Flaring

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?

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State Initiatives Move the Needle on Key Issues in USA Elections

New Orleans  Obvious disclosure:  I’m a huge proponent of the strategic and tactical value of local and statewide initiative on our issues to build organizational power and actually win campaign results.   This is obvious given the number of living wage, lifeline utility, sales tax on food & medicine, generic drug, minimum wage increase, and single member district measures we put on the ballot – and mostly won – before voters in cities and states throughout the country with ACORN.  When people are given the opportunity to speak and be counted, and when organizations prove they have both the wherewithal and the courage to put the questions before them, the needle moves.  Sometimes it moves with us, and sometimes it moves against us, but, doggone it, it moves!

In the elections around the country it moved yesterday in some interesting ways, so let’s look at a couple with undoubtedly more to come:

  • In Michigan I had called attention recently to a number of measures where unions were willing to take their case to the voters on important collective bargaining issues.  There were mixed results.  The preemptive effort to ward off “wisconsinitis” and protect the public employees bargaining rights in the constitution failed, though it may have immunized the state in the future, which is critical.  On the other hand the powers of “emergency managers” to take over schools and cities and reject existing collective bargaining contracts won decisively.
  • Teachers, and this is mostly the NEA, were able to turn back statewide initiatives by so-called school “reformers” masking as hard right turners in Idaho and South Dakota and protect both collective bargaining and tenure in those states.
  • In California upending all of the Debbie Downers and pollsters that were signally that Governor Jerry Brown was going down, voters decisively voted to raise their taxes to try and rebuild the once great public school system in that state.  This is the first successful pushback to “repeal” the impact of the Howard Jarvis property tax limitations from over 30 years ago that have crippled public funding.  This is huge!
  • Maryland and my friends at Casa de Maryland have much to celebrate having not only won a state-based “DREAM” act through the legislature but also winning voter approval to the measure in the shadow of the White House.  We’re going to win DREAM soon, I would bet.
  • On protest votes on Obamacare voters in Alabama, Wyoming, and Montana on health exchanges:  I’m glad I only got to Montana for fish and fun, because my brothers and sisters there are drinking bad water before voting these days.  Florida voted “yes” which should have been a message to Romney, but whatever for the 47%, eh?  It doesn’t matter though since federal law preempts state measures in the USA.  The tide is moving out on this rightwing resistance.  Even the business-based conservative Times-Picayune in New Orleans editorialized a couple of weeks ago in our solid red state that Republican Governor Bobby Jindal was a fool to not take “free” federal money for three years to provide Medicaid support for Louisiana citizens.  Their message was essentially “don’t play national politics with the lives of Louisiana poor people.”  A lot of these governors are going to be getting this message about reality now.
  • Remember that Planned Parenthood is still fighting in the trenches state-by-state to protect its health services program after the ACORN-style Congressional scam attack, well in Florida voters lined up to say that state funding for their programs and others around birth control were fine with them.
  • On other “wedge” issues dividing modern voters, two more states, Maryland and Maine are ok with gay marriage.  My bet is that the Supreme Court will be watching these state plebiscites with decisions coming before it soon on this issue.  Washington and Colorado were OK with legalizing marijuana (yes, I can already hear the advertisements about being a “mile high” there!), but Oregon said no.  Unclear how this will sort out since the US and the Attorney-General are still insisting anything about marijuana is a crime, but Latin America is also moving this way with Uruguay and other countries believing we must legalize to stop the Mexican drug cartels.  Change is coming on both of these issues no doubt!

Let the people speak and be prepared to follow.

We need to put more living wage and minimum wage efforts on the ballot locally and statewide in 2014.  We need to look at some of these other issues and assess what it takes and start making plans.

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