Pipeline Politics is Local

Reading the news, you might get the impression that oil and natural gas pipelines are something people are fighting in faraway, thinly populated places like North Dakota. But the issue — and negative consequences — are probably a lot closer than you think. The Atlantic‘s CityLab tabloid (“30 Years of Oil and Gas Pipeline Accidents, Mapped,” Nov. 30) published an online animated map of the United States showing all pipeline accidents over the past thirty years. By the time it reaches the end, most of the heavily populated areas of the country are covered by a continuous mass of dots.

Pipelines are local for me, too. My home state of Arkansas isn’t exactly a “heavily populated area,” but it’s not North Dakota or Montana either. And it was the site of the Mayflower oil spill three years ago. Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured and spilled 210,000 gallons of heavy crude oil from Alberta (!) in a town of 2,200 people. Not only did it render groundwater and nearby streams toxic and undrinkable, but hundreds of people have reported chronic respiratory problems, nausea, fatigue, nosebleeds, bowel issues, headaches, rashes — basically the same kinds of problems experienced by local populations at the sites of other spills around the country.

And as in the rest of the country, liability for pipeline spills is severely capped by federal law. The post-Deepwater Horizon increase in the liability cap didn’t apply to overland pipelines.

Fracking itself is arguably associated with local water pollution. Fracking advocates — like veteran fossil fuel apologist Ron Bailey at Reason — like to point to EPA studies that minimize such harm. But as it turns out, the EPA isn’t exactly a neutral player here. According to Kate Yoder at Grist (“The EPA downplayed its findings in its study of fracking’s impact on drinking water,” Nov. 30), the EPA made last minute changes in the executive summary of its comprehensive 2015 report to say there was no evidence of “widespread, systemic” contamination of drinking water. The press release was changed from “EPA identifies potential vulnerabilities to drinking water” to “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources…” But buried in the text were over two dozen cases of water contamination, along with “hundreds of documented spills that reached soil, surface water, and groundwater.”

Common law rules of tort liability for such corporate malfeasance have been repeatedly weakened by the state: First, by case law in the early 19th century that inserted “standard business practices” as a mitigating factor for liability even when great harm had undeniably taken place; and then from the early 20th century on by watered-down regulatory standards that were weaker than traditional tort liability standards, thereby creating a safe harbor for environmental damage so long as a corporate wrongdoer was in compliance with weak — and often industry-written — regulatory standards based on so-called “sound science.”

More recently, and even closer to home, as I was drinking coffee the morning of this past September 3 my trailer suddenly began rocking back and forth. It wasn’t a severe earthquake by the standards of people who are used to them, but it was enough to make the floor joists creak and make me worry for the structural integrity of my home — and worry afterwards if it had done any damage to my water pipes. At the epicenter in Oklahoma, it measured 5.2 on the Richter Scale. I’m not sure what that means — I haven’t had enough experience with earthquakes to have any basis for comparison — but a lot of Center for a Stateless Society comrades live in the Oklahoma City area and reported a considerably rougher shakeup than what I felt here.

And of course — what you already know I’m leading up to — the epicenter was in a part of Oklahoma dominated by the oil industry and prone to fracking-related earthquakes. Before the beginning of the fracking boom, in 2005, there was only one earthquake of greater than 3.0 magnitude in Oklahoma. In 2015 there were over 900. Residents of Pawnee, which experienced a 5.8 quake in September, have filed a class action suit against 27 oil and gas companies for earthquake damage. That quake resulted in 289 insurance claims, but about four-fifths of claims since 2010 have been rejected because insurance doesn’t cover earthquakes.

Oh, and by the way — you can probably attribute many billions of the damage to New Orleans from Katrina, as well as hurricane damage to other coastal cities, to land subsidence caused by extraction of oil in the Gulf region.

Now environmental activists in Arkansas are protesting the Diamond pipeline, which will transport fracked oil from Oklahoma across Arkansas to Memphis. Among those fighting it are people whose land — something that’s always the case with pipelines — was seized along the route via eminent domain.

To repeat, pipeline projects would simply be impossible without eminent domain. Keystone, DAPL and every other pipeline project in the country has relied on seizing people’s homes and farms against their will, through the government’s power to condemn, or outright take, land. And Keystone and DAPL have both violated sacred Native American land in violation of previously guaranteed treaty rights.

So to sum up, fracking and pipelines are both, for all intents and purposes, creatures of the state. The fossil fuel industries operate on “public” lands which the state first engrossed (the U.S. government, under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase and Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, inherited the land titles of the Spanish, French and Mexican governments), and then preferentially opened to extractive corporations. Their fuels are transported on pipelines built on stolen land, legally protected from most liability for spills, and protected by regulatory preemption from all the other forms of harm they’re responsible for.

If you call yourself a libertarian and claim to support any pipeline project, you are a liar and an enemy of human freedom. Whether you address the issues of eminent domain and liability caps or not, there is no escaping the fact that you can’t support the one without the other. If you buy pipelines, you also own the eminent domain and liability caps, whether you’re honest enough to admit it or not. And you are no libertarian.

So, what do we see at Reason magazine? Ron Bailey (“Guess Who Just Approved a Pipeline to Transport Canadian Oilsands Crude?” Nov. 30), happy as a pig in shit that Justin Trudeau has approved two Canadian pipeline projects, including the Kinder Morgan (which will transport Albertan crude to port in British Columbia). So Canada, he gloats, will receive the benefits that — had Obama not been such a “chump” as to halt Keystone — would have gone to “American workers, American families, and the American economy.”

Par for the course, and quite typical of an American right-libertarian movement that pays lip-service to being “pro-market rather than pro-business,” and opposing “crony capitalism,” but reflexively jumps to the defense of big business against all attacks from the Left and defends almost any conceivable real-world case of crony capitalism.

As Jesus said of the Pharisees, the leadership of the legacy libertarian movement are whited sepulchres. If free market advocacy is to have any future at all, it lies in denouncing these generation of vipers and taking its message to those on the highways and byways, who have been ignored by the pot-smoking Republicans.

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