Education comes in many forms and when they bump into each other, I feel duty bound to sort things out. Let’s start with a lecture complete with some compelling graphs explaining why the changes in our climate which some attribute to global warming is a natural phenomenon and not the result of anything we human beings have helped to produce.
The lecturer was an employee of an energy company, but prefaced his talk by explaining that he had put this together out of natural curiosity and was speaking only for himself. Translation: not influenced by who paid his salary.
Then a recent newspaper article quotes a geologist’s speech to a local business group on how environmentally safe the current fracking process used in the Bakken formation is, that there is no need to worry about the water table. The speaker is the president of a company which provides well site services.
The temptation is to put on my cynics hat, and dismiss the testimony as too tainted by self-interest to be taken seriously. But hold on, says Lawrence Lessig author of the book Republic Lost, How Money Corrupts Congress –and a plan to stop it.
Lessig points out numerous examples of scientific studies that contradict each other, and the statistics illustrate that when a company that has a stake in the outcome funds the studies, those results favor the company by a large margin. But it is not good old-fashioned bribery that caused the scientist involved to come up with those outcomes. It was, according to Lessig, just another example among many of what he calls “dependence corruption.”
Interestingly, Lessig worries that one of the damaging results of that particular corruption is that the general population will assume wrongdoing, mistrust all results, and be unwilling to be guided by what studies conclude, even if it would be to their benefit to do so.
It often takes some effort to sort through the conflicting “facts” on issues which are important to the general welfare. Consider the volume of noise about the Keystone pipeline which is projected to take the tar sand oils from Canada down to Gulf state refineries, and also to transport the much higher quality oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom.
Do they have some high-powered detergent to clean the line or do they just mix the two and declare the Bakken oil now lower grade? Oh shades of why we have a state mill and elevator, in part to correct the downgrading of high quality North Dakota wheat by the big boys in Minneapolis.
So where exactly is this pipeline going to be placed, and how foolproof is it from some massive undiscovered leak, and where would such a leak be the most damaging? And, come to think of it, whose response should we trust? That massive BP leak into the Gulf of Mexico occurred in equipment that had been claimed to be leakproof, failsafe, worry free.
In Nebraska the Keystone pipeline is platted to cross the Sandhills, 12 million-acres full of erodible soil and sand dunes as well as the famous sand hill cranes in season. According to Madeline Ostrander, senior editor at YES! Magazine, “A patch of trampled grass there can weather into a dune blowout and destroy a hay meadow,” adding that “the water table is shallow—in some places you can strike ground water by digging elbow-deep into the soil.” More ominous than drifting sand, however, is the fact that the water table you can elbow is the Ogallala aquifer, which provides the drinking, and irrigation water for eight states.
The farmers and ranchers, among others, who depend on the aquifer have developed organized opposition causing TransCanada, the pipeline developer, to lose its usual public cool. The company issued a lengthy legal document threatening to sue the state of Nebraska for billions of dollars in damages if they passed any laws that would interfere with Keystone XL.
The governor and lieutenant governor of Nebraska accepted contributions from TransCanada and then returned them, afraid, one would bet, of the developing opposition since ranchers and farmers also vote. Maybe we should take a look at our current candidates’ contribution lists.
President Obama turned down the legislation that would have approved the pipeline’s proposed route on the grounds that more study was needed, and there has since been plans to move the pipeline out of the Sandhills. But to where? And whose information should we trust?
Maybe a little “dependency corruption” is not life threatening, but permanent damage to the Ogallala Aquifer most assuredly is.
(Betty Mills has been a newspaper columnist in Bismarck for 26 years.)