Jenna Orkin: Co-Founder, World Trade Center Environmental Organization
Thanks to Culturechange, to the Community Church of Unitarian Universalist, to Continuing Education and Public Programs, the Graduate Center, City University of New York, to Andrew McKillop for coming up with the idea of this conference. He is with us in spirit though we couldn't afford to bring the rest of him from France; to all our generous speakers, to Philip Botwinick and the super-informed volunteers from the New York City Peak Oil Meet-up and from as far away as Canada and to all of you for making this critical event possible.
There is a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
Welcome to Petrocollapse and interesting times.
You've all read about the devastation brought about by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on oil supplies and infrastructure. You saw the New York Times Sunday Magazine article, the Beginning of the End of the Age of Oil. But what are the implications of that end? Articles on the subject steer clear of that aspect of the impending disaster known as Peak Oil which expert Matthew Simmons has called "the single most important issue of the 21st century."
What is Peak Oil?
First of all let's talk about what it is /not/. It does not mean we've run out of oil completely. Recent articles have indignantly pointed out that we haven't and they're right, though they're tilting at windmills; no one ever said we had.
Peak Oil is the theory developed by geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956, based on his observation of individual oil fields, that oil discovery and production follow bell-shaped curves. When a field is discovered, production rises til it reaches a peak after which it declines. Extrapolating from this, Hubbert predicted that the United States, seen as a sum of its oil fields, would reach its peak around 1971 and the world, in the 1990's.
1971 rolled around, we were awash in oil. People said, "Hubbert's an idiot, we're vindicated, party on."
Then came 1972. U.S. production was all downhill from there. Hubbert was right.
Events in the Middle East extended the life of worldwide oil production by about ten years so that Hubbert's initial prediction of the 1990's is arriving right around now. Thanksgiving Day, according to the wry prediction of expert Kenneth Deffeyes.
So what? There's still a lot left, right?
There is, but it's harder and more expensive to get and of lower quality. At some point it takes so much energy to get the oil that it's not worth it.
Isn't this a great opportunity to transition to alternative energy, like renewables? To grow vegetables locally? Get more exercise riding bikes? And exercise our brains, too! Necessity is the mother of invention. "They" will come up with something. They always have.
Thus have Peak Oil prophets been dismissed as something between a party-pooper and a guy holding a sign that says "The end is nigh."
What are we really talking about when we talk about Peak Oil? Long gas lines? A bad depression? Or some third thing, the likes of which have never been seen except perhaps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?
Remember that it's not just cars that eat oil. Oil is also used for pesticides and fertilizer. Without it, we won't be able to grow enough food to feed the world population of six and a half billion people.
At some level we're all aware of our own mortality though we may try not to think about it. Yet a bad diagnosis always comes as a shock.
How much more shocking to face a bad diagnosis not just for yourself or
someone in your family, but for everyone you know and the world into which you were born and which you imagined would still be there, more or less the same, when you died.
But that is what we're talking about when we talk about Peak Oil.
Some of the world's greatest experts on the subject are with us here today. Politically they represent the complete spectrum. Some are liberal, of course. One advises a conservative Republican Congressman. And so to our first guest...
How They Get Away With It: The Devil's in the Details
Jenna Orkin, Co-Founder: World Trade
Center Environmental Organization
Disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina make great television. What doesn't make great television is the environmental after-effect. There usually is one and there will be many once Peak Oil hits and chemical and sewage plants can no longer be maintained.
Environmental disasters aren't photogenic or sexy. Often you can't even see them. The explosions and collapsed buildings are history. The dioxin in the air, the PCBs in the water are invisible. And even when the toxic substance is visible, like asbestos, it just looks like dust.
But envirodisasters pack a wallop. The one after 9/11 is already claiming lives and over the long haul will have curtailed more lives than the initial disaster itself. Over half of the heroes who worked at Ground Zero now have debilitating respiratory problems. Analogous symptoms are also manifesting among Lower Manhattan residents, workers and students. How has the White House treated those Ground Zero workers? They withdrew 125 million dollars on the grounds that it hadn't been used. Why hadn't it been used? In many cases, because workers who applied for it had their claims obstructed or denied.
This is all background. Most of you know that the envirodisaster of 9/11 was in large part the result of the government's rush to "show the terrorists" and re-open Wall Street. You can read about it in the EPA Inspector General's Report of 2003. You know that the EPA lied and that in part they did so at the instigation of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. (I'm one of many plaintiffs in a potential class action lawsuit against EPA.)
But why would the EPA, the agency in charge of environmental disasters, take its cues from the CEQ? Who ever heard of the CEQ?
Behind the scenes the CEQ was and is an eminence grise of U.S. Energy policy. In May, 2001, which was a busy month for Executive Orders, Executive Order 13212 put the Chairman of the CEQ in charge of the Interagency Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining. The Task Force included representatives from 21 agencies; among them, the EPA, the Department of State, the Treasury, Defense and the CIA.
Apart from baldfaced lies, how else did EPA get away with its falsehoods about asbestos, never mind the thousands of other contaminants they didn't test for? One way was that they used 20-year-old testing methods. According to EPA whistleblower Dr. Cate Jenkins, for every fiber of asbestos EPA found, independent contractors found nine. The risk of cancer from the asbestos alone could be one person in ten.
EPA Region 8 out west offered Region 2 in New York up-to-date equipment. Region 2's William Muszynski replied, "We don't want you fucking cowboys here."
Fortunately a Task Force was set up to investigate what went wrong with Region Two's response to 9/11. Unfortunately, the Task Force was headed by Muszynski.
Once the EPA lied, State and City Agencies fell into lockstep behind them. The NYC Department of Health told residents to clean their apartments using a wet mop or wet rag. Stuyvesant High School, where my son was a student, reopened.
Schools Chancellor Harold
Levy set up a bivouac office at the school saying, "If I thought it was unsafe,
would I be here myself?"
A freshwoman I'll call Ann told Levy she was unhappy about the air quality downtown. Could she transfer out, at least while the fires burned?
Levy said, "If you leave now, you can't come back."
Four days later Levy himself left.
In February, 2002, Ann got
headaches which she attributed to the need for new glasses. She ended
up requiring two spinal taps for a condition which a doctor familiar with the
case attributed in part to the high levels of lead which had been found at the
The one thing you can say for EPA since 9/11 is that they've been consistent. The standards used during their initial cleanup exposed residents to a hundred times the cancer risk that had been used at "comparable" Superfund sites in the past. Traditionally, EPA cleaned to a standard whereby approximately one person in a million would get cancer from the contaminant involved in any given disaster. In Lower Manhattan, they cleaned to a standard whereby approximately a hundred people out of a million would get cancer from each contaminant involved in the disaster. And that doesn't take into account the additive or synergistic effects of those contaminants.
Little is known about synergy. But work performed at Mt. Sinai has shown that if you're an asbestos worker and a smoker, for instance, the effect isn't just twice as bad as being one or the other: It's eighty or ninety times as bad.
At a City Council hearing in 2003, EPA's Dr. Paul Gilman, who resigned from the agency the following year, was asked under what circumstances EPA had previously used the standard that put a hundred times as many people at risk of cancer. He responded: Where the area was sparsely populated or few contaminants were released; not exactly a description of Lower Manhattan.
Another reason EPA officials gave for using the more lax standard in Lower Manhattan was that the more protective standard was impossible to achieve because their instruments clogged. To anyone who challenged this excuse (isn't the clogging of the instruements an indication that there's a hefty amount of potentially toxic dust?) they responded, "What do you expect us to do? This disaster was unprecedented." On the other hand, they also continued to maintain there was no problem.
The EPA cleanup was dangerously flawed for other reasons too numerous to go into here but which included using tests that were designed not to find contaminants. They did, however, have more accurate tests performed in their own building. They also based part of their cleanup of Lower Manhattan on a finding of visible dust - although their own literature prior to 9/11 discusses the dangers of invisible dust - in addition to basing the perimeter of the cleanup on dust that had been visible from an airplane.
Why should the rest of the country worry about this?
The people of New Orleans can answer that. Whereas prior to 9/11, the government would respond to an environmental disaster by doing representative testing in concentric circles starting from the heart of the disaster, 9/11 turned the tables on that policy. Like Lower Manhattan, New Orleans has seen inadequate testing and of the wrong sort. And once again, residents have been told to clean their homes themselves whereas EPA whistle blower Hugh Kaufman says that a proper cleanup of the area would require respirators and other protective clothing and cost as much as the war in Iraq.
9/11 has set a new precedent. From then on, the more people there are who will be contaminated, the more likely it is that EPA will lower its standard for cleanup.
Why? Because where there are more people you have an economic hub.
Even before Katrina there was evidence of this brave, new and dangerous policy getting locked in. A New York Times article about the advice the federal government is preparing to give state and local authorities on what to do after a dirty bomb, quotes antinuclear activists: "The exposure allowed under the contemplated advice would create almost 100 times as much cancer risk as those usually allowed from other kinds of contaminants like chemicals, or from radiation in other settings."
Why would the feds do this?
"...an attack using conventional explosives to spread radioactive materials - a dirty bomb - would probably occur in a prominent location and the need to resume using the site would be higher.
'When balancing the risk of radiation exposure against the benefit of returning to normal activity, the government safety recommendations will weigh the importance of the contaminated location to economic or political life."
So all the king's horses and all the king's men and all the people's lawyers cannot put the government's priorities together again.
Footnote: The powers that be profess to be antiDarwin. But they practise the ultimate social Darwinism and are determined to survive regardless of the cost to the rest of us and even, in the end, to themselves.