In a remarkable comment earlier this week, which we are reproducing below, reader Henry Moon Pie recounted, with remorse, how his role in a job he’d not wanted to take helped secure the right to construct CO2 pipelines. That included providing assurances that no way, no how could they ever be dangerous. Experience has proven otherwise. From an article last week in The Verge:
Last year, a pipeline carrying compressed carbon dioxide mixed with hydrogen sulfide ruptured, engulfing the small town of Satartia, Mississippi, in a green haze, leaving many residents convulsing, confused, or unconscious. That explosion serves as a vivid warning about the risks posed by what could be the next generation of pipelines to crisscross the US, in a new investigation by HuffPost and the Climate Investigations Center.
“It was almost like something you’d see in a zombie movie,” Sheriff’s Officer Terry Gann tells journalist Dan Zegart about what happened that night. Zegart pieces together the events of February 2020 through harrowing 911 calls and the voices of family members racing to reach others before the toxic haze could overcome them.
Despite the evidence that the safety risks are real, building CO2 pipelines is expected to rise greatly as a means of transporting the gas as part of carbon capture. And you can be sure that it will be lower income communities that will be put in harm’s way.
The problem is that it’s become harder and harder to live a blameless life without doing the economic equivalent of wearing a hair shirt or joining a monastery or nunnery.1 As Clive explained in 2015:
Let me continue with the self-disclosure, but it’s perhaps more of a confessional or appeal for absolution. I’ve spent almost 30 years working in the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector, my entire adult life. When I first started, it was viewed as a most suitable career choice for middle class not particularly aspirational sorts who wanted security, respectability and a recognisable position in the community. It was never supposed to be a passport to significant wealth or even much more than very modest wealth. It was certainly never supposed to be anything which oppressed or harmed anyone.
By the early 1990’s the rot, which had started to set in during the mid-1980’s, had begun to accelerate….
For those of us on the inside, we don’t deserve any sympathy. But I’d like to offer a glimmer of insight into the conflict that those of us with any sort of conscience wrestle with because it is a conflict which is going to shape our societies over the next generation.
Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way. Industries such as finance have seized and held onto larger and larger proportions of the economy.
The same disproportionate growth can be seen in financialised healthcare and finacialised education. Naked Capitalism has broken story after story of how these businesses have demonstrated a near-endless capacity for scandal, fraud and wrongdoings of every conceivable sort.
If we were to say that it is the “corporations” which are exploiting people, that would be wrong. “corporations” are not people. It is the people – you might be one of them too – who work in the corporations who are exploiting others.
The terrific film Michael Clayton, centered on a Monsanto-like company knowingly selling a toxic weedkiller, has this vivid opening from Arthur, the lead attorney defending them in litigation:
And the film gives a stark warning about the dangers of whistleblowing. Arthur is murdered by his client. So don’t romanticize going that route. Most whistleblowers pay a very high price, if not quite that high. And to add insult to injury, they are seldom able to force change.
Gassing of Satartia–
That was a very sobering read for me this morning. The facts of that situation were:
It was just after 7 p.m. [a year ago] when residents of Satartia, Mississippi, started smelling rotten eggs. Then a greenish cloud rolled across Route 433 and settled into the valley surrounding the little town. Within minutes, people were inside the cloud, gasping for air, nauseated and dazed.
The cause of this terror was the rupture of a carbon dioxide pipeline carrying CO2 for tertiary oil recovery.
Nearly 40 years ago, three landowners represented by the same attorney were trying to stop another carbon dioxide pipeline–the first one ever proposed–that would travel through their quiet, rural valley north of Albuquerque. Shell Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of the American subsidiary of the Dutch Shell Group, had already filed condemnation suits against each of them, and their lawyer’s motion to dismiss the suit had been denied. The landowners’ next move was to generate public pressure against the line, and they succeeded in calling a public meeting held at a local school with several hundred in attendance.
The hearing went on for two days with the landowners and a professor from the local university testifying about the dangers of the line countered by an army of Shell engineers and consultants from Walnut Creek who all declared that fears of a leak layering the valley with CO2 were completely impossible and contrary to The Science. By the end of those two days, public concern was quieted, and the condemnation suits proceeded until the landowners were willing to settle for cash, and the pipeline was built.
I was the ringmaster for that army of Shell engineers and outside consultants.
Reading today about a place where such a leak took place and nearly suffocated an entire town is cause for a great deal of self-reflection for me today.
One set of questions is how did I end up there representing Shell when a few years before I had turned down summer clerkship offers from some of the most famous law firms in the country to work for a labor union. The answer at the time were the exigencies of having a young family for which I was the primary provider, but that’s everybody’s excuse, and those excuses multiplied millions of times have brought us to where we are today. Excuses nearly suffocated those people in Mississippi.
Another line of inquiry is what about all those people that I worked over the course of several years in a sort of traveling road show. Were they as sure of their testimony as they seemed? Were they as competent as they seemed? It’s true that this pipeline, built in ’82, is still operating without incident, but the broad and unqualified declarations made in that meeting and under oath in courtrooms across New Mexico were obviously wrong. A disaster could happen.
Finally, what about the flow of the universe? This CO2 line was the first built. It remains the largest and longest. A year before that public hearing, the project was under real threat in a courtroom in the bleak rural town of Estancia. The line passed through a large ranch whose owner could afford an Albuquerque law firm even larger than our Santa Fe firm. The lead attorney for the rancher was a Yale Law grad who held the reputation as the best lawyer in the state, and he was challenging Shell’s right to condemn at all. It was a close case because New Mexico, at least at the time, was a narrow “public use” jurisdiction that required that the proposed project actually be open to use by the public. Shell had cleverly evaded any federal regulation by arguing the CO2 was a gas, therefore not subject to ICC jurisdiction which was limited to liquids. And it argued before FERC that it was not a hydrocarbon and not under its purview. We could show no regulator that could guarantee a public’s right to use it, and our parading a few owners of small CO2 deposits along the pipeline’s path, even when combined with Shell’s earnest promises to hook them up, couldn’t change that. In the end, I resorted to the history of the Interstate Commerce Act and its roots in the common law, to claim that the common law of common carriers would provide relief to any potential shippers stiffed by Shell.
It was a legally valid argument and won the day, saving the project from cancellation according to the Shell VP who was in charge of things on the client end. And if we had failed, would any CO2 pipelines have been built? Most of them pass through New Mexico on their way headed to the Permian Basin.
Now CO2 pipelines are being proposed again. Massive “carbon recapture” projects that remove CO2 from power plants and other large emitters would be gathered and again piped to old oil fields for tertiary recovery. No doubt ambitious young lawyers, or maybe just lawyers trying to pay a mortgage, will be ready to develop clever arguments and organize more expert road shows to get those pipelines built so we can pump more oil to burn more oil to create more emissions to capture CO2 to inject it into more oil wells to pump more oil.
I am sorry for the role I have played in all this. We must break the cycle.
Clive did offer some hope:
In the face of such seemingly overwhelming disparity of power what can those of us who want to change the balance do? You could quit. But the system would remain – we’re all disposable in the world of the mega corporation. Some might say that you could sell up and go off-grid. But the system would remain – who would you sell to? These and similar reactions are, in my view, an abdication of whatever limited power we possess. We can’t run away and hide. We have to stand and fight. And we have to combine our inevitable small scale individual power into something which, in totality, is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
If this is indeed a battle, then it is a battle for ideas. The munitions for a battle for ideas is information. Information has the most vulnerable supply line possible. It can be hidden, stolen, distorted, filtered, obscured, changed and covered over. We therefore need a channel which has the same goals as we do and, if not run by us, is run along the lines we need it to be run along. That channel is Naked Capitalism.
1 Please do not recommend subsistence farming. You need to be able to buy land, build or buy a house, and equipment. You need to pay for energy to run some of your equipment. You need enough income to pay property taxes. And some of us never had the joints to be able to garden or farm.