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The Risks of Profiting from Climate Change

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

By Daniel Yildirim

Daniel Yildirim, one of the Four Necessity Valve Turners, reflects on science, money, climate change, and the fossil fuel industry

On February 23, the Duluth Tribune published this "Reader's View" by Debjyoti Dwivedy, under the title, "Halting Line 3 Endangers Environment":

"On the morning of Feb. 12, Gov. Tim Walz announced he was backing a lawsuit against Line 3, a proposed replacement project for an oil pipeline that carries Canadian crude across northern Minnesota to refineries throughout the Midwest ("Walz continuing Line 3 appeal").   But delaying its construction actually endangers the environment. If Line 3 isn't built, Canadians will still produce that crude and will ship the oil via rail, which is 4.5 times more prone to spills than pipelines. Minnesota safety officials already are expressing concern about the uptick in oil trains passing through our state. Stalling the project not only hurts the environment. The new Line 3 would add $2 billion to Minnesota's economy and generate more than $330 million in worker wages and $19 million dollars in property taxes."

Chiding those who oppose oil pipelines, because oil trains are more dangerous, is a textbook example of the "false dichotomy" logical fallacy. It is akin to saying, "we'd better let the school bus driver smoke cannabis while he is driving our kids, because if we don't--he will definitely get blind drunk! And if he is drunk he will be 4.5 times more likely to crash the bus than if he is merely high. People opposed to stoned bus drivers are making our kids less safe!" Fire the bus driver. Hire a sober one. This matter is too important to be negotiated over with grossly irresponsible actors. Why do we as the public act like an abused dog in the face of fossil fuel industry violence? Every year their addiction to wealth and privilege increases the level of terror and privation due to climate change that our children will face when they are adults.  But of course the author of this piece doesn't even mention climate change. He is only referring to risks due to spills. Although devastating, these risks are hardly even comparable to those posed by climate change. Researchers predict that 3.7 degrees of warming (very likely, if we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to have their way) would result in $551 trillion in global damages --roughly twice as much wealth as exists in the world today. In terms of risk to human life, even at 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming (the most conservative possible outcome), the IPCC predicts 150 million human lives will be lost. That's equivalent to 25 holocausts. And that is a best-case scenario. The longer we wait, the more we let the fossil fuel industry push us around, the worse it gets. Those of us with more than a passing interest in the future of humanity (not to mention the planetary biosphere) are making every effort to halt the burning of fossil fuels at all levels--extraction, transportation, refinement and combustion. But let's return to the author's main premise: that oil trains are more prone to accidents than pipelines. Putting aside the fact that we are opposed to oil trains too (activists have had some huge successes resisting oil trains passing through their communities--for example, in Benicia and Santa Maria in California, and Vancouver in Oregon), is it true that pipelines are safer? The author quotes the figure so often employed by pipeline advocates: that trains are 4.5 times more likely to cause spills. Where does that statistic come from? As it turns out, it comes from the Fraser Institute, an "independent" Canadian think tank which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the Koch brothers and Exxon-Mobil. What does our own government say? According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA),

Overall, oil spills [occur] more frequently with pipelines than rail cars. For example, in 2015, there were 252 pipeline spills reported to PHMSA involving crude oil, versus 44 for the rail industry. The year prior, the frequency of spills at pipes was about 62 percent greater than rail, the data shows.”

Oil companies use a combination of rail and pipelines to maximize profits in a fluctuating market.  Pipelines are generally cheaper to operate, and thus their existence means larger profit margins for the industry. And of course, pipeline corporations, like Enbridge, base their whole business on a positive public perception of their product. One final point. The author writes, "If Line 3 isn't built, Canadians will still produce that crude, and will ship the oil via rail." This is related to a common trope in the world of fossil fuel apologism, what I call the "if I don't do it, somebody else will" defense. Usually when people use this argument to excuse personal behavior, it is generally understood that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel of moral arguments. "Even I admit that what I'm doing is wrong," they say, "but it's gonna happen whether I do it or not, so I might as well be the one who benefits." Would anyone teach their children that kind of moral logic? Would anyone's pastor smile and nod their consent to such a proposal? How would Jesus respond to the money-changers at the temple, if they shrugged and said, "if I don't do it, someone else will"? Underneath all of this lies the ideology of the free market, which dictates that if something is profitable, its occurrence is inevitable. It is an ideology that every day increases the scale of death and destruction our world will face in the future. Our only hope is that this ideology is abolished and replaced with an ethic of personal responsibility, in which no atrocity is inevitable, and the only logical course of action is to obey one's own heart, and defend the sacredness of life.

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