever do.

Wait, what? The stuff the future is made from? The future? Gold and silver, sure. Maybe copper. But what are those other things? Molibud a num? Moly bead enum? Moly … oh screw it. Palladium? Isn’t that what fueled Ironman’s comic book reactor? And rhenium sounds like a discount white wine from California what comes in a box.

Treasure you say?


Oh, yes. Treasure. Billions upon billions of dollars worth.

You see, these are the metals and rare earths that make our modern lives possible. Without these metals there would be no cell phones, no computers, no flat screen TVs, no satellite GPS, and your smart cars and smart refrigerators and increasingly smarter gadgets would be a whole lot dumber and more crude and dirty. Gold and silver aren’t just for jewelry, they’re integral to modern electronics, computer systems, and communications. Molybdenum and Rhenium are used in advanced super strong alloys like you need to build jet turbines, rocket combustion chambers, and turbo-pumps – all the stuff needed to launch the satellites that hold our civilization together. Palladium is used in catalytic converters turning poisonous exhaust gases into harmless vapor. These metals are used in everything from spaceships to medical technology.  Without these materials, you wouldn’t be reading this, because I wouldn’t have written it – I’m pretty good with a keyboard, but twenty years of military service left my hands damaged and writing longhand with a pen for more than a few lines is hideously painful for me. Without these metals and the technology which results from them, I’d have to find another line of work.

So, yes. Treasure. Vast and glittering.

To get at it will require an open-air strip mine two miles in diameter and nearly a mile deep along with tens, hundreds, of miles of underground tunnels and a vast processing infrastructure including an enormous workforce – eventually making the Pebble Mine one of the largest in the world. This mine, should it be approved would create thousands of jobs, more when you include the equipment makers, the millions of tons of supplies needed every year of its operation, the support staff, the regulators, the investment bankers, and all the industries that will eventually use the metals.

And since this is Alaska, pulling these metals from our soil makes the US safer because we are not dependent on foreign suppliers for these critical materials.

But there’s a catch.

And it’s a big one.

You see the gold and silver, the copper, the molybdenum and palladium and rhenium, are all mixed together with ten billion tons of ore.

And to get it out requires a number of very toxic technologies. Even under the strictest of environmental regulations, byproducts of the extraction process will produce billions upon billions of gallons of poisonous waste water and more than ten billion tons of toxic mine tailings. All of which will have to be contained permanently. And so the plan is to store this material in two very large lakes – one of those lakes, for example, would be over 740 feet deep (taller by 20 feet than the Hoover Dam) and more than four miles long. These lakes would be contained behind earthen dams. And that containment would have to be forever.

Yes, forever.

In the rugged, extreme, unpredictable climate of Alaska. In one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.

That material can never escape. Ever. Not even a hundred years after the last of the ore has been mined.

It will have to remain contained behind those walls forever.

Because directly below the proposed mine site is Bristol Bay, one of the world’s largest and richest fisheries and one of the world’s most unique and delicate habitats. 

Any leak, any accident, any failure of any kind and the risk is devastation on a scale so massive that it can’t even be calculated. Entire ecosystems could be lost forever. Entire ways of life, ways of life that stretch back to roots ten thousand years old, could be lost forever. The cost to America in lost food stocks alone could be more than the value of all the metals pulled from the mine when calculated over long term timescales – and if that food doesn’t come from American waters it will have to come from foreign ones.

You see, when the metals are gone, they’re gone, and you’re left with a big hole in the ground. But the fish and other seafood that are harvested from Bristol Bay are an endlessly sustainable resource so long as there’s an environment to maintain the stocks.  If you destroy it, if you destroy that delicate life-system with acid and heavy metals and ten billion tons of contaminated sludge you’ll lose it all

If there’s a failure, the mine owners (which are almost entirely foreign firms) will still pocket the profit from the metals. Those people will go on as before. Whether they get rich or not, it’s not their way of life that is at risk because they don’t live in Alaska. They don’t depend on Bristol Bay for their very identity. If the dams fail, if contamination gets into the environment, they’ll pay their fines – or delay in the courts like Exxon before them – and go on as before.  They have no investment in Alaska beyond money. Once the metals are gone, they leave, they’ll move on to some other place, some other hole in the ground.

All the risk is on those living downstream.

It’s their lives, those Alaskans, their way of life, that is at stake. 

If the containment fails in any way, ever, they lose. No matter what else happens, no matter who gets rich or who gets hurt, they lose. They lose it all. No apology, no amount of money, nothing, could ever give them back that way of life.

That’s the risk.

That is the risk, from the minute the first shovel-full is dug until forever.

There can never, ever, be an accident.


And what are the odds of that?


What are the odds that a lake of toxic sludge deeper than the Hoover Dam is tall won’t leak?

What are the odds an industrial operation two miles in diameter and a mile deep into the earth won’t have an accident?

What are the odds that somewhere in those hundreds of miles of tunnels, there won’t be a mistake?

What are the odds that ships carrying the chemicals to the mine won’t sink or the train from the harbor won’t derail?

What are the odds that the engineers and designers and Wall Street wizards have foreseen every possible scenario? Every possible disaster? Every failure? And adequately prepared for those eventualities?

What are the odds the EPA has foreseen every impact on the unique and fragile Alaskan ecosystem?

What are the odds that the company, or some other agency, won’t deliberately dump toxic waste into the environment through malice or negligence or sheer laziness and greed?

What are the odds Bristol Bay and that Alaskan way of life won’t be affected now or in the future?


The odds? Not very damned good, actually.


Lakes like the proposed Pebble Mine holding reservoirs fail, well, a lot. 

It’s not that the idea is entirely bad, it’s that the overall mining operation itself is already complicated and expensive. So, mining companies tend to focus on extracting the valuable ore and pay only the minimal required attention to ancillary functions – such as environmental containment.  For example: On August 4th, 2014, at a British Columbia mine very similar to the proposed Pebble Mine, a containment dam failed. Millions of gallons of toxic waste water and contaminated slurry poured through the breach at the Mount Polley Mine and into Polley Lake and then downstream into Quesnel Lake and into the Cariboo River. It took four days for the entire two mile long lake to drain almost completely and it couldn’t be stopped. The full extent of the environmental impact isn’t yet known, it’ll be years before it is. Now, the thing is this wasn’t a disaster in some Third World country with corrupt governments and non-existent regulations. This was Canada. Modern technology, some of the best mining engineers in the world, strong environmental regulations, and yet the dam failed. Why? Well, Imperial Metals, the company which owns the Mount Polley Mine had a history of over filling the tailings pond well beyond its designed capacity. They’d been doing it for years. Because they could. Because any failure would be cheaper in fines and damages than building a new containment system. Because all the risk was downstream.

In fact since 1960 there have been more than 100 major mine tailings dam failures worldwide, and thousands more minor incidents. The most recent happened just last month at a bauxite mine in Henan Province, China, where the failure of a containment dam released two million cubic meters (more than half a billion gallons) of toxic red mud which completely buried Dahegou village. Hundreds of villagers had to be evacuated and thousands of domestic farm animals and livestock were drowned. This happened in a place where the government executes company CEOs and Government officials for such failures – and yet it still happened.

But I’m not really talking about dams.

I’m talking about risk.

On March 24, 1989, Good Friday, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef and ruptured its hull. Eleven million gallons of heavy crude poured into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound for more than a week creating one of the most devastating environmental disasters in human history. The oil companies, the State of Alaska, and the federal government never anticipated such an accident and there was no plan to deal with it. Equipment, personnel, leadership, funding, and expertise were all woefully lacking.  Why? How could something like this happen? The Exxon Valdez was (then) a modern supertanker. Bligh Reef was noted on every chart and the navigation channel to the open sea through Prince William Sound was well mapped and a route tankers routinely transited hundreds of times.  The weather was good that night, or as good as it gets in Alaskan waters. So what happened? Human nature, that’s what happened. The most experienced man onboard was Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who it turned out was also a drunk.  Instead of being in the pilot house that day, he was below in his cabin sleeping off the previous night’s bender.  The vastly less experienced Third Mate was piloting the vessel through the most difficult part of its passage – the part where the Captain should have been on the bridge (and I say this as someone who has had the bridge myself during difficult passage).  Now the mate might have been able to make the passage without running the ship aground, despite his inexperience, if he’d had the proper tools at his disposal. The single most important piece of navigation equipment in this case would have been the RAYCAS (Raytheon Collision Avoidance System), a type of automated radar system which if it had been working would have set off an alarm when it detected the radar reflector mounted on top of the rocks of Bligh Reef – specifically for this purpose. But the RAYCAS hadn’t worked in more than a year because the company felt it was too expensive to maintain. The crew themselves were exhausted – ships don’t make money sitting in port, and companies don’t make money by hiring excessive hands, so tankers like the Valdez ran with the minimum number of crew possible (the Valdez’s 1989 crew was half the size it was designed for in 1977) and worked 12-14 hour watches plus overtime. And finally the Exxon Valdez, despite being a modern vessel, had only a single hull, not the double hulls designed to prevent exactly this type of accident. Why? You know why. You know the answer to all the questions above:  it was cheaper. Millions of dollars cheaper. So, exhausted crew. Failed equipment. No safety systems. Poor leadership. Utterly inadequate disaster plan. All in the name of profit.  And 1,300 miles of coastline and more than 11,000 square miles of ocean were contaminated as a result. Untold numbers of fish, sea otters, seals, and birds were killed. Entire industries were wiped out and never recovered. Today, nearly thirty years later, you can still turn over rocks along the coast of Prince William Sound and find oil from the Exxon Valdez – I’ve done it myself. 

Entire ways of life were lost forever.

But not for Exxon. The company was fined – and they fought that penalty for more than 30 years in Alaskan courts until they’d finally bought enough politicians and found themselves enough sympathetic judges to get the fine whittled down to practically nothing. Meanwhile they raked in enormous profits and made their shareholders rich and not one of the people responsible had to change their lives in any way – including Hazelwood, who kept right on drinking and who holds a Master’s license to this day.

It was the people of Prince William Sound who paid for Exxon’s risk. It was their lives that changed forever.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest environmental disaster of its kind right up until April 20, 2010.

That’s the day the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

Five thousand feet below the Gulf of Mexico, sub-standard materials (used to reduce costs), failed safety equipment (that wasn’t adequately maintained or routinely tested), human error, inadequate emergency protocols, and lackadaisical enforcement of regulations all came together in disaster. Methane under enormous pressure from the 18,000 foot deep bore hole surged upward into the Deepwater Horizon’s drilling room and exploded, tearing the rig apart and engulfing the wreckage in flames. The crew abandoned the platform, unable to fight the massive conflagration. Eleven men didn’t make it off and were never found, likely they died in the initial explosion. Support vessels unsuccessfully battled the flames for two days before the rig finally sank in 5100 feet of water.  But that was only the beginning of the disaster. Down below, the massive device that should have prevented this disaster in the first place and was designed specifically to cap the well in an emergency, the blowout preventer, had failed. Not one of its three redundant safety systems worked and oil was spewing uncontrolled from the ruptured well at rate of tens of thousands of barrels per day.  Once again the companies involved, British Petroleum, Anadarko, Transocean, and Halliburton had no plan for such an disaster. No one had foreseen having to cap a well 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean. The equipment didn’t exist. Plans and procedures were nothing more than than the vaguest of outlines. And while the experts worked feverishly to develop a solution, 4.9 million barrels of oil (about 210 million gallons) blew into the waters of the Gulf. The devastation was unfathomable. An untold number of marine life and sea birds died. Beaches and coastal wetlands from southern Florida to Texas saw oil wash ashore and 68,000 square miles of ocean waters were contaminated. The Gulf fishing industry across five states and Mexico was devastated. The Gulf Coast tourist industry collapsed. It took 87 days to cap the well, but it continued to leak oil into the Gulf into 2012.

And once again, in the end it was human nature, greed, laziness, and the willingness to risk other people’s lives and way of life that was the cause.

Again, it was the people of the Gulf who paid the price for corporate risk.

BP eventually agreed to pay one of the largest fines in history, but that money can’t bring back a way of life that died with a billion tons of marine life smothered in oil.

And once again those who made the decisions that led directly to this disaster remain unaffected, their lives, their way of life, continues.

I could go on. The list of similar disasters stretches back through history, from Love Canal to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, from the Castle Bravo nuclear test which despite the very best scientific minds of the time unexpectedly rendered a huge chunk of the South Pacific uninhabitable to the bombs which contaminated the Southwest from New Mexico all the way to the Mississippi and gave us the term “downwinders,” from Chernobyl to Bhopal to Three Mile Island and the Tokaimura Nuclear Plant, to just last week when a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck Oklahoma – an area not prone to quakes until the advent of fracking wastewater injection wells – after a week of smaller temblors. 

The risk is always on those downstream, the downwinders, the ones who never agreed to take it and who rarely if ever profit from it.

This is true no matter how many times you care to run the experiment.


And that takes us to North Dakota and the Sioux People of Standing Rock Reservation


The proposed 1200 mile long Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would transport crude oil from the oil rich Bakken Formation in North Dakota down through through South Dakota, Iowa, and into Illinois, where it would connect to other existing pipelines. The oil would then be transported to US refineries in the Midwest, East Coast, and the Gulf Coast. Most of the DAPL would be underground and is expected to move nearly half a million barrels of oil per day.  Dakota Access, the project’s lead developer, says that the pipeline would add an estimated $156 million to various state coffers and provide, temporarily, 8,000 to 12,000 constructions jobs.  Dakota Access claims the $3.7 billion project will "bring significant economic benefits to the region that it transverses” – though exactly what “significant” means after the pipeline is constructed and in operation is subject to broad interpretation. Since at that point there’s not a lot of effort required anywhere but at the ends of the pipeline (for example: The Alyeska Pipeline crosses 830 miles of Alaskan wilderness. Building it was a hell of a task. But nowadays all the action involves putting oil in one end and taking it out of the other and there’s not a lot of jobs in the middle).

But see, here’s the thing: part of the proposed pipeline would cross native American lands.

Some of that land is sacred to the Sioux – and before you get all dismissive of that, think of the outcry if Native Americans were demanding the right to bulldoze Christian churches and cemeteries to build an Indian Casino. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if the shoe was on the other foot.

In point of fact, the very land here, Dakota, is named for these people, the Lakota Sioux.  Their roots in this soil go back thousands of years and who are you to decide what is sacred and what is not to such a people?

Other portions of the pipeline cross the Missouri River – the source of water for the entire reservation, along with millions of others. If there is a failure, an accident, deliberate malice, unforeseen events, unanticipated faults, fire, flood, terrorism, any of the disasters listed above, then a people’s way of life could be lost forever.

Again, the risk here, the risk to sacred history, the risk to lives and ways of life, that risk is all downstream. If there is a failure, those who profit from the DAPL won’t have to change anything. They’ll go on as before in their offices in Sioux City and Houston and Washington and Wall Street. But the people who live on that land, whose ancestors are buried in that soil, will suffer the consequences. They take all the risk.

This last weekend, Energy Partners Inc. (a partnership of oil interests) turned dogs loose on peaceful Native American protesters – and they were protesting peacefully.  The dogs attacked people and horses which some of the Native Americans were riding. This wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t the first time. It’s an attempt at intimidation, a deliberate attempt to silence the people who will have to bear the risk of the proposed pipeline against their will.

This last weekend, construction teams employed by Energy Partners Inc. bulldozed a two mile long, 150 foot wide path through land sacred to the Standing Rock Reservation tribe. Ancient native American cairns, prayer rings, and burial sites – some hundreds of years old – were deliberately destroyed. Remember the outcry from outraged Americans when Taliban forces destroyed ancient religious sites in Afghanistan? Those same people are curiously silent today.

The land in question is currently being contested in Federal Court. Native Americans are seeking a permanent injunction preventing the pipeline from passing under this land. Instead of waiting for the court’s ruling, the oil companies attempted a fait accompli by bulldozing a path through native lands. This is going on right now, native America people are once again fighting for their rights and their way of life, but you see very little of it in the media, because unlike those temples in Afghanistan it’s not a popular cause.


Well, you see, just as America needs those metals in Alaska, America needs the oil of North Dakota.

Our civilization, our way of life, depends on it.

Our way of life depends on it, our manifest destiny, and so the concerns of Native Americans are once again forfeit.

The risk is all on the Sioux.

The Sioux and every person living downstream on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

And what are the odds there will never be an accident? What are the odds there will never be a leak, a fire, an act of sabotage, or negligence? What are the odds the company will use only the highest grade materials, despite the cost? What are the odds that same company will develop, fund, and maintain an effective emergency plan – and keep equipment and personnel standing by just in case?


What are the odds that a company who would bulldoze sacred ground and turn dogs on Americans will be any more altruistic in the future?


Understand something here, I’m not opposed to progress.

I’m not opposed to pipelines out of hand.

I’m not reflexively opposed to offshore drilling in deep waters – even including the pristine waters of my beloved Alaska.

I’m not opposed to mining.

I’m not opposed to profit. I’m not opposed to capitalism. I’m not opposed to business.

I benefit from those things every single day and I like the modern world.

The Dakota Access pipeline is part of a larger conversation. We’ve talked much in recent years about energy independence and I think this is a good conversation to have. Without American money spent on Middle Eastern Oil, Osama bin Laden would have been just another Saudi. It was money from America’s need for oil that made his family rich and let him fund terrorism across the globe. One of the primary factors in the defeat of the Nazis in WWII was the Allies’ tactic of cutting Hitler off from oil, the Petroleum Campaign, and both Herman Goering and Albert Speer said after the war that the campaign contributed directly to the defeat of the Third Reich. The more energy we can find within our borders, the less vulnerable America is.

But it’s not my way of life that is immediately at risk here.

And the Sioux – and everybody living downstream of this pipeline on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers – shouldn’t to have to bear the entire risk for the rest of the country, for me.

It is long past time that these companies, and the government agencies charged with their oversight are required to share equal risk.

What do I mean?


During the Cold War, I was once stationed on the Island of Iceland.  The Icelanders didn’t want us there. You see, during WWII they were overrun by Allied servicemen, hundreds of thousands of them. More than the actual population of Iceland itself. Those troops, despite good intention, ravaged the island, destroying ecosystems and ways of life that stretched back to before the advent of Western Civilization. And when the war was over those troops left almost overnight, leaving behind an imploding economy, hollowed out jobs, and a whole bunch of pregnant Icelandic women.  By the time I arrived 60 years later the Icelanders had recovered. They’d learned their lesson, they reluctantly admitted they needed the protection of NATO and the US, being as they were without a military of their own and caught smack between Cold War superpowers, but it was on their terms not ours.

And the example which applies here is sheep.

Icelandic sheep are not cute furry little lambs like they are here in America. These creatures are massive and mean and they roam the island mostly free during much of the year. Icelandic wool is like nothing else in the world and for those who make a living from it each sheep is their life and livelihood. (Also, should you ever get to see a roundup and sorting during shearing season it’s well worth the trip to Iceland all by itself, though there are many other things to recommend the place).

As Americans, if we harmed one of those creatures in any way, say I hit one with the duty bus in the middle of a lava field because I couldn’t see the damned thing in a howling snowstorm in the middle of the seven month Icelandic winter, then we were responsible for paying not only for the value of the sheep itself, but for all the wool it might generate over its lifetime – and if it was female, all the offspring it could have potentially produced. The fines could be in the tens of thousands of dollars if you were unlucky enough to hit a young ewe with a decade of life ahead of her.  It made you very cautious, very respectful of Icelandic property and traditional ways of life. The Icelanders had found a way to share the risk, them for having us there, us for using their land. This approach, this practical Icelandic mindset, was common in the Status of Forces Agreement for things vastly more important than livestock and you were responsible for it before you were ever allowed to set foot on the island.

And it worked.

Projects like DAPL risk the lives of all the people in their shadows, they risk the fabric of the land – the legacy we intend for our children and future generations. Those that are to profit from these projects must be made to share equally, or more, in the risk. People who have had their way of life destroyed shouldn’t have to go hat in hand to the courts after a disaster, asking for satisfaction.  Projects like this, like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, or the Macando Prospect in the Gulf, or the Dakota Access Pipeline should be required to put up damages before the first shovelful of ore is dug or the first barrel of oil is pumped. A billion, $10 billion, $30 billion, $100 billion, whatever the worst case scenario is plus a margin of error.  Borrow it from the shareholders, or from the banks as a lien against the value of the company, or take it from quarterly profits. And a certain percentage should come from the taxpayer, whose representatives approved that project and are required to regulate it. Put that money into an escrow account with the signatories to include everybody downstream, every life, every job. If the project operates to completion without accident, or if there’s an accident and the company was aggressively prepared for it and dealt with it immediately and effectively, if after it’s done the cleanup and restoration meet with the satisfaction of those downstream, then the company and the taxpayer get their money back with interest – otherwise they forfeit it all. Every penny. That way those downstream get something even if the company files for bankruptcy – because the payout isn’t tied to the company’s ability to pay after the fact, but before.

That’s the risk. All or nothing.

Understand something, I’m not talking about damages here, I’m not talking about fines, I’m talking about risk.

Any fines or damages would be for the government to recover after the accident, same as now. The money in escrow would be for the people and lives affected. Not cleanup. Not mitigation. What I’m talking about is divorcing fines and penalties from personal settlements. I’m suggesting we put the settlement upfront, in advance, so that the risk might be shared by all parties with the majority burden where it belongs, on those who stand to profit the most.

I would suggest we need laws that hold company officer salaries and shareholder payouts forfeit in the event of an accident as well.

I can see a number of potential pitfalls right up front.

For example, what’s to keep somebody downstream from one day causing that accident? And then claiming his share of the resulting payout?

What’s to keep company officers from buying up interests downstream, then after they’ve extracted all they can from the project, allow it to fail. They then declare bankruptcy and quietly pocket the settlement money themselves. Then abandon both the worthless downstream properties and the remains of the company and move on – and now you know how to plot a John Grisham novel.

I can think of a dozen other ways off the top of my head to subvert this idea. And two dozen ways to prevent it. The details of how something like this would be administered fairly I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader and perhaps their congressional representatives.


How likely is any of this?

Somewhere between not very and no chance I would guess, but it’s an interesting mental exercise to imagine the world that would result if we all shared the risks of our society more equally.

In the end, this battle, the one being fought right now in North Dakota, affects far more than just a single Native American Tribe.

This affects us all, every single one of us.

We are all downstream.

We are all downwinders. 

We must have these metals, this oil, for those are the things from which our future is built. But we must have our past, our history, our sacred places, our way of life too, otherwise that future is hollow.

There must be balance.

This is each and every one of us our fight, our interest, our way of life, our sacred ground, our risk.

The people who stand to profit the most should willingly stand to risk the most.

The rest of us must stand with the Sioux.


  1. Two comments. First, we know where the metal is. It isn't going anywhere. Someday it will either be so precious that even exorbitantly expensive (i.e. as close to perfectly safe as we can make it for the environment) mining will still be profitable or we'll have figured out how to do without it. So why not wait. It isn't a polar bear that might be in Siberia next year. Second, we (people) do not deal well with very large numbers. We hear some corporation has been fined several million dollars and we think "wow, that's a huge amount" because it would be for us. But in reality several million dollars is the equivalent of a parking ticket for a Fortune 500 corporation. If we really want corporations to be deterred from doing things the fines need to start somewhere north of $100 million. Perhaps they should be a percentage of gross income. There are no fines in existence today for environmental damage that deter a major corporation. BP barely noticed the fines for Deepwater Horizon.

    1. Not to mention that our lovely legislators allowed, through lobbying (bribes), tax code that allows companies to deduct those fines from their taxes, so we the taxpayers are the ones paying them, not the companies.

    2. not to mention! ... the legal bribery is campaign contributions, not lobbying as such.

    3. Jim, I have been following you and donating to you for a couple of years. You have written extraordinary essays before but this one, this one is far and above the best I've read to date.
      You say the odds are between slim and none of something like your suggesting ever happening. I guess I'm an eternal optimist. I believe with enough pressure, we can, at the vert least, begin the journey.
      Something must be done to protect the downwinders from the abuses of profit at any expense.
      Thank you for another fantastic read.

    4. I don't understand why we don't build containment chambers for hazardous chemical waste. Earth won't stop seepage. Treat the stuff as if it was nuclear material. It's that hazardous. And for Gawd sakes don't let Halliburton get their hands on anything!

    5. While I partially agree with a fine based on gross earnings (say, 50% 0f each year the problem exists) I believe that the only *meaningful* fine is a huge percentage of the companies net worth. Again, something on the order of 50%. That, plus mandatory prison time for the CEO, plus whomever s/he cares to drag down as well. Then we will see action.

  2. ". . . holds a Master’s license to this this day."

    1. Hazelwood never had his masters' license revoked and it remains valid to this date, but he has been unable to find long-term work as a captain after the spill.

  3. Three cheers for responsibility AND balancing risk and benefit.

    I think of what might be called Total Cost Effectiveness, or TCE. It involves making decisions that cover ALL of the costs of a product, including those that may involve generations of toxics or disruption of existing eco systems. If businesses AND consumers considered TCE and prices reflected that, things would be done to reduce the impact front end. And part of that impact reduction could be escrow accounts or 'downstream disaster insurance.'

    I believe that it was Bucky Fuller that pointed out that pollution was a resource that people haven't figured out how to use. Could those so called wastes be resources for today? Current mindsets don't think enough about so called byproducts becoming products after a bit more processing. If you had to consider the risks posed by those byproducts, you would likely figure out ways to reduce them.

    Dennis R. Dickens

    1. "Could those so called wastes be resources for today?" If not immediatly, maybe in the not-to-distant future. A modern example is taconite. Taconite is a by product of iron ore processing the way it was done years ago. Taconite along with other debris from open-pit mining has been dumped across a large swath of northern Minnesota - the Iron Range as its called (and where I live). A few decades after it the taconite a process was found that made it feasible to get the relatively small amounts of iron ore that remained in the taconite. Now adays, technology has sped up so much that it might be even sooner.

  4. You are absolutely right on the mark, Jim. I live a few miles away from this travesty. Our senator, John Hoeven has a financial interest in the pipeline and our Republican governor and state officials have been in the back pocket of the oil industry for years and the whole project is backed by Wall Street so it's safe to assume there won't be any support for the Standing Rock Reservation except from the people. Their internet access was cut off as well as being subjected to the dog attacks and pepper spray. We just can't stop crapping on these people and I wouldn't be surprised to see a full-blown violent uprising. It's gonna get ugly but they have my unwavering support.

    1. Here in North Central Florida we are fighting the Same trail pipeline, a propane pipeline that we Floridians will get NO benefit from but which threatens the Suwannee river and the karst geology that makes up all of Florida. The pipeline will be made of thinner steel, to save money, than it would be constructed with in a more heavily populated area. And the line would punch through sinkhole infested ground and beneath the iconic and beloved Suwannee river. The threat to the river is huge. But the powers that be are pushing it forward against the local resident's concerns. Your ideas of setting aside funds for future disasters is sound, and you know as well as I do that in the mindset of a certain persuasion of politicians it will NEVER fly, sadly.

    2. There is only one way to fix the problems with the oil industry, create less people. Overpopulation is our biggest enemy and their greatest Allie. We must lower our numbers. What they cannot sell, they will not produce. The problem is creating a reliable form of birth control for both sexes. Right now women are the only one's with a reliable form of birth control. Even the Humane Society know's that in order to curb the growth of any species, you must alter the reproductive system of both sexes. Vasalgel is a reliable form of birth control for men, it has no side effects, lasts for 10 years and is completely reversable. It will be on the market around 2020. If you really want to stop the oil companies from killing planet earth, get on birth control. We need to raise our average age of first born births to 30 years old. The US is already at 26 and has been on the rise since the 1930's. Supply and demand is the only way to effectively fix the problem with oil companies.

  5. This Dakota Access Pipeline threatens the water and the welfare of 18 million Americans red, white black brown and yellow all down the Missouri RIver valley.

    It is a clear and present danger to National Security, and an attractive nuisance which presents an ever present and unsecurable target for terrorists.

    Before this past Labor Day weekend there were an estimated 100+ Tribal Nations represented, 2500 Souls plus their horses and res dogs, two camps, Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp, and three kitchens on the ground in residence at the redoubt at Standing Rock at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers near Fort Yates, North Dakota where the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have their Treaty Lands.

    Over the holiday weekend the owners and investors of the Dakota Pipeline project, part of the Keystone KXL complex of Pipelines which are draining all oils, shales, and fracked gases off of this continent to be sent to Communist China, hired mercenary companies among them 10-Code, GS-4 and Frost Kennels, to move bulldozers 20 miles and bring them onto the site that had been surveyed by archaeologists and certified to contain graves and cultural artifacts of significance.

    There, the peacefully assembled Water Protectors had already stopped construction on the pipeline in April because they were trying to bore it under the Missouri River without a permit and without the permission of the Standing Rock Sioux.

    The mercenary "security company" used electronics to block cell phone signals to keep the peacefully assembled Protectors from calling out for help. The Democracy Now and Amnesty folks had sat phones with them.

    The mercenaries used attack dogs to maul pregnant women, children, and men, maced them, and the DAPL intentionally bulldozed graves and cultural artifacts in an attempt to eradicate that evidence of cultural preservation. Pregnant women, children and men were bitten, as were the mercenaries when their dogs turned on them.

    All of this was photographed and filmed by Democracy Now, UN observers and Amnesty International observers.

    As soon as work got out the population at Standing Rock trebled in a day to what is now holding at an average of 7500 Souls + horses on a any given day, *three* full camps, *six* kitchens, 140+ and growing Tribal Nations, and one of the Tribal casinos in Minnesota showed up with 2.5 tons of food and chefs - and more of everything is still streaming in 24/7.

    This is not a protest. This is the largest gathering of First Nations on this continent - probably ever. Traditional enemies since before white people set foot on this continent have become friends and united.

    Cornplanter and Tecumseh dreamed of this.

    Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse said this would happen. Now - it is.

    The best coverage can be found at Indian Country Todayhttps://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork/?fref=ts

    Lakota Country Times https://www.facebook.com/lakotacountrytimes/?fref=ts

    Censored News https://www.facebook.com/Censored-News-428451600511125/?fref=ts

    Native News Online https://www.facebook.com/nativenewsnetwork/?fref=ts

    Native American and American Indian Issues https://www.facebook.com/groups/NAAIissues/

    I urge anyone who is interested to research for yourself.

    1. Thank you. This is about so much more than another pipeline, it's about humanity. We need to stop obsessing about oil and coal, and make the switch now to clean renewable energy and conserve our planet. We're global now. I applaud loudly the indigenous people for standing for us all. Still waiting to hear it on mainstream news. Because of the pipeline company's bully tactics, it should be a no-brainer to prohibit them for placing the line through at all. Keep spreading the news until enough people get justifiably outraged to make judges and elected officials realize their careers are over if the come down on the wrong side of this.

    2. Thank you.

      I'm third generation, both my sets of great-grandparents came over to the East Coast from Europe, between WWI and WWII. The fact that my literal ancestors had no active hand in what happened to the peoples who walked America for millennia before Europeans showed up to trash the place does not mean I do not have responsibility to repair what my cultural ancestors did. I benefit from the horrors imposed on Native Peoples, and the the African American community; and it's my duty as a human being to try to find my own way to repair the damage done.

      Right now I'm broke, so I'm knitting. Hats, hand warmers, mittens, more hats, scarves; I've put out a call to friends who have yarn stashes bigger than mine for winter weight yarn, so I can knit more. I'm posting the list of what Standing Rock needs daily, asking people to help. To my great pleasure, my friends have responded to both. Some are learning to knit. Some have sent money. Some with useful skills are making time to go out there. Others have reached out to their representatives to shake up the halls of power. Almost all of my friends are standing up for Standing Rock, becuase it's right to do so. And because it's the smallest possible thing we can do to repair the damage already done.

  6. I've always thought that companies should put up remediation costs before hand, but you make a great point that there is much more to be considered.

    Thank you!

  7. Wow, powerful essay, it is time to start that conversation.

    1. I believe the conversation is already begun. It needs to be louder. Joan Baez will lend her personal support on Monday I think. As an inveterate cane rattler I rattle my cane on the government fence often, loudly and long. Grab your cane and break into a full mosey. Rattle your local representative. Mine is Doris Matsui. Her office knows my name. Don't call, write, on paper, put a stamp on your convictions. If not you, who? If not now, when. Recycled paper is fine, blue ink is best for your signature. Hand deliver if you can, if not you can hire a personal delivery service with a Postage Stamp. Fine bargain. Fetch the paper.

      Cane Rattler. (crotalus horridus)

    2. Good thoughts! Thx for sharing! Logan

  8. I am one of the downwinders from the Mount Polley spill (I live in Quesnel). Not only did they routinely overfill the tailings pond but the government knew and kept letting them off with warnings and yet never followed through with consequences. I know someone who was fishing in the river that day and the water turned hot around his legs- it's unfathomable how much damage was done. We still don't know what the long term issues will be. With oil pipelines, it's not a matter of if it spills, it's a matter of when. The companies know it and yet they cut corners routinely and then they all go back to their homes in another country or corner of the province or state. I agree with you, Jim, we have to stand with the Sioux. I truly believe the First Nations people are our best hope for actually taking care of the environment. I read a comment in an article about Standing Rock yesterday where one man said what whites don't understand is that the water is a spirit and the land is a spirit and when you know them to be such, it's not so easy to divorce yourself from them and only see dollar signs.

    1. Even when we as white people learn that water, land and sky are Spirits, it too hard for us to stay grounded, when we are so busy living apart from the land. I know that the last several days, as I'm stuck in my bed room and off my feet except to used the bathroom, I've become too focus on my physical pain to remember to ground myself. Up here it's hard to focus and reach down to the soil under me to connect to the Mother Earth and pray. Thankfully I know my friends will send a biodegradable and sea life safe, offering out to sea tomorrow for me, since I can't come to the service.

  9. thank you...very well said. this seems to be what has been missing all along, I agree with all of your points. We should all be more than well aware of this at this point in time, the history is disgusting. And yes, the corporations pay pretty much what amounts to 5 cents compared to their net worth and profits.

  10. Much too logical, so it will never fly. When has a corporation ever actually shouldered the risks they got themselves into? Never, that's what lobbiests and campaign contributions all about.

  11. Thanks for another brick in the wall to segregate the 1% off to their loony bin of "profit, no matter who gets harmed!" Elegantly researched, passionately written, raising the cause of common Americans everywhere, most of us living in the shadow of the wreckage caused by those in the sole pursuit of more MONEY, with no concern for their victims OR the environment, and unrestricted pollution for all.

  12. Thank you for writing this. It is this kind of shared risk that could make capitalism sustainable.

  13. Thank you so much, I am getting quite an education from you, and for that I am grateful. So happy to have found you.

  14. In my opinion, this is one of the best essays I've read from you, Jim. Thank you, sir for putting in the effort to get to the core of the issue, as well as having data to back it up.

  15. Holy crap but that was a fantastic article!! Giving all that past history about Alaska and Iceland clearly highlighted the current North Dakota situation.

  16. You have quite possibly no idea how much reading this particular article means to me on this particular day. Thank you so very much for putting together all of the essential bits necessary to move forward on a number of levels!

  17. Just absolutely brilliant. Sad thing is, the people who need to read this ~ won't.

  18. Wow. Just...wow. Incredibly informative, sobering, and thought provoking. You know...if this could just be presented in prime time on the little screen, it might make a HUGE difference. Thank you Jim!

  19. If I were free of obligations three people and had the traveling money, I'd be up offering to cook or do anything needed that a 62 year old gal can do.

  20. Wow, Chief, you take that whole "don't come to me with a problem unless you come with a solution" thing to a whole 'nother level. BZ!

  21. Detailed, well thought out, to the point and educational. In short, one more of your typical articles. I wish we could get the short attention span people of the country to take the time to read these kinds of things. Or even better, have a news organization actually report on it. Well said Jim.

  22. I grew up down river on the Missouri and watched my father involved in fighting to protect our rivers in the 1960s because like you Jim, he knew we were all down river. He would be very disappointed at who we have become.

  23. I'm also from North Dakota and you want to know one of the crazy things about this? The pipeline was first supposed to be built on a northern route, which would have brought it close to the capital city of
    Bismarck but it was voted down - guess why??? Fear of polluting the drinking water for the city, the capital! Guess the people of Bismarck aren't as expendable as others must be. http://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/pipeline-route-plan-first-called-for-crossing-north-of-bismarck/article_64d053e4-8a1a-5198-a1dd-498d386c933c.html

  24. Brilliant Idea, Makes perfect sense and now way on hell or high water a congressman would put it forth. Now a petition drive to put it to a vote is another matter. Still kudos Chief.

  25. I like the idea of a "Safety Bond" having to be put up by corporations.

  26. Thanks Jim, excellent as always

  27. Not so long ago, the end of July actually, Husky had an oil spill in Saskatchewan. It pumped for over 12 hours before it was shut off. A number of cities, towns, reservations and farms were all cut of off water.
    That was supposed to be "safe", those of us who grew up around oil knew it is never "safe" because companies tend to care more about getting product to market then the damage it does along the way. It wasn't a huge spill like you are talking about but it will continue to affect the area for a long time. It spilled into a river, full of fowl and fish, that was the main source of water for tens of thousands of people.
    The companies response was laughable at best- oh we'll get most of it.
    Their booms broke, or rather, boom broke and there went the "containment".

    To them it was a blip in the road, to the rest of the area around there it was devastating and will continue to be for a long time to come- no matter what they claim.

    I stand with the people- full stop.

  28. I can't help but feel like our own government is out to create another civil war. People cry about patriotism, but only when it personally serves them.

  29. Interestingly, this came up in my feed as I was reading your post:

    California Panel to Weigh Development on Coastal Oil Land

  30. You don't need to run for office, Mr. Wright, but those who do should be required to pass a test measuring their comprehension of your work here at Stonekettle Station. Thank you.

  31. Absolutely correct. Greed and rush to grab, how can you stop it? Destroying sacred places, regardless of who it is sacred to, is wrong. No amount of money can fix that loss. Thank you for all of your posts, my husband and I read every one.

  32. Jim, you are a gentleman and a scholar. God bless you for the hard work you put into your important and timely pieces.

  33. Thank you for this. I spent several summer weeks on the Standing Rock and made friends there that are friends to this day. Thanks to them I've been able to watch the whole thing unfold and it's frankly been like watching the movie Avatar; the oil company seems to have watched that movie and thought it was a how-to manual. That's how blatant and heartless their actions have been, and as much as it sickens and enrages me (and makes me hate even more than I'm a thousand miles away and broke and unable to do anything), seeing everyone coming together and standing so strong has been an inspiration. I hope your words help spread (because no one in the media is talking about this) the word far and wide.

  34. I was on leave from the USCGC Yocona (WMEC 168) stationed out of Kodiak when the Exxon Valdez disaster happened. I came back from the outside, with my family, including our newborn daughter who was the reason for the leave. The ship was still on winter patrol. She came in as scheduled, at the end of the month, with one day to turn around and head for Seward. I took duty for the scheduled BMOW so he could have _one_ night with his wife. The next day, we finished loading stores, fueled and headed east for six weeks of chasing oil slicks.

    I haven't bought a drop from Exxon since.

  35. Mitigation monies up front for the fossil fuel businesses? Our world would change overnight. Now is a good day to start. Thank you, Jim.

  36. Ouch - my brain hurts again. Well it all boils down to conscience. Those who make the big money, stock market decisions don't think of the environmental impact. They're probably not big family guys either, even if they have them, families I mean, may be neglected and or abused in some form or other because they (men or women) only care about their own ego and lack the conscience it would take to take a step back and say,"what will happen if...?" Not in their mind frame. Are they I ncapable of such an abstract thought? Some may, but most think in the big bucks.

  37. Excellent and thought-provoking article.
    I was unaware that the Captain of the Exon Valdez had retained his masters papers. He should have had them revoked. But money talks, as it is in South Dakota, and everywhere-else on the planet.
    Environmental impact statements have proved not to be worth spit, here in Australia and promises from CEO and State and Federal Governments, about fracking and coal gas seam mining, are as hollow as the bank accounts of the locals and others fighting against these developments.

    1. David: "Money talks" - other than that Exxon could buy him a good lawyer - isn't the reason Hazelwood's Master's license wasn't revoked. The laws and regulations _at the time_, coupled with bad procedure by the US Coast Guard that resulted in a questionable alcohol test, got him off with a nine-month suspension. The laws and regs changed amazingly rapidly afterward.

      (And Jim: yes, he may still have a license thanks to the above, and to various idiots who are willing to hire him in shore jobs...but I don't think he's sailed in any capacity for a couple of decades now. Thank God.)

  38. Jim, you might want to change the "Sioux" references to the preferred term "Dakota". "Sioux" is a derogatory term derived from Nadouesioux meaning serpent or snake, in essence it means "devil". The tribes are Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota, not Sioux.

    1. They refer to them in the news as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a lot of the articles I have read name them as such. I am not saying they are correct to do so, just pointing it out :)

  39. Love the sheep analogy Jim. Reminds me of the a Triple Bottom line and Precautionary Principle. If corporations paid the full cost of doing business there would be no need for landfills and we might still have a liveable planet. Alas.

  40. Aside from the fact that I have spent the majority of my life well below the Mason-Dixon line, in warm (at time extremely warm) climates, I have always contemplated in a very desultory way, the thought of Iceland. I'm almost certain that the first time I heard of it was in 1972, when Reykjavík hosted the world chess championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Even as a rather clueless 13 year old in out of the way Page, Arizona, I heard of Bobby Fischer.
    I now work in a library, and am closing in on 3 score, and I find the fact that the population is the most literate, widely read of any in the world absolutely enchanting. What a place for a bibliophile, a fiction fanatic, a person who loves reading, bookstores, libraries and people who READ!! Heaven.
    When I heard about how they dealt with the fallout from the recent "financial crisis" (jailing bankers, putting bills to settle debts from a bank default to a public vote, said public refusing to countenance usurious interest rates in a deal designed to enslave them to European banks) I realized they were smart. But now I know HOW smart.
    Americans, if they were smart, would start treating our country--our physical, material, part-of-the-planet country--as if it were a FLOCK of Icelandic sheep. Precious. Irreplaceable.
    Surely, we can find in ourselves to be as 'great' as Iceland?
    Blessed be, Mr. Wright, and thank you for fighting the good fight--still.

  41. I live 1 mile from a section currently being dug out for the Bakken here in Iowa.

    This section goes directly over the Jordan Aquifer, a major water table not only supplying water for the vast farm lands but drinking water as well. It runs a few hundred feet from the ISU Agricultural Engineering and Agronomy Research Farms and 1 mile from our rural school.

    It's not a question of if it will leak, but when. We all know that. A slow leak could go undetected for months or even years. All the while silently devastating the entire area. You can't clean an aquifer, at the ISU farms decades of research could be compromised and a small school would likely close. All that is just a small 2 square mile area of this pipeline.

    It will fail, they will take shortcuts and ways of life somewhere, sometime will be devastated beyond recovery. For us to assume this risk is unbelievably wrong.

    On a side not, Friday afternoon during construction they cut through the major fiber cable bringing internet, cable and phone to Ames and 5 surrounding small towns. It took 10 hours to repair. Yea, I have a lot of faith this pipeline is being constructed with care and diligence.

    1. Ames! My grandfather was from there (and quite happy to be from there - as far from as he could get.) Visited it once when I was 13. Loved the food, not so much the town.

  42. This comment has been removed by the author.

  43. Another environmental disaster that made big headlines and then was swept under the carpet: coal-mining ash retention ponds that failed and polluted water supplies for thousands (maybe millions) in North Carolina and the politicians knuckled under to their overlords and did nothing.

    We're as bad as the Chinese when it comes to environmental protection.

    1. Worse. They shoot polluters every so often. Here we're lucky if they get a fine.

  44. The Environmental Protection Act was enacted to protect the environment and with it are a plethora of rules and regulations, EIS, EIR, and mitigation plans and so. Effective enforcement has always been a problem due to too little funding for staff and enforcement not to mention the fine process that is cheaper to pay a fine than prevent environmental damage. And the reason, we have had strong opposition by industry and corporations who use their big bucks to buy big clout. So the cards are stacked against the environment. Exploitation first, mitigate after the fact. The Super Fund for mitigation is a sad joke on citizens who think things will get better. Citizens United is also a joke on us. Remember corporations are people too, but unlike real people corporations don't make good neighbors and too often they are bad citizens to the community. When November arrives, I am going to remember that none of the republicans on my ballot give a shit about the environment. Something to consider.

  45. Jim, this may be my favorite of all your excellent essays, perhaps because it is so encompassing in the view of times, places, and peoples. Thanks again for presenting your opinions in your inimitable way.

  46. I keep thinking I've read your best article, until I read the next one. Thanks.

  47. Your ability to take apart an issue and look at multiple angles of the available options is breathtaking sir. So thoughtful, well written and clear for those not familiar with the situations you present to us. It takes my breath away to read your thoughts on incredibly complex situations and not feel ignorant. You educate on an "every man" level; never talking down to us or making us run to google search. Your hard work and research for our sake is appreciated. I watched the various videos and interviews regarding the attacks and hadn't fully realized the impact of them until now. Thank you for clarifying.

  48. I am starting to wonder if there are honorable men in positions of power left in this country.

  49. I've been reading your postings on here and on facebook for a while now and this may be one of the most important things you have ever written. Thank you.

  50. I stand with the Sioux. Water is the most precious of all it is life. We can always learn to live a different way, but we will have no life without water. We can learn a lot from Native Americans on how to live with nature and respect nature, and life. There are only bad lessons to learn from the oil companies and their profit before all else.

  51. Forth paragraph from the last: "There must balance." is missing a "be". I would agree with you that there are three chances that your notion will be implemented: fat, slim and none.

  52. Thanks for your insightful essay, Jim. An escrow for potential damages sounds more than reasonable. After all, nearly everyone who rents an apartment has to put up a security deposit and first and last months' rent. You need a credit card to rent a car, if there are damages they charge you for them.

    Meanwhile, here in Michigan, Enbridge (Canadian Company) owns the pipeline which caused the biggest inland oil spill in countr, on the Kalamazoo river a few years ago. They also own a pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. 60 years old. 270 feet down. If, when, it goes the results will range from catastrophic to cataclysmic. There are an awful lot of people downstream, 3 of the Great Lakes. And won't Niagra Falls look lovely with all that oil flowing over them?

  53. So many things right with this. The inability of greedy people to see beyond the immediate profit and the risks to the planet for their greed is mind boggling. Thank you for putting my random, scattered, impassioned thoughts into a coherent and well written essay.

  54. Eric Petras ericpetras@shaw.caSeptember 7, 2016 at 9:37 PM

    Thank-you, Jim.

  55. More proof that if I need a better understanding of something in current events, I just need to come here and read. Thanks Jim, I get the idea I should be paying you for my real-life education. I learn a lot just from reading your posts.

  56. Fines and penalties are useless. A corporation being fined is just like shutting the barn door after the horse ran off--it NEVER resolves anything.

    But what I hate most is the corporate drivel spouted by these companies; you know, the old saw of "Yes! We'll build this pipeline/well/dam /whatever, blah-blibbity-blah, jobs jobs jobs, and in the end YOU'LL ALL BE MILLIONAIRES!" And people fall for this crap each and every time. And anyone who questions safety regulations is immediately kicked out of the room.

    By the way, your "now you know how to plot a John Grisham novel" nailed it. Ha! And it makes me think that John Grisham should have given Mel Brooks credit for this plot template--after all, Brooks got there first with 'The Producers.'

  57. I can't even remember how long I have been reading your work, and I stand amazed at every new essay. This one is one of the best ever; or at least it addresses one of the most important issues we face. I like the way you finish your essays with the series of short statements. It has been a while since I have edited your work, because so many people now do it, and usually it speaks so powerfully that I hate to quibble, but this time I do have a query about one of your closing short statements.
    The line, "This is each and every one of us our fight, our interest, our way of life, our sacred ground, our risk." doesn't scan well for me. Would it sound better as "This is for each and every one of us our fight..." I tell my students they should never underestimate the power of a preposition. -Martha Zimmerman

  58. Alberta, Canada has a program in place called the Orphan Well Fund to mitigate the risk for reclamation of land and environment compliance issues for abandoned wells. I believe this program could work as the very initial basis of what you are suggesting.

    The way that it functions as I understand it, as a clerical employee at an Oil & Gas operating firm, is as follows: The regulatory agency determines the cost to abandon and reclaim all the wells on your license as the operator. Then they reduce that amount by a factor based on the expected life of the individual wells. The remaining amount is submitted to the regulatory agency and held in trust for the life time of the specific wells. Once that well has been abandoned and the regulatory agency signs off on that the abandonment meets government standards, then the funds in trust for that well, and that well alone are refunded including interest.

    This amount, the LLR, is recalculated monthly and payments/refunds are made quarterly. If for any reason an operator can not bring their account up to date within 90 days they are required by law to shut in ALL their wells until they are up to date.

    The purpose of this fund is so that should a company go bankrupt, or should they choose to literally abandon a well before having done all the environmental reclamation work, the government already has the funds in hand to make certain that environmental standards are met.

    Not a perfect system, but I do think it has potential to actually do what it intends to do.

  59. I am with you, as very few things chap my ass more than the destruction of our planet (the only one we have for the foreseeable future) for short-term gain. I live in NC, and the governor is a shameless prostitute for Duke Energy. Look into the coal-ash spill into the Dan River if you are so inclined.

    I would merely add to your proposal that responsibility for risk also be incurred by personnel, not merely corporate entities. For example, say we have an oil spill into the Missouri River. Company 'X' goes into immediate receivership and the FBI and EPA get to crawl up their fourth points of contacts for as long as it takes to determine the cause, from the CEO down to the lowest worker or construction subcontractor.

    To be fair, sometimes shit DOES happen. Company 'X' gets broken down and sold off down to the pens and pencils in desk drawers. That said, if it is determined that willful negligence or criminal incompetence caused event 'X', INDIVIDUALS are held culpable, personally and financially, from the CEO all the way down. You could also be creative and make such offenses punishable by life imprisonment, or possibly capital in nature. Because guess what, CEO Asshat? If you believe in something that strongly, your ass should also be on the line (literally).

    Now that I got my dander up, a policy like this could solve a wide variety of social or legal ills.

    Guess what, Prosecutor 'Tough on Crime'? You get caught falsifying evidence for a conviction, have fun serving the sentence of the person you convicted.

    And you, teacher who wants to harangue your students about God/Jesus/Allah in the classroom? No more hiding behind the school district when it gets sued. Any damages, court costs and attorney's fees come directly from you.

    I could go on, but you probably get the idea.

    /end rant

  60. When the last rock has been mined and the last fish and forest destroyed to get at it, what will you live on?

  61. Great article . . . a righteous bitch . . . as a one time resident of Ak I can say with conviction that this mine and the leftover contamination from it doesn't have a snowballs chance in hell of NOT creating a disaster in a future event. . . . we are sooo stupid and sooo screwed.

  62. Thank you so much for writing this. I'm appalled by how few people know about this.

  63. Quyanaa, Quyanaasinaq, Mr Wright.
    Thank you, thank you very much!
    We have not had near enough open frank discussion of the external costs and risks of these big projects, and certainly almost no discussion of what we might do to change shift the social costs of their far-too-often failures onto those who profit/own them. Your essay here is , as usual, full of good ideas for what we might do to shift the way we do this kind of thing.

  64. Your usual home run of an essay. One wonders if you don't sit down and call it at the time you write it - ala Babe Ruth calling his homer (urban legend though that story may be).

    Small quibble from a resident of Oklahoma. The disposal of wastewater from fracking has resulted in Oklahoma becoming one of the most active earthquake areas in the world - from a place that had few earthquakes per year into one with scores per week (that may even be understated). There wasn't a week of smaller tremblers, there were months (even several years) of smaller tremblers, with the occasional larger event. That last big one tied the record for largest event in Oklahoma history.

    Greg - ETC(SW) USN Retired (because the Name/URL Comment as option doesn't work the same way it used to) - makes me anonymous, instead.

    1. The fact that injecting water/wastewater into moderately deep wells (injection wells)is a direct cause of eartquakes has been known for quite a while. When I lived in the Denver area back in the early seventies, it was well (sorry) demonstrated by the waste disposal wells in the Rocky Mountain arsenal. Wastewater injections were ALWAYS followed by seismic activity, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, depending on which well was in use. Ant seismologist/geophysicist with a reasonably good education should know this. And every oil company I know has reasonably well-educated seismologists/geophysicists on staff, or at least on contract. There is no excuse, barring greed and/or sociopathology, for this.

  65. From Vancouver Island BC. Tlaoquiat Nation Nuu Chah Nulth Territory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ9bhiyABCs

  66. Rationality. Inveterate rationalizers never understand it. Pundits and ideologues always minimize other people's risk when money is involved. They alway rationalize away the potential for damage. Good job, Jim, as usual.

  67. Well yes, oil pipelines suck. But on the whole, or at lest in many ways, they suck less than the alternatives.

    And until we wean ourselves off oil -- that oil is getting to market, one way or another. And it's probably best it go by pipeline. Now escrow accounts and such so that the actual full cost of using oil shows up up front as the costs of the escrow (for ALL means of transport) are passed on to the price of the oil? Maybe not a bad idea to encourage people to stop using so damned much oil.


  68. If we can't grow it, we need to mine it. OR.... do without it.
    I don't see people going cold rather than run the furnace.
    I don't see people stay hot rather than run the AC.
    I don't see people walk to the store rather than drive.
    I DO see people buy a new one rather than fix the old one. (What ever "it" is, car, bike, etc.)
    So WE ARE TO BLAME for all these issues, us, you and me! WE CREATE THE DEMAND with our choices.
    The more money that's involved, the more likely meeting those demands will be made less than ethically.
    Jim teaches us "Government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless. " We need that idealized government to protect us more than ever, because these are some ruthless motherfuckers.

  69. This is planned for one of the most seismically active locations on the planet? What could possibly go wrong?

    Those great Alaskan mountain ranges were not created by washed up seashells and dead dinosaur bones.

    Quick, we need some adults in charge.

    A few years ago I wrote a blog article I entitled "The Great Chicken Alaska Raid Lays an Egg." For those who have never heard of Chicken, AK, it has a population of 17. Chicken was the target of a raid by a SWAT team of fully hard suited officers, which reportedly included at least one Coast Guardsman. They were hot on the trail of gold miners who had the audacity to turn over shovelfuls of mud in the pristine streams around Chicken, thus "polluting" the streams.

    Coast Guard involvement? Getting mud in the streams? I won't even try to explain. Just look up Chicken, Alaska on Google Earth or Google Maps.

    Yet, it will be just fine to create cubic miles of toxic till near prime fishing waters?

    The hypocrisy makes my head hurt.

  70. I have a valve on my garden hose. What if we required turnoff safety valves on the pipelines. Maybe they're already there. When a break happens, the leaky bit could be somewhat isolated until repaired. (Clearly just a pipe dream) Oil pipelines aren't just like the garden hose. Far too complex. However it's something to think about and maybe by thinking about it and rattling my cane the principle can be applied. Won't work for Pebble Mine though. In the end, entropy wins, we can delay it but not defeat it.

    Cane Rattler (crotalus horridus)

    1. Most (all?) pipelines, whether for gas, water, oil or coal sludge, have valves stationed periodically along them.

      The problems occur when they don't recognise that they are leaking in the first place and large quantities of their contents spill before they get a valve closed.

      Also, they are loathe to close off the pipeline while there is still product coming out of the other end. So they let it leak and try and patch the problem.

      A lot of long pipelines just don't have staff on hand to turn the valve, and rely on a central control room, but without eyes on the ground, they are unable to turn the correct set of valves off to isolate the problem and unwilling to turn them all off because profit.

    2. There are automatic safety valve systems available when a leak occurs and the pressure drops in the line the valves close automatically. But it is for catastrophic leaks not the little drip or small leaks that happen usually first before the big one. If no one is watching it still can go really bad very quickly. There is no way to say 100% that a pipe will never leak, it will leak, I am 100% sure of that.

  71. Today North Dakota Governor Dalrymple announced he is miltarizing the situation at Standing Rock and sending in the North Dakota National Guard. As of one hour ago reports on the ground sited Hueys from the Guard criss-crossing over head.

    As a Veteran and as the daughter of a Veteran of the Greatest Generation and as a 6th generation in our family to serve, I will be writing to North Dakota Governor Dalrymple and to the North Dakota Guard Commander asking the Guard to stand down and to refuse to act against our Brother and Sister Americans red, white, black, brown, yellow and against the First Peoples.

    I hope you will too.

    Semper Fi.

    Here is the FB page for the ND Guard - pleae be direct, forthright, firm, but polite .

    North Dakota National Guard https://www.facebook.com/NDNationalGuard/?fref=ts

    1. It's great that you are doing this, and I hope you get a huge number of respondents, but my cynical side says it won't matter a damn.

      It's rare to find a politician of any stripe that will back down when they have made a decision, especially a contentious one.

    2. Kent State was not all that long ago to us seasoned veterans of the ongoing battles. Good luck.

      Cane Rattler

  72. One of your best, Jim. It makes me strangely happy and sad at the same time. Happy that some of us can stand back and look at things objectively, and sad that we're such a consistently disappointing species. Greed and stupidity. But in the end, it makes me feel hopeful. So that's a step in the right direction. Thanks.

  73. Reading this from the other side of the globe, I am chastened.

    Often I have read of our own native people protesting some progress mooted by an energy company, an agricultural collective, a city council or the national government and I sigh, thinking that they are just trying to preserve their lifestyle while preventing progress and putting a handbrake on mine.

    You have given perspective to this city dweller to listen more closely to the arguments evinced by our native tribes and spokespersons, not just to view them as an anachronism.

    Thanks, from bleak, windy, cold, wet Wellington.

  74. Actually, the Exxon Valdez disaster happened due to a series of issues... and while Joe Hazelwood (whom I knew and sailed with) did like to drink he was not drunk that night. He was in his cabin preparing the loading report that Exxon Shipping demanded he send in as soon as the Pilot left (at the outer end of Valdez Narrows).

    The 3rd mate was entirely qualified to navigate the passage out. In face, I was on a Chevron tanker just a few days after the Valdez struck Bligh Reef and I could not imagine how he managed to not remember to move back into the traffic lanes. There was even a red buoy on his starboard side to remind him. No one knows why he failed in this duty. But his was the primary responsibility.

    And then there is the USCG radar station where the two men on watch went off for coffee as soon as the pilot left. Despite the fact that their radar system was perfectly capable of watching all of Prince William Sound, it was never done.

    And finally, Alyeska. The Valdez accident was entirely predictable and, in fact, Alyeska was required to keep equipment and men ready at all times for just that contingency. However, decades of operations with no problems caused Alyeska to become complacent and they decided to ship all their equipment off for storage somewhere cheaper than Valdez.

    Finally.... at one time it was required that all tankers going to Valdez carry an extra third mate. This was because the tankers in Valdez loaded pretty quickly and the Chief Mate (who would normally have been on watch on the bridge of the Valdez that night) was, as usual, exhausted and the third mate volunteered to take his watch. Corporate greed caused the companies to stop carrying that extra mate.

    So it was a classic failure on the part of many of the players - any one of which could have stopped the string and saved the Valdez had it been different.

    But Joe Hazelwood was not prosecuted for one simple reason. He was a pawn of the corporation just like the rest. He would have been on the bridge but for that requirement of the suits in Houston who, despite being home safe in their beds, demanded that the Captain send that loading report upon the pilot's disembarking the ship.

    At one time, all of Prince William Sound had been pilotage (which also would have saved the Valdez) but the shipping companies got tired of carrying (and paying for) pilots all the way to SFO when they could not disembark at Hinchebrook Island as had been originally planned.

    1. The deeper we look the closer we get to the stones and the bones. Thanks for the update on Valdez.

      Cane Rattler

  75. I'm on your side, Jim, but 100 billion in escrow? That gets released if there's an accident? Biggest incentive to have an accident that ever could exist. Because the way the world works that 100 billion would never end up where it was supposed to go without vultures skimming off at least 50%. So you'd basically be waving rotting meat under the noses of the most rapacious vultures imaginable.

  76. Thanks for a wonderful read and taking the time to write it. That was not easy, I am sure. Great work!

  77. Sheep! Ha! When I was in the army and on a huge field exercise in Germany a tank in an adjoining unit damaged an apple tree which caused a huge stink right up to Brigade. The Germans calculated the cost to replace the tree, counted the apples in the tree, estimated the seeds from each apple - for a decade - to come up with the number of new trees that could come from them, the revenue, etc., etc. One tree. $10,000? Easy. EASY!

    Another unit scraped the hell out of some tree deep in the German forest. The company commander was so pissed he had the crew break out axes and shovels and work all night to cut the tree down to below ground level, cut what was left of the tree in TINY pieces to be spread and concealed all around the forest, the hole filled in and covered with leaves. And wouldn't ya' know it, about a month later - the German Forest Meister noticed. "Hey! Used to be a tree right here!" He had a map of all the trees. He found the hole, filed a report that made it to the Army and came right back at that company commander. All that work and they still got caught. And another $10K changed hands.


  78. This is my first comment on this site,after reading this I had to respond. For 40 years I worked at a chemical plant in western PA that has benzene (10000 gallon tank), formaldehyde, oleum acid, ether (enough to put the entire county to sleep) and about 600 other various chemicals which all have MSDS (material safety data sheets). The plant I worked at takes every precaution that is technologically possible at the time to keep workers and the community safe. BUT and this is a big but shit happens. Example: Benzene is piped throughout the facility through the highest grade piping that you can buy, its never supposed to leak but it has and does after years of this liquid running thru turns in the piping it wears out. The lines are heat traced with electrical heat tape held on by metal straps and masking tape. We found out after many years that the acid in the adhesive of the type of tape we were using was reacting with the stainless steel causing it to corrode. I could go on all day about trying to contain hazardous chemicals but i will stop with this one example. I don't care what precautions you take you are going to have a leak over time period.

  79. The idea of capitalizing damages is an interesting one. But the question is not merely of what the worst thing is that might happen, but of the severity weighted by the likelihood of occurrence. Now, if I were an insurer, I would give more favourable rates to projects where more was done to forestall the worst outcomes.

    The other question, of course, is that of weighing alternatives. So long as production in the Bakken continues, the oil will go, either by pipeline or by rail. We already know what shipping oil by rail looks like, & the results aren't pretty. It is, therefore, necessary to inquire just what the balance of likely damages is.

    Now, mine tailings pools are especially interesting. They are toxic because, typically, of reactive chemical species, incorporating valuable substances in concentrations too low for economic recovery. To say that they have to be held back "forever" is a bit of an exaggeration, simply because reactive species tend to be neutralized eventually ; but more interestingly, wherever there is such a set of techno-economic circumstances, the balance can be shifted. As a case in point, in the late 1970s, JPL developed an effectively perfect water filter (in the course of work on re-entry heat shields), which was used by the city of Newport Beach, California, for a few years. This type of filter, it seems reasonable to think, could be used to concentrate the (for instance) copper in tailing ponds, to a degree which would then be extractable. Already promising work has been done on electrochemical neutralization in the American Far West.

  80. Bryan, I appreciate that you are willing to think about this. Please realize, you may not be told if you face the risk rolling downstream. My father served Camp Lejeune; its wells were contaminate with benzene and other chemicals. I have cancer, autoimmune disorders, stomach paralysis, and permanent spinal damage. My child was born prematurely, and seriously disabled. I'm 46. I'm one of the lucky ones. It could happen to you in the city. One is not always informed that the risk has rolled downstream.

  81. Thanks Jim for an excellent piece. The history was great. I remember most of them
    Shared risk is exactly what should happen, but unfortunately probably won't.
    Wallstreet is a funny thing, people make fortunes with not real connection to the product or service that makes them the money!

  82. I've seen some people commenting on this post and figured I'd share why this is such an issue. Some people seem to think that pipelines are safer, more secure, and less accident prone. Here's a list of all pipeline accidents only going back to 2000 (the last 16 years). There's a lot more than you'd think, and they've killed even more.


  83. Your proposed solutions here sound very much like the Coase Theorem (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coase_theorem). In the case of a negative externality (dead supersheep) both sides need to negotiate a settlement to share the risk of that externality. It's very popular among libertarians who like to then argue that government regulation or intervention is not necessary, but a feature is that it has to be relatively EASY for both sides to negotiate. The US could just negotiate directly with the Icelandic government about the sheep. The mining company cannot easily negotiate with every single resident living 'downstream' from their storage pond/lake/whatever, hence the need for a government entity to act in that capacity and either work out a solution or impose one taking into account the interests of the downwinders.

  84. Thought of you while reading this, Jim. Hope your life is running true to your hopes.

  85. I keep thinking "this is definitely the best one" when I read your posts/articles. Then I read another one, think the same thing. Ha ha.
    On a serious note, this one on Standing Rock is to me so significant; it addresses a huge underlying problem we are dealing with on this planet and presents an excellent solution.
    Also, am wondering if you have already, or plan to, compile your works into a hard copy. It would be great to have it (a book of your writings)for so many reasons. I would imagine others, homeschoolers for instance, would be interested as well.

  86. First - wow that is some researching job you did there. Bravo.
    Second - Shared risk is concept the very wealthy work very hard & pay very much to avoid. It's one of their top reasons to buy politicians. Ask the people of Flint. Water sources changed to for both to move the risk & increase the profit. And over a year later the ones downstream, as it were, still bear the risk alone.
    I'll share your article, but my hope for change in the near future is almost nil. I do see some hope in our youth. I think if the Bernie groundswell showed us nothing else, he showed us the next generation is pissed. I dream of seeing them doing a better job than our generation did.

  87. Sumi here. This was beautifully done. I agree with your overall point, of course--fairly distributed risk is *supposed* to be the backbone of contract law--but I did before I started reading. The remarkable part of this piece is the way you built your case, piecing detail and narrative together into a seamless whole. You took the length and words necessary to make the point impregnable (exactly *un*like the dams, wells, reactors, and pipelines you describe), and you did it unapologetically.

    Long-form essays are a dying art nowadays; 'The Atlantic' magazine is the only news source I know of that does them as a matter of course, though Rolling Stone (especially Taibbi) and the New Yorker carry them frequently. I know that Stonekettle is your stomping grounds, but please consider submitting to these magazines; your voice is unique and the experiences that shaped your thinking are vastly underrepresented in the 'news'.

    In any case, thank you for another solidly crafted piece of sociopolitical thinking.

  88. I am impressed Jim, in earnest I don't think I've seen anyone wrap their arms all the way around this subject quite the way you have.

    It's too bad that common sense and the passing notion of forethought are on such dire life support in the world today.

    We could use a whole lot more of it today.

    My compliments on such a clear and lucid explanation in getting to the very heart of this issue.

  89. I have been reading your blog (and following you on FB) for some time now (at least a few years) and when I read this originally in September, I hoped that you'd be wrong. For the sake of everyone and everything you point out in your discussion of the DALP, I'd hoped. And here we are, not two months later. Faced with it happening just like you said. I hate when you are right (about things like this). http://countercurrentnews.com/2016/10/massive-north-dakota-oil-leak-proves-native-american-protesters-right-fighting-illegal-dapl-pipeline/#


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