Trump, Escobar, and El Chapo:  Impunity and Immunity

Little Rock       We had watched a couple of the Netflix “Narcos” shows that are a fictionalized take on some surreal or semi-real events involving Pablo Escobar, the Medellin, Columbia drug czar.  Recently, we have done a deeper dive and are now halfway through the second year.  It seemed so unreal and of a different time that we could pretend it was more entertainment than reality show.  Escobar was a case study, if anyone was watching, of someone with resources who believes he is above the law even as embraces being a bandito.  He had a hardcore base among the poor in the barrios of Medellin that was willing to overlook crazy violence and hold him up as a Robin Hood.  He believed he could negotiate equally with the President of Columbia with an army at his command and could use his fighters, violence, and money to secure his own separate peace in his own narcissistic piece of the world.

Now, we’ll have to watch the rest of the episodes for tips in understanding our world in the wake of the latest news from Mexico.  As reported by the New York Times:

The violence began shortly after 3:30 p.m. in the city of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa State, when a patrol of 30 soldiers came under attack by individuals in a home in the neighborhood of Tres Ríos, according to government officials.  After taking control of the home, the security forces encountered and detained four men — among them [Ovidio] Guzmán López, a leader in the Sinaloa cartel [son of El Chapo, Joaquin Guzman Loera, now imprisoned in the USA]. Cartel gunmen then surrounded the home and engaged the armed forces, the officials said. …Later, the cartel deployed fighters throughout the neighborhood and began burning vehicles and blockading streets throughout the city.  Gunfire continued into [the] night, as soldiers and cartel fighters battled in the streets. In its brief statement, the government said it had opted to suspend its operation, but did not elaborate on what exactly that meant. Later, it became clear through local media that the government forces had indeed released Mr. Guzmán López back into the custody of the cartel.

We hadn’t realized that the “Narcos” was a watered-down version of the drug wars or that this level of impunity was as narcotic as they drugs being dealt.

Of course, we see the same level of impunity from President Trump these days, along with his entitled feeling of being immune to any legal or institutional norms.  Threaten to impeach him for his solicitation of yet another foreign country, Ukraine, to further his personal politics, and he doubles down and asks China to investigate and help him.  Accuse him of personal self-dealing, and he selects his Trump Doral hotel resort in Florida as the location for the 2020 G-7 meeting of world leaders that he gets to host next year.  Tell him there is legal protection for whistle blowers, and he announces in every forum that he’s “looking for” this guy.  Accuse him of violating the “emoluments” section of the Constitution on receiving benefits for his service, and he spends 308 days or one-third of his time in office to date staying at one of personal properties and conducts numerous meetings in his hotel in Washington, D.C.  Accuse him of selling out the Kurds on a whim to help his dictator buddies, and after years of partnership he says the Kurds “are no angels” while standing tall with some of the world’s worst devils.

Escobar, the Guzmans, and the Trumps may use slightly different means, but their view of the ends is the same:  whatever is best for them, the devil take the hindmost, laws don’t matter, governments come and go, it’s all about them.  Immune to any other opinions, standards, or norms, it’s their way or the highway with absolute impunity.  Catch me if you can.



Little Rock       For five years my family said we lived in Rangely, Colorado on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in the far northwestern corner of the state.  We were closer to Vernal, Utah, and what is now the Dinosaur National Monument, than we were to almost anything else in Colorado.  In fact, we actually didn’t live in Rangely either.  We lived in California Company, now called Chevron, company camp five miles out of town.  You knew you were coming into the camp as you drove down the highway when you saw the flare burning 24/7 from the small refinery across from the oil company offices before you arrived at the small community of houses they had built for the workers.

I’ve been back there over the years, though it has been some time at this point, in order to show my kids where we lived, and where my brother was born.   The last I knew, the Rangely field is still producing, and the refinery was still in operation.  The company camp is now quasi-abandoned.  The company sold some of the homes to long time employees who wanted to stay there, but otherwise, it’s part of the boom-and-bust cycle so common in the extraction world of the West.  To the best of my knowledge, the flare is still burning from time to time.

Flaring is the process of burning off natural gas that for various reasons cannot, or will not, be refined.  The rationale for most oil and gas companies is that this is gas is too low grade for refining.  The reality is that the cost is too high for the price they can garner or they can make more on the oil, and the gas is a byproduct. Is this good for the climate or utilization of such a scarce and diminishing resource.  Of course not!

Contrary to their promises, companies in the main are burning off and releasing more gas than they said they would.  In a New York Times analysis, they found that in some fields Exxon Mobil and BP (formerly British Petroleum) didn’t decrease flaring and venting, but increased it.

Since 2011, the period for which reliable numbers are available, Exxon has flared or vented more gas overall than any other operator in the three oil fields, which include the Eagle Ford and Permian basins in the Southwest, and the Bakken straddling the Canadian border. Companies often treat natural gas as a byproduct when drilling for oil, which is far more lucrative. The data also shows that BP this year acquired some of the most polluting sites in the Permian and then allowed flaring and venting to increase. BP burned off 17 percent of the gas it produced in the Permian between April and June of this year (the first full quarter after the acquisition) making it the worst performer in percentage terms among the top 50 producers. In the year-earlier quarter, BP had burned only 10 percent.

What the heck!

Perhaps it should not be a surprise given the record of these companies around climate change, but there were a couple of shocks in the article nonetheless.  One was the fact that they do indeed “mess with Texas.”  “Last year in Texas, venting and flaring in the Permian Basin oil field alone consumed more natural gas than states like Arizona and South Carolina use in a year.”

I knew, guiltily, how much the smell of flaring was so imprinted on me as a boy, that whenever I passed a flare burning in Rangely or Pasadena or Billings, it felt like home again. I read the article and its litany of bad behavior and corporate irresponsibility, cringing as I looked for any reporting on what Chevron might be doing, so the second huge surprise was the following passage in the article:

Chevron, on the other hand, has demonstrated more discipline over the past three years, keeping flaring and venting to less than 3 percent of the gas it drilled, the data shows. Analysts said the company appeared to have stricter internal rules that discourage drilling in areas that offer few prospects of economically recovering the natural gas produced.  “We built a strategy early in our Permian development that, whenever possible, we would not flare to produce,” Veronica Flores-Paniagua, a Chevron spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Well, I’ll be damned.  It’s happened.  Finally, Chevron is doing the right thing for a change.  Is this the same as every broken clock being right twice a day or could they lead from the front for a change, rather than trailing behind?