Bodacious Boondoggles

Murdoch/Cheney…at it again.

Tar sand

                It is said those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And, in my experience, to report on it again and again…as if the failures of the past offer no instruction at all.

That thought slapped me sober while thinking about tar sands and, moments later, when running across this story on Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney and their forays into the sticky boondoggle of tar sands’ predecessor—oil shale.

Three decades ago, when just a cub reporter on my first day reporting, I landed smack dab in the middle of a multi-billion dollar story with global consequences—politically, environmentally and economically. If nothing else, both tar sands and oil shale have that much in common.

Unfortunately, the oil shale story was much too complex for an inexperienced reporter fresh off the turnip truck from Tomball, Texas. Had I recognized what was happening at the time and had I known the history of the situation, perhaps I could have saved taxpayers billions. This story still haunts me. Here is the “doomed to repeat it” part—Americans are walking headlong into a disaster just like the one I walked into thirty years ago.

The tar sands story and the XL Pipeline is just the current, disastrous and all-too familiar sequel…the elusive pot of black gold at the end of a make-believe rainbow.

It’s important to explain that two U.S. Presidents–Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter–had the foresight to want more than to simply kiss the rings of tyrants in order to get enough oil to keep America moving. Still, they did not know enough to spot the imposters among an array of energy alternatives.

Back in the 1970s, then-President Carter tried to tackle the energy crisis—a crisis that remains with us today. Toward that end, he formed the Synthetic Fuels Organization. Both Mr. Truman and Mr. Carter understood that if the world was to ever live in peace, we had to turn off the spigot on foreign oil…too much carrot for oil companies to take advantage of, too much stick (subsidies, wars) for the people.

In Mr. Carter’s case, he was forced into a corner. Americans needed gasoline to fuel their cars and their country. In the days and months following the Arab Oil Embargo, Americans sat fuming for hours in long lines waiting for the privilege of buying a few gallons of gasoline.

Mr. Carter, and the oil-dependent nation he led, was being punished…just as we are today.

By the end of Carter’s presidency, the world economy had been wrecked twice in less than ten years by OPEC’s political retaliation. First, it happened after America supplied massive amounts of arms to Israel, making it possible for Israel to win the 1973 Arab/Israeli war. OPEC’s “ministers,” pissed off by America’s assistance, cut oil supplies to zero. That was the first “oil crisis” of the 70’s. Another crisis occurred six years later, in 1979, a direct result of the fall of America’s longstanding buddy, the Shah of Iran.

Mr. Carter’s far-reaching goal was to pry OPEC ministers’ retaliatory hands away from America’s increasingly exposed neck. Desperate, and willing to give anyone with a new idea billions, the Western Colorado oil shale boom began full-stop.

Tar sand and oil shale are both boondoggles. Both extract filthy, muddy gunk with a little bit of oil inside. Both require huge amounts of energy just to clean it up enough to run a lawn-mower.

Both tar sands and oil shale render the earth useless, barren and ravaged after bulldozers leave.

Both level entire mountain ranges.

Both use toxic chemicals that invariably sink into the ground water that feeds major streams and rivers.

Most importantly, both tar sands and oil shale offer bogus hope of avoiding political entanglement with foreign oil.

In a short story called “ The Unsanitary Napkin,” I describe my first day at work at a Western Colorado radio station. Back then, the the economy was in shambles. I write of  wearing plastic shoes from Payless and of agreeing to clean the bathrooms if management would hire me.

Thirty years ago, we were told oil shale would set us free.

Now, those same oil companies are touting the miracle of tar sands and the XL Pipeline that will bring the sludge here.

It’s the same old boom and bust bubble. But this time, the boondoggle could not only take our money and our hope for a new and safe alternative energy source…it could irreparably  pollute the one thing humans cannot live without: safe drinking water.

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