Hiding behind the flag

How the oil and gas industry exploits patriotism to screw America

Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Last year, while attending city council meetings in Longmont, where the town’s new oil and gas regs were being debated, one particular family in attendance caught my attention. This family included a couple of kids, never missed a meeting and, to put it mildly, was very pro-fracking and pro-drilling, whether it was in neighborhoods or anywhere else. Their weekly speeches to council pretty much followed the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s (COGA) flag-waving talking points: energy independence, importing oil funds terrorists, and so on. COGA is the industry group that organizes, or fabricates, depending on your point of view, most of the industry support at such local meetings.

But what really caught my attention about this particular family was the sincerity of their patriotic rhetoric.

When the youngest boy, perhaps in it his early teens, was telling city council that it just had to support domestic oil and gas development because it would save American lives, he meant it. His entire family believes that when we import hydrocarbons we are funding terrorist organizations hell-bent on destroying our way of life and taking away our freedom. They really think that by allowing fracking in the middle of our neighborhoods and parks, we can avoid future wars and terrorist attacks.

Now I disagree, of course, but I don’t hold anything against that family. I applaud their civic involvement. But I can’t say the same for the oil and gas industry that is exploiting them and millions like them who have been blinded by industry lies and manipulated by way of their own misguided nationalism.

Every time I drive by a drilling rig with an American flag attached to it I want to tear it down and hand-deliver it, along with a few choice words, to the industry marketing jerk who signed the order to put it there.

It makes me mad, because under the current realities of the energy extraction industry and global markets, wrapping rigs in flags or painting them red, white and blue is nothing short of a slap in the face to the entire U.S. citizenry.

Industry execs know exactly what they are doing. They have made a conscious decision to exploit ignorant, misguided American patriotism to increase their profits from foreign markets. And by wrapping the industry in the flag, both Democratic and Republican politicians at every level of government have been given the political cover they need to do the bidding of their oil and gas industry backers instead of those who elected them.

I have little doubt that we will one day look back on the current shale gas and oil boom and see it as one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on America.

Here’s the truth about those flag-draped rigs: There’s a good chance they are drilling a well paid for with foreign investment capital, with the intention that the gas produced will be sold overseas. That’s right, all we get is the air and water contamination for our part, while the whole process doesn’t make our country one lick safer or less dependent on imported anything.

All of us are getting screwed, but hyper-patriotic conservatives have been duped into fighting for the rights of the oil companies to pollute our neighborhoods, air and water for nothing more than an export product. And people have been fooled into believing that this drilling boom has something to do with “energy independence,” the new mantra of the patriot vernacular. And this exploitation of all things red, white and blue is just getting started.

The Obama administration has just passed new rules for fracking on the nation’s 440 million acres of federal land, 20 million of which are in Colorado. The rules are watered down and nearly meaningless. Most environmental groups see them more as protecting industry from regulation than regulating the industry.

But what is important here is the motive behind these new rules. The administration admits it wants to exploit shale oil and gas as an export product before China gets its shale gas online in the next five to 10 years.

Think about it. We are actually going to allow the private oil and gas sector to transform our public lands into pincushions over the next few years for the sole purpose of ensuring that the shareholders of a handful of corporations can make a massive, quick profit by exporting and selling our public energy reserves in other countries. I wonder if they’ll slap a flag on our back before they bend us over.

So who is paying to drill all those shale gas and shale oil wells that are pumping millions of tons of contamination into our air and groundwater? It’s probably not who you think it is, because it’s darn sure not who the industry wants you to believe it is. According to Bloomberg, Chinese companies have pumped $5.5 billion into the shale gas and oil-drilling boom, primarily to gain our technology. Japan has kicked in another $5.3 billion, along with companies from other parts of the world, like India ($3.55 billion), Korea ($1.55 billion), the U.K. ($3.95 billion), France ($4.55 billion) and Norway ($3.38 billion). Norway, really?

And in case you missed it, which nearly everyone did, because that’s what the administration intended, the Department of Energy just this month authorized the export of gas to countries, regardless of whether or not those nations have a trade agreement with the U.S. Now that’s special treatment, indeed, for an industry that hardly needs it.

“Energy independence” — what a joke. None of this should make anyone launch into a Lee Greenwood song.

It’s not your fault you didn’t see this coming. We’ve been duped by a massive, sophisticated marketing campaign that includes everything from flags on rigs to those slick TV commercials with the blonde spokeswoman telling us about all the environmentally friendly gas we’re finding while creating jobs and energy independence here at home. And most of your elected leaders are spouting the same disingenuous horse crap. The truth can be hard to find when it’s buried under enough money.

There is a simple, common-sense solution to this problem: Make it illegal to export oil or gas produced in the U.S. If such a law were passed, a number of things would happen very quickly.

The first thing we would see is that the drilling of shale gas would come to a quick halt. That’s because we have a glut of gas and no market for what has already been tapped. If we weren’t going to export it, we would have no reason to develop any more of it for years. By that time, the science would likely catch up to the drilling and we would either be able to extract energy safely for both people and the environment (unlikely) or we would be in a better technological position to move on to other cleaner, safer renewable sources of energy. Oh yeah, and we would at least have a shot at energy independence, if that matters to you.

Such a law is a long shot, but it could buy time for those cities and counties like ours that are trying to figure out how to save their communities from the drilling tsunami that has already overwhelmed so many parts of the country, just to exploit that five-year Chinese window.

Support for such a no-export law might also come from some unexpected places. The chemical, steel and other manufacturing sectors have voiced their opposition to energy exports because they realize that it means higher prices for energy here at home. Strange bedfellows for environmental groups, to be sure. But that’s the point, we’re all in this together.

It’s time to stop saluting a dirty, greedy industry just because it’s mastered the art of fake patriotism. Now is the time to start fighting the very real problem of allowing oil and gas wells funded by foreign entities to decimate our communities in order to export the gas underneath our towns to somewhere overseas, all for the benefit of short-term profits. Conservatives and progressives alike have good reason to join forces to stop this destructive activity before it is too late.

Think of it this way, would anyone listen to the arguments made by the industry and its political bagboys about energy independence if it was a Chinese or, heaven forbid, Norwegian flag on top of that rig? I don’t think so, and that’s a far more honest depiction.

For all of the heartfelt patriotic rhetoric about fighting terrorism and wars by way of energy independence, the truth is, all we get is the polluted air and water, the increased chances of cancer, lower property values and a depleted quality of life to go along with our wars and the occasional, unavoidable terrorist attack.

Any true patriot should be disgusted by the oil and gas industry’s attempt to wrap itself in the flag while exploiting all of us for nothing more than the chance to make a quick buck.

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