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Shale boom based on corporate welfare

Dear Editor,

Late this afternoon a haze of smoke from a distant fire quickly filled the valley and brought thoughts of the special issue of May 2 on the shale boom days and bust. The articles carry more of a sense of the “big one that got away” rather than the enormous economic, energy and environmental debacle we and the nation barely escaped. Today’s haze of smoke would have been industrial petrochemical pollution had the shale dream/nightmare actually come to pass. Air quality scientists predicted that if full-scale development of shale happened, air pollution in the valley would often be 15 times pollution-alert levels, in short: poisonously toxic. The rich, powerful and famous of Aspen and Vail would have fled their downwind-from-disaster mansions and playgrounds.

There’s no mention of Exxon’s famous/infamous White Paper which projected building 13 large coal-fired electric generation plants in northwest Colorado to fuel a vast mining and petrochemical complex including the largest industrial plants ever built, not one but several, plus all the attendant infrastructure and population. Nor of Exxon’s plan for an open pit shale mine in the heart of the Piceance Basin that would ultimately be 50 miles in diameter at the surface, as they mined 100 million cubic yards annually.

Recall, too, that some oil companies and their handmaiden politicians were calling for NW Colorado to be designated a “national sacrifice zone” where no laws or regulations of wildlife protection or air, land, or water pollution would be enforced. The corporations were to be given total free rein to do as they would. If one examines the environmental resume of the likes of Occidental, Exxon and Unocal elsewhere in the United States and globally, turning them loose with tens of billions in Synfuel Corporation subsidies was a recipe for disaster in multiple dimensions. The Synfuels Corporation’s director of environmental programs said he believed no external regulation or oversight was needed and that the corporations could be trusted to monitor themselves. Wanna buy this bridge he’s got for sale?

Economically, the deeply corrupt US Synthetic Fuels Corporation was established to disburse tens of billions of tax dollars to some of the richest corporations on the planet. As originally proposed and with the common cost overruns, economists projected the ultimate total transfer of about $750 billion to a set of energy corporations who often pay little or no taxes themselves, in short a giant corporate welfare scheme, dwarfing even the Pentagon’s corporate warfare/welfare programs. And with ever-escalating cost projections for any actual refined and usable product from shale, that ultimate purchaser of corporate America’s overpriced goods and buyer of last resort was to come forward: The Pentagon. Remember the $80 light bulbs, $600 toilet seats and currently the $80 billion bullet-to-hit-a-bullet fantasy of the anti-missile system?

And, in terms of energy, shale was, is and remains an enormous net energy loss in both quality and quantity, using high-quality natural gas, electrical, and natural crude-derived energies to produce a low-grade, tar-like kerogen, which must them be upgraded with still more energy inputs to produce a “syncrude” suitable for finally making anything usable. As Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute pointed out, it would make far more energy and economic sense to use the billions of dollars in subsidies to buy and give away available efficient cars to replace gas guzzlers. That would be even more true today in an age of monster low-mileage SUVs.

And the Harvard Business School study, Energy Future, described shale’s potential this way, “A production level equal to about a half of 1 percent of U.S. oil consumption – about 100,000 barrels a day – would require several billion dollars and about a decade for development.” Off-the-shelf insulation and other energy efficiency and conservation methods can match and exceed that quickly and at a fraction of the cost.

To see a current form of the future this valley barely missed, visit (or for real shale believers, move to) the petrochemical cancer valley of the Kanawha River of West Virginia or the Mississippi River petrochemical complex near Baton Rouge, La. These valleys are not centers of prosperity but regions of intense air, land and water pollution, with the now-predictable effects on employees and residents’ health and welfare. Asthma and other lung afflictions, cancer and other malignancies plague the population. The wealth produced is quickly dispatched to New York corporate headquarters, which accepts no responsibility and leaves the devastated region and people to their own devices.

Today another vast corporate/government boondoggle looms in the form of the tens of billions already spent and multi-billions more proposed for the anti-missile system. As with synfuels/shale, corporate and government supporters, expecting to gobble up billions of tax dollars, have made transparently false claims, faked and rigged tests and falsified data, and spun a vast web of public relations facades for what is at base just the next round of the Pentagon’s corporate welfare program.

Scientists like Theodore Postol of MIT, as Amory Lovins and others did with synfuels, quickly debunk the expensive facade put forward by those corporations and Pentagon generals planning to rob the till while promoting a scheme which has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not and cannot work as advertised any more than synfuels programs could make energy.

The claims that shale/synfuels or the anti-missile system can overcome the basic laws of physics by spending billions of dollars are transparently absurd. Forgetting history, we may doom ourselves to disastrously repeat it.

On second thought, let’s combine these boondoggles in one last grand corporate giveaway and make the project a shale/synfuels-powered anti-missile system. That will waste enough hundreds of billions to get the country back to Reagan-era levels of federal debt of a couple of trillion or so, and belly up the environment and economy in one super finale.

Chester McQueary

Parachute


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