Nick Flores is an economist who knows the oil-and-gas industry from the inside, having been in the merchant marines hauling platforms and rigs to sundry locations in the Gulf. Industry exposure didn’t end there; he was in grad school six months after the Exxon Valdez sullied the Arctic shore and studied first-hand the economics of accidents. He was not dismayed. In his words, “Shale gas is a revolution. It has transformed energy in America. What we’re seeing now is but the tip of the iceberg.” He didn’t say from which dwindling sheet it might have been calved.
Yet Flores is not utterly enchanted by the industry. There is what he terms a problem of externalities, meaning that the full cost of the venture is not appreciated when such “routine” risks as methane leaks and pollution of ground or surface water, and “high-priority” risks such as cement, drill-casing, and wastewater-impoundment failures, are not factored into the economic analysis. Such externalities are often expensive and not easily addressed, and should be internalized to reflect real costs.
Having lived in San Francisco, which receives water from the Hetch Hetchy water system, a system so pristine it is one of the few for which the Environmental Protection Agency requires no filtration, Flores comprehends the preciousness of pure water. He wonders what will happen if in our zeal to poke the earth we should inadvertently pollute a major aquifer such as the Ogallala, which underlies eight states and once contained water equal in quantity to Lake Huron. (It too is dwindling.) If such an integral resource should be fouled by whatever means, what then? Part of the damage hits the pocketbook. In heavily fracked Washington County, Pennsylvania, property values have declined almost 25 percent in places overlying aquifers through which drillers cement their casings. Is it “right” that property values have declined, or is it just perception? The answer is unimportant; all that matters is perception’s effect on the market.
Flores notes EPA’s limp-wristed governance of greenhouse gases. Methane, the major component of natural gas, is utterly ignored. (Oh, there are voluntary programs.) EPA may have downsized its prior estimate of how much methane leaks from fracking wells, but that puts it at odds with NOAA‘s recent study. Who is right? In any case, geologists and EPA agree that, compared to conventional drilling, hydraulic fracturing leaks more methane. Fracking fluid is injected and then pumped out (or a percentage is), but it returns laden with natural gas and other disinterred volatile chemicals that if released foul the air around drill sites. An estimated 90 percent of this “burping” can be captured in a “green-completion” process that caps the well and separates the petrochemicals for later sale. Even though this is of economic benefit of drillers, however, it is by no means always done; old fields may lack technology while new fields may have neither pipelines nor storage facilities built, and meanwhile methane seeps away. As you may know, methane in the atmosphere is a serious contender in atmospheric warming. Atmospheric methane gradually converts to carbon dioxide so it is over the short term that it does its damage. In its first 20 years, methane’s ability to capture heat in the atmosphere dwarfs that of carbon dioxide 70 times over.
Much like spent rods from nuclear plants and almost as dangerous, wastewater is a facet of fracking often overlooked and underfunded. Current options include dumping it into often-open holding pools, forcing it into injection wells, or recycling. Dumping it anywhere presents obvious problems including, with injection wells, persuasive evidence of earthquakes. Recycling would be great, but it’s not easy to clean water laced with not only heavy metals and radionuclides but dissolved salts, which require reverse osmosis or other exotic means to treat. (If desalinating salt water were easy, the world would have no freshwater problem, at least not yet.)
Options for dealing with wastewater are under creative review. Why not ship it away? (What do you mean there is no away?) Last March the Coast Guard “quietly” sent to the White House a proposal to put fracking wastewater on barges, said to be safer for transport than trucks and trains. The toxic brew will be shipped to someone else’s back yard for disposal. Yucca Mountain anyone? Frio County, Texas, which is not among the state’s top gas producers but that nevertheless has more disposal wells than the three top gas-producing counties combined, is evaluating a penny-a-barrel fee on disposed wastewater. The compensation is expected to bring the county over a million dollars a year, which would feed a fund to combat environmental damage.
We have such faith in compensation. While it comforts the aggrieved and pains the aggressor, that’s often as far as it goes. And the aggressor’s pain may be tiny indeed. Caps on damages provide a well-trod path for industry to escape real consequence for their sins. (Caps can zap citizens on the other cheek when they limit damages for civil suits.) In the end, let us not forget that no amount of compensation will restore what is irreplaceable.
Subterranean Aquifer Blues
Although groundwater property rights vary widely by state, they generally emphasize water quantity over contamination. Some landowners may use as much groundwater as they wish without regard for impacts anywhere else. This is called the Absolute Dominion Rule, and it is codified in 11 states, including Texas. “Use” in this case would include, I suppose, the right to pollute the groundwater. Colorado and other western states have adopted a doctrine of Prior Appropriation–the first landowner to “beneficially” use or divert water from underground is given priority over later users. Now many states have updated this doctrine with a permit system. Available permits are in hot pursuit; you can guess by whom.
When your well-water starts fizzing, fingering the culprit isn’t easy. Contaminants act differently underground, like senators behind doors. How do you prove who polluted the water, and when, and how? Equally important, what is to be done? EPA says that much progress on cleaning polluted aquifers has been made. Wells can shlep contaminated water to the surface for treatment. This intensive technology works if contaminants contain neither solvents nor oil and so long as the contamination has not spread. Since fracking fluid and wastewater are excluded and aquifers tend not to be contained, EPA’s assertion seems delusional.
Small producers lose their shirts in these times of low gas prices, so one might wonder why they keep drilling. Two reasons. Leases may mandate that lessees use their drilling rights or lose them. And prices may be low now, but just wait. Prices for natural gas in other areas–Japan, Europe–are much higher. It costs to convert gas to liquefied natural gas for long-distance transport, but producers have their eyes on the prize and preparations are being made. US prices will then rise; it won’t go the other way around.
It wasn’t so long ago that energy prices were rising in the face of looming energy scarcity. Very quickly shale-gas production has reversed that. In the first decade of this century, US gas production went from almost none to more than 10 billion cubic feet per day. In 2012, shale gas was 50 percent of the gas market; by 2035, Flores says, the percentage should swell to three-quarters. If oil imports diminish and “petro dollars” remain in the US, the dollar should be fortified and economic growth fueled by this bonanza. That is, to the extent that the bonanza remains both at low prices and here. And to the extent that climate change does not rudely intervene.
Natural gas may burn cleanly but it remains a fossil fuel. Our dependence on fossil fuels is irrevocably changing our world while we tend to our piquant concerns. Even if less is escaping at wellheads, incalculable amounts of methane now erupt from thawing Arctic tundra and waters. Will depleting a new fossil fuel will be our salvation?
Control unit facilities cannot be allowed to exist,” writes Russell Maroon Shoatz in a piece called “Death by Regulation.” “They serve no purpose other than to dehumanize their occupants. Our collective welfare demands that we do everything within our power to bring about an end to this form of imprisonment and torture.”
Shoatz, a former Black Panther who will turn 70 years old in August, has been held in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons since 1983. His only time in the general prison population in the last 30 years was an 18-month stint spent at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth that ended in 1991.
Maroon has had only one misconduct since 1989. His most recent violation was in 1999, when he covered a vent in his cell that was blowing cold air in an attempt to stay warm.
From 1995 until the end of last month, Maroon had been held at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania. Without warning Maroon was transferred on Thursday, March 28 to SCI Mahanoy in the eastern part of Pennsylvania.
A growing grassroots national movement had been mobilizing to win his release into the general population. This transfer appeared to be a response by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to the gathering legal and political pressure. (more…)
Filed under: FBI, History of anti-imperialist/revolutionary movements, Political Prisoners, Prisons, Racial Profiling, U.S. | Tagged: pennsylvania department of corrections, pennsylvania prisons, pensylvania prison, plitical prisoner, Russell Maroon Shoats, solitary confinement, torture | Leave a Comment »
Last week , McDonald’s, the international fast-food juggernaut, was surprised and, one hopes, publicly embarrassed when a group of student “guest workers” in central Pennsylvania called an impromptu strike to protest working conditions. According to these guest workers, McDonald’s failed to comply with the terms of their agreement, and used intimidation and threats or retaliation to keep them at bay.
These “guests” (from Latin America and Asia) came to the U.S. under the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa Program, part of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (AKA the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961). A J-1 is a “non-immigrant visa,” given to visitors who participate in programs designed to promote cultural exchange. Inaugurated in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the program was both a valid attempt to introduce foreigners to the American Way of Life as well as a standard propaganda tool.
Originally, the program’s charter had it focusing primarily on medical or business training, along with visiting scholars who were in the U.S. temporarily to teach and do research. And because it was specifically a cultural exchange program, the J-1 visa fell under the auspices of the now defunct USIA (United States Information Agency) rather than the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). How it evolved from medical and business training to flipping hamburgers is easily explained. Business interests lobbied hard for its expansion.
These visiting workers have turned out to be a bonanza. Each year hundreds of thousands of them are brought to the United States under programs like J-1, and, according to the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), the agency that keeps track of them (and who encouraged and supported the McDonald’s protest), these so-called “cultural exchanges” have, over the years, been badly compromised. Given the overwhelming temptation to engage in mischief, employee abuse is now rampant.
What’s happened is that guest workers are now viewed by American businesses as a “captive workforce”—a gullible and needy collection of workers unschooled in American customs and expectations, and without recourse to labor laws or union representation. Not surprisingly, these visitors are being systematically screwed over. According to the NGA, the McDonald’s “employees” had paid approximately $3,000 each for the opportunity to work in the United States. Presumably, that money was spent on transportation costs and fees to GeoVision, the for-profit organization that sponsored them.
Among the “abuses” alleged by McDonald’s guest workers: (1) They’d been promised full-time jobs, but most were given only a few hours a week. (2) They were nonetheless forced to be on call twenty-four hours a day, and were intimidated and threatened if they complained. (3) The company failed to pay them overtime they were entitled to. (5) According to NGA, their employer is also their landlord, and even though there are as many as half a dozen co-workers sharing a room, their rent (which is automatically taken out of their paycheck) renders them making less than minimum wage. Any complaints, and they’re threatened with being sent back home.
None of this should come as a surprise. When there’s an opportunity to lower operating costs by exploiting labor, management will usually take advantage of it. Call it the Law of the Jungle, call it succumbing to market forces, call it “gaining a competitive edge.” But whatever we choose to call it, it’s the workers who get skinned.
Southern California’s restaurant and car-washing industries are sparkling examples of this phenomenon. These businesses are notorious for exploiting frightened, undocumented Mexican workers by paying them less than minimum wage, and breaking with impunity every labor and safety statute in the book. Why? Because they CAN. After all, who’s going to report them?
Alleging unpaid wages and repeated retaliation, McDonald’s workers in central Pennsylvania launched a surprise strike at 11 this morning. The strikers are student guest workers from Latin America and Asia, brought to the United States under the controversial J-1 cultural exchange visa program. Their employer is one of the thousands of McDonald’s franchisees with whom the company contracts to run its ubiquitous stores.
“We are afraid,” striker Jorge Victor Rios told The Nation prior to the work stoppage. “But we are trying to overcome our fear.”
The McDonald’s corporation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The J-1 visa program is officially intended to promote educational and cultural exchange. But advocates allege that J-1, like the other guest worker programs that collectively bring hundreds of thousands of workers in and out of the United States each year, is rife with abuse. The National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), the organization spearheading today’s strike, charges that such programs—whose future is intimately tied up with the fate of comprehensive immigration reform—offer ample opportunities for employers to intimidate workers, suppress organizing and drive down labor standards.
“McDonald’s is just the latest in a long line of corporations that have hijacked the US guest worker program to get cheap, exploitable labor, and that’s what the students are,” NGA Executive Director Saket Soni told The Nation. “The conditions are horrific, but have become the norm for guest workers.”
The workers are striking over what they charge are rampant abuses at their stores in Harrisburg and nearby Lemoyne and Camp Hill. According to NGA, the visiting students each paid $3,000 or more for the chance to come and work, and were promised full-time employment; most received only a handful of hours a week, while others worked shifts as long as twenty-five hours straight, without being paid overtime. “Their employer is also their landlord,” said Soni. “They’re earning sub-minimum wages, and then paying it back in rent” to share a room with up to seven co-workers. “Their weekly net pay is actually sometimes brought as low as zero.”
“We are living in [a] basement,” said Rios, “cramped together, with no divisions, in bunkbeds which are meant for children.”
“We suffered some humiliating moments” he added. “Managers would mock us or make fun of us because we were making mistakes at the beginning.” While they had been promised transportation to work, he charged, instead “we have to walk along the highway, and cars pass us by very closely, and on several occasions we were almost hit by cars.”
NGA also charges that management required the guest workers to be on call twenty-four hours a day, ready to show up for work at thirty minutes’ notice, and that workers have been subject to threats and retaliation for speaking up or turning down work. Rios said that once, when he refused a last-minute request to come into work, “they said, ‘OK, then don’t complain when we give you even fewer hours.’ And they did.” Another time, he added, “they actually threatened one of our roommates by saying that they’re just a call away from sending him back to his home country.”
Organizers expect seventeen guest workers to participate in today’s strike, which begins with an 11 am march headed from the basements where they live to the stores where they work. In the coming weeks, workers will travel to Washington, DC, and to McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, where they will demand that the chain crack down on labor abuses by its franchisees, and that it ensure the workers receive all unpaid wages. “The workers want to bring the problem to the doorstep of their real boss,” said Soni.
“This has really been a nightmare,” said Rios. “Because we paid so much money to come here to make these people richer, and then being mistreated…everything is so bad.”
The guest workers’ strike comes three months after another work stoppage in McDonald’s’ supply chain: As I first reported at Salon, 200 total New York City fast food workers from several fast food companies staged a one-day walkout on November 29. Interviewed last month, New York McDonald’s worker Alterique Hall told The Nation that he was talking with his co-workers about a second, bigger strike, “hopefully soon.”
oday’s strike also bears major similarities to one that took place two years ago, and a few miles away: In August 2011, guest workers on J-1 visas mounted a strikeagainst a Hershey’s Chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Backed by NGA and local organized labor, the workers alleged that Hershey’s had manipulated the J-1 program (and several layers of sub-contracting) in order to replace better-paid union members with temporary guest labor. Under a settlement with the Department of Labor, companies in Hershey’s supply chain ultimately agreed to implement new labor protections, and to pay $213,000 in unpaid wages and $143,000 for health and safety infractions.
Following the well-publicized Hershey’s strike, last year the State Departmentannounced changes to the J-1 program intended to reduce abuse. But Rios said that contacting the State Department a week and a half ago had only made his situation worse. He said that the US government responded by contacting GeoVisions, the organization that sponsored the trip; that triggered an unannounced visit to Rios’s shared basement room by a GeoVisions representative and Rios’s boss, McDonald’s franchisee Andy Cheung. (GeoVisions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Rios said that Cheung yelled at him, while the GeoVisions staffer stood by, hands shaking, acting like Cheung was his boss as well. “You could see he was scared,” said Rios. “He would say things like, ‘This doesn’t look so bad to me.’ ”
“It was clear to everyone that it was an intimidation tactic,” said Soni. According to NGA, Cheung is about to bring another wave of J-1 students into the country to work at his McDonald’s stores.
The McDonald’s work stoppage plays out as Washington debates comprehensive immigration reform, and unions join NGA in warning against expanding guest worker programs without strengthening worker protections. On a conference call last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “History shows us that guest worker programs create a second class of workers.” Since then, the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce announced agreement on a general framework for a guest worker compromise to be included in an overall bill. That framework reportedlyincludes guest worker protections, but both parties said the details remain incomplete.
NGA members traveled to the capitol last month to seek legislators’ support for the POWER Act, legislative language designed to protect immigrant workers from retaliation for organizing. Interviewed in Spanish (for an article in next month’s issue ofDissent), Martha Uvalle, one of the eight guest workers who went on strike at the Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood last summer, said that if the law doesn’t improve, abuses will continue, and “there will be many more guest workers that come forward to fight. And we hope that, with that effort, someday we will change the structure of all of this.”
Soni said today’s strike “has huge implications for immigration reform” and called it “the greatest example of why we need fundamental changes to guest worker programs…so that any immigrant worker setting foot in the United States has the same rights as American workers.”
“We really don’t want this happening to anyone else,” said Rios. “We don’t want anyone to go through this anymore. That’s why we’re doing this.”
“Pennsylvania has opened up its doors to fracking in ways that many other states in the U.S. have not,” said David Dausey, Ph.D., chair of the Mercyhurst University Public Health Department. “We don’t know enough about the environmental and human health effects of fracking and, as a result, Pennsylvania has become the home of experimental fracking.”
Dausey discusses his concerns in this month’s episode of The Dausey File: Public Health News Today.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a controversial method to extract natural gas or petroleum from subterranean shale by using pressurized water to blast it open. Proponents of fracking have noted its potential for helping the U.S. achieve energy independence while also stimulating the economy and creating jobs. These proponents have met stiff resistance from environmental groups that claim fracking can result in air and water pollution and have adverse human health effects.
The discovery of Marcellus Shale coupled with Pennsylvania’s loose regulations and friendly relationship with the oil and gas industry have made it so that Pennsylvania has become a mecca for oil and gas industry interested in fracking, Dausey said.
He noted that the oil and gas industry along with the government have made it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct comprehensive scientific research on fracking. “Until we have real scientific research about the environmental and human health effects of fracking, we should regard all current fracking practices as experimental,” Dausey said.
He posited that people who live close to fracking sites have “every right to be concerned” about the potential health consequences of fracking.
Chemicals used in the fracking process contaminate millions of gallons of water, Dausey explained. Safe disposal is an environmental concern. Further, he said, the exact chemicals used in the process are unknown because of industry resistance to surrender trade secrets. Fracking also has the potential to contaminate drinking water from wells.
“There is a recent lawsuit in Pennsylvania that claims that Pennsylvania officials didn’t report toxic chemicals found in drinking water near a gas drilling site,” said Dausey. “If true, this raises a real concern about how Pennsylvania is regulating and monitoring the fracking occurring in the state.”
Dausey noted that fracking isn’t just a water pollution concern. It can also deliver methane emissions into the air; the exact levels are disputed but research suggests that it may result in acute and chronic health problems for people living close to a well. Dausey urged further research before fracking becomes more widespread.
“Keeping the public safe should be our number one priority,” he said. “It should take priority over profits, over jobs, over everything.”
US Election day live:Its on Twitter, so it’s official? @BarackObama Four more years – Latest updates
|OFFICIAL: FOUR MORE YEARS
• Obama wins New Hampshire and leads in swing states
• Both campaigns watch as Florida goes to the wire
• Exit polls put Obama ahead in Ohio and Wisconsin
• ‘Firewall’ holding as Obama wins Michigan, Pennsylvania
• GOP to hold House, Democrats on course for Senate
• Live video from campaigns’ headquarters
04.06 (23.06) CNN is now calling Wisconsin for Obama. The entire Midwest is now blue except for the state of Ohio.
04.05 (23.05) Polls close on the West Coast and with that California’s 55 votes have marched into Obama’s column. There are huge cheers at Obama’s rally in Chicago as they his electoral vote tally surges forward.
04.00 (23.00) Al Gore, a man has who spent more time thinking about the importance of Florida than anyone else, predicts it will go for the President. If you were a Democrat would you welcome a prophecy like that? Not sure.
03.55 (22.55) Obama has left his home and driven to the Fairmont hotel, where and the First Family will wait in one of the suites and continue to watch the results flow in. There’s only one more stop after this – the convention centre where his increasingly hopeful supporters are waiting.
03.50 (22.50) Will it all end in Florida? 88 per cent of the vote has been counted and Obama is up by 16,000 votes. There are still ballots to be counted but right now they look to be in Miami-Dade, a Democrat county.
03.45 (22.45) The Democrats have won the Senate’s marquee race in Massachusetts and Elizabeth Warren will replace Scott Brown as the Bay State’s junior senator. Brown, who upended the political world by winning Ted Kennedy’s old seat, is conceding in Boston now. Not far away Romney’s staff must be watching him concede defeat and wondering how their own night is going to end.
03.40 (22.40) For months and months and months we have been told Ohio was the centre of the political universe and would crown the next President of the United States. That may still prove true but there is a distinct possibility that Florida may steal the show. If Obama wins there then suddenly the Midwest may not matter.
03.10 (22.10) Two new battleground exit polls and both spell more gloom for Boston.
So far, Romney has only taken one of the states that Obama won in 2008 – Indiana, which the Democrats didn’t contest this year. Romney needs some good new – any good news – soon.
03.05 (22.05) We are at 86 per cent of votes counted in Florida and Obama is still ahead. As I said in my list of things to watch – if the Republicans are defeated in Florida then they fall at the first hurdle.
02.57 (21.57) Multiple networks are now calling New Hampshire for Obama, meaning Romney has lost the state where he launched his campaign and where he owns a summer home. The walls are beginning to close in on Romney and very soon he is going to have no path left to 270.
02.55 (21.55) Mark Hughes reports on the chaos in Florida.
With more than 80 per cent of the vote counted in Florida, the lead is continually changing with neither candidate leading by more than a few hundred votes at a time.
At times the margin has been fewer than 200 votes. It’s worth remembering that The Gore v Bush 2000 debacle was a 537 vote margin. Under Florida law a recount will be triggered if the margin of victory is less than a half of one percent which, going by the numbers at the last election, means one candidate needs to win by a margin of at least 40,000.
The latest numbers show Obama up by about 20,00 but you would be crazy to call it now.
02.45 (21.45) Rob Portman, the Republican Senator from Ohio is addressing Romney’s Boston supporters by video link. He says that the campaign’s efforts in the Buckeye State have been beyond anything Republicans have ever done before. But there’s no mistaking the heaviness in his voice – it’s not looking good for Team Romney in Ohio.
01.40 (20.40) We have 60 per cent of the vote counted in Florida and Obama is leading 51-49. That’s a tiny margin and there’s time for Romney to close the gap but it will have to come soon. In Chicago they may be beginning to indulge in the idea that they win Florida and end election night almost before it begins.
01.35 (20.35) Could the deeply-divided US bear a repeat of the Florida 2000 recount?
Romney: ‘I’ve written my victory speech’ 07 Nov 2012
01.30 (20.30) More bad news for Republican Senate hopes: the Democrats have held off a challenge from Linda McMahon, the former wrestling executive who poured $100m into her candidacy, are going to win in Connecticut, the AP reports.
Like Gov. Corbett likes to say: “It’s all about the jobs.”
Lately it was green jobs.
No, we’re not talking solar or wind companies. Corbett is looking for partnerships with Ireland.
Philly Deals columnist Joe DiStefano who ran into the gov this morning at Philadelphia’s Union League Club where Corbett met with Ireland’s prime minister Taoiseach Enda Kenny to discuss economic development and ways to foster Pennsylvania-Ireland business relations.
The two leaders laid the groundwork for an Irish trade mission to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2013, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley told Philly Deals.
And they talked natural gas.
Kenny and Corbett discussed the fact both Ireland and Pennsylvania have shale gas resources.
Kenny said the Republic of Ireland is “keen to emulate Pennsylvania’s success in developing these resources,” said Harley.
And they shared their common Irish roots.
The families of both Kenny and Corbett came from County Galway.
Corbett also attended Thursday night’s meeting of the Brehon Law Society at the Union League, where he met with His Excellency Michael Collins, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, along with Noel Kilkenny, the Consul General.