Labor, Oil, and the Environment
Two Companion Articles by
Bill Onasch

The Two Oil Crises—One Phony, One Deadly Real

Some of us have vivid personal memories of the great Oil Crisis, blamed on OPEC, in 1973. Fights often broke out in the long lines at filling stations. There were the odd-even days—based on the first digit in your car’s license plate number—dictating when you could fill up. For awhile Sunday sale of gasoline was banned. Though they never had to use them, the federal government, anticipating the worst, printed up hundreds of millions of gasoline ration coupons. After the price of gasoline doubled, however, the Oil Crisis faded as mysteriously as it began. 

Still, the politicians then vowed to take measures to assure there would never be another crisis. The government accumulated a huge emergency reserve of oil. In order to decrease dependence on “foreign” oil they opened up Alaska’s wilderness to exploitation by the oil companies. Fuel economy standards were imposed on automakers. Nonfossil additives for gasoline were promoted. There was even some lip service about reviving mass transit. 

That Oil Crisis roughly coincided with an explosive growth of ecological awareness and mass action around environmental issues.

 Environmentalists have long made compelling arguments for a drastic reduction in use of fossil fuels. 

·        There is only a limited amount of fossil fuel available. Once that’s used up it’s gone for good. God’s not making any more of the stuff.

·        Pollution from fossil fuel utilization has created enormous problems such as accelerated global warming, acid rain, ground-hugging ozone, contamination of ground water through fuel leaks and improper disposal of waste oil, to name just a few.

·        The production of new internal combustion powered vehicles, and disposal of old ones, creates a host of other environmental nightmares as well as great waste of a wide variety of resources. 

Few try to deny these scientific truths any more, though many try to ignore them and hope that reckoning will come on somebody else’s watch. And the energy giants spend a lot of money on pseudo-scientific attacks on global warming warnings and appeals to labor and minority groups to help them block environmental measures to “save jobs.” (See sidebar). 

The U.S. government has long pledged to the world that our nation will cut back on hydrocarbon emissions from fossil fuel use. But, during the decade of the Nineties, under both Republican and Democrat administrations, oil consumption increased fourteen percent. 

The colossal economic and political domination by the oil and car companies has subverted even the most well-meaning initiatives. Much of Alaskan oil, instead of relieving pressure from OPEC as promised, is exported to Japan. Auto industry fuel economy standards—modest as they are—have been destabilized by SUVs. These vehicles, which make up more than forty percent of auto sales, are classified as “trucks,” with their own, much higher allowances. Even traditional cars are just barely meeting the 27.5 mpg industry standard. Corn-based fuel additives, scorned by automakers and environmentalists alike, are kept going only because of the tremendous political clout of agrichemical giant ADM. There was some massive spending for new subway and commuter rail systems—which meant high profits for construction contractors and rolling stock manufacturers—but operating assistance for mass transit, needed to actually move people, was soon given short shrift. 

In the meantime, in the name of deregulation, and a free marketplace, control of the world’s oil supply has been concentrated into a tiny handful of multinational giants that make Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust look like a mom-and-pop operation. And, historically, the price of other principal fuel sources, such as coal and natural gas, always moves in lock-step with oil. 

With growing demand, and a monopoly of supply, price gouging at the pump should hardly come as a surprise. It’s a natural part of the free marketplace, the ultimate goal of every successful entrepreneur. Still, it makes many nonenergy capitalists very nervous for several reasons. 

·        It’s a hot potato in an election year. Most people buy gasoline and millions depend on fuel oil to heat their homes. They are both suspicious and irate in the wake of the latest round of price escalation. Which candidates will benefit or lose from this wrath remains to be seen.

·        Sustained higher prices for fuel could have a dampening effect on the economy as a whole.

·        The U.S. auto industry in particular needs to be concerned if consumers start abandoning the high-profit SUVs and look for more fuel-efficient vehicles once again. 

Whipping themselves—and they hope us as well—up into a crisis mentality, the reaction of the politicians has been swift, if somewhat confused. 

·        Some immediately called upon the government to sell off part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves. But, as Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope noted, they backed off after: “…the realization that  if the government sold oil at today’s high prices and filled its reserves again when the price dropped, the government would pocket the excess profits, not the oil companies.”

·        Since the oil companies claim that the special grade of gasoline required in smog problem areas such as Chicago and Milwaukee is more expensive to produce some politicians want to do away with the EPA’s smog measures. What’s a few thousand more asthma flare ups compared to saving 25¢ a gallon?

·        A bipartisan group of congresspersons thought this was a good opportunity to lease out the ecologically critical Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling and pipelines. You can’t drive a caribou to work. 

Perhaps the most popular idea has been repealing part of the federal fuel tax. Illinois and Indiana have already eliminated their state fuel taxes. The Republicans take special aim at the 4.5 cent increase that came during the Clinton administration. 

First off, it should be noted that U.S. drivers pay far less in fuel taxes now than our counterparts in Europe and Japan. 

Secondly, there is no guarantee that tax reductions wouldn’t be sucked up in increased profits rather than passed on to the consumer. 

More importantly, fuel taxes are the primary source of funding for highways and, to a much lesser extent, public transit. Slashing fuel taxes would mean either a serious deterioration of our transportation infrastructure or would require offsetting funds from other parts of the budget. Perhaps we could ask the kids in Headstart to subsidize our freeways. 

The energy capitalists don’t want to shake a good thing up too much. The most likely outcome of the present phony “crisis” is that, after extracting a few concessions from government, the oil companies will relax the price gouging and stabilize prices at a somewhat higher plateau. 

But we move ever closer to a real oil crisis—not over price per gallon but over the destruction of our environment. We have lost ground on global warming, acid rain, ozone smog, water contamination. And we’re seeing more destruction of wilderness, accompanied by threatened extinction of species, in the search for new oil fields. 

The problems of oil dependency are not limited to ecology. Urban sprawl has been an integral part of making our society car dependent. Sprawl has left behind, in the old urban cores, a huge underclass living in poverty and despair, creating many more social and economic challenges. Many see the solution to dealing with this problem to be moving a little farther out. Even the first rings of suburbs in many metropolitan areas are beginning to decay. But, eventually, even for those with mobility there will be no more room to run to. 

Is there anything that can be done about this impending crisis? There’s lots that can be done. 

There are four areas of oil dependency where we can find reasonable alternatives. 

Passenger Transportation
Cars are the single biggest culprit in the oil crisis. We’re not going to do away with cars. But we can sharply reduce the need to use them by providing adequate public transportation to work, school, shopping, and entertainment centers. 

Cars can be made much cleaner as well by shifting to electric, or hybrid propulsion. 

We could also save substantial amounts of fuel consumption/pollution by diverting most intercity traffic of 500 miles or less from planes to high-speed trains. 

Freight Transportation
We ought to revive and expand our rail freight system. Rail carriers intentionally abandoned general mixed freight in favor of more profitable unit trains (grain, coal, cars, etc.). Railroad neglect and subsidized highways have led to the massive, dangerous and unnecessary numbers of big rigs, often pulling two or even three trailers, on our roads. We can save both fuel and lives by shipping the lion’s share of intercity freight by rail and utilizing cleaner trucks for local end user deliveries. 

Home Heating
In urban areas we could develop more efficient hot water central heating districts. In all areas there is great potential for using solar energy for at least part of our heating needs. 

Lawn Mowers
Maybe not a high-profile polluter but gasoline-powered lawn mowers eat up a substantial amount of fuel and their dirty little engines pump a lot of junk into the air (not to mention their ear-splitting noise). Most urban lawns could be adequately maintained with push or electric mowers. 

All of these measures would be greatly enhanced if we called a halt to urban sprawl. Let’s provide future housing needs by renovating existing structures or “in-filling” those huge abandoned areas in the old urban cores. 

All of these objectives are easily obtainable with existing technology and without sacrificing quality of life. They wouldn’t cure all of our problems but they’d give a little breathing room for our kids and grandkids to figure out even better ways to live in harmony with our environment. 

But initiatives for such efforts are not going to come out of the free marketplace. The corporations have a vested interest in the way things are now. They retain the best politicians money can buy to try to maintain the status quo. And they try to frighten workers with dire predictions of job loss. 

By spreading the truth, and coming up with a sensible transition plan, we can win over the apprehensive workers. We will not easily convince the captains of industry and finance or their political retinue. To overcome their resistance will require building a new political movement to educate, and agitate, and organize among working people. Out of the ranks of our unions, and from the environmental movement, we will find the forces to do that job.










Labor and Minorities Belong Alongside Environmentalists—Not Polluting Corporations 

You’ll have a tough time finding a reputable scientist not on the energy industry’s payroll that disputes hydrocarbon emissions being a factor in global warming. But the energy bosses spend a lot of money promoting pseudo-science attacks on any efforts to curb their source of profits. They especially go after the Kyoto Treaty even though that international agreement was a modest political compromise that many scientists and environmental activists found disappointing. 

The house scientists for the energy bosses basically say “maybe there’s global warming and maybe there’s not. But, even if there is global warming there’s insufficient data to prove that it is anything but a natural process.” 

The quantum of proof demanded by the guys in white coats over at the Big Coal labs reminds me of the caution displayed by the physician attending my late step-father during his final days. I asked the doctor if Fred was suffering from Alzheimer. The doc replied that Alzheimer’s was a definite possibility but could only be confirmed through an autopsy. 

Autopsies can be useful but most of us would not want to defer working diagnosis, and attempted treatment, of our health disorders until that conclusive stage. But that’s essentially what the Big Coal scientists want us to do with the health of our planet. The self-serving “scientific” skepticism of carbon-based front groups has become so embarrassing that the Big Three automakers, among others, have prudently taken their distance. 

It’s pretty clear to everyone willing to see that global warming is going on. Whether fossil fuel contributes the most part, a large part, or only a substantial part to this process is something scientists can speculate about now and confirm a few centuries down the road. But greenhouse gasses certainly do play some role in global warming and, unlike other natural forces, are a factor we can do something about. 

Wisely, the energy giants have not relied solely on discredited science. They have also attacked the goals of the Kyoto Treaty on the grounds that it will only be enforced in the industrialized countries and that developing countries will gain competitive advantage by expanding their pollution. 

Overcoming poverty in the Third World without environmental destruction is a real challenge. But the fundamental problem isn’t with the irresponsibility of people in those countries. The source of the quandary is the multinational corporations, of which the majority are based right here in the U.S.. They are responsible, through their investment and trade policies, for both poverty and environmental destruction in the Third World, and virtually everywhere else—and want to use the WTO to do a lot more of the same. 

These same hypocrites, who’ve moved or eliminated millions of good-paying jobs in this country, have, unfortunately, had some success in sowing fear among workers about jobs loss due to environmental measures. Some good people who should know better, including progressive unions such as the United Mine Workers, have joined boss-led coalitions fighting restrictions on hydrocarbons. 

The energy bosses have also become recently concerned about the plight of workers of color. They granted a whopping forty thousand dollars to labor groups representing Black and Latino workers, along with the Black and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, to study the impact of Kyoto on their constituencies. The study’s conclusion? Blacks and Latinos will be the hardest hit by unemployment due to environmental standards. 

Considering historical racist employment patterns of Blacks and Latinos being last in and first out of all trades and industries, few of these workers will be surprised by the study’s outcome. They may be somewhat puzzled why a study was needed, and why labor groups were cozying up to the chambers of commerce and the coal barons to get it. 

Of course the big corporations don’t give a rat’s tail about the job security of any workers, of any color, of any country. They are holding our jobs hostage. They issue the challenge—jobs or the environment, which will it be? 

There’s nothing new and refreshing about this approach. It’s the same tactic they tried in opposing the Mine Safety Act, OSHA, the launch of the EPA, and every other measure that has promoted health, safety, and the environment. Their dire predictions of the collapse of civilization if such restrictions were imposed on business never came to pass. 

Still, the threat of job loss is powerful. And, it must be acknowledged, the kinds of measures I list in the companion article could cause a big displacement of jobs in many industries. 

But it wouldn’t be the first time that the economy would have eliminated massive numbers of jobs while generating new and different ones to replace them. At the turn of the Twentieth Century there were hundreds of thousands employed in such trades as teamsters (the original variety, driving horses), blacksmiths, coopers—jobs that had almost entirely vanished a couple of decades later. 

We should demand both jobs and a better environment. We need them both. We deserve them both. There’s enough resources available for both. And, we’ve got the potential power to get them both. 

We can’t count on either if we rely upon the good graces of the corporations. We’ll get nothing by rubbing shoulders with the bosses in their front group “coalitions.” What we need is unity in action between organized labor and the organized environmental movement. 

Progress along these lines recently began around the fights against NAFTA and the WTO. We can build on that to go forward with forging a new energy policy, and other needed environmental measures. 

At the same time we can work out a realistic plan for what has become known as Just Transition—to provide training and job placement for anyone losing a job as the result of environmental measures, and guarantee that their living standards be protected during this process. 

We should make the polluters pay for this Just Transition in a similar way to the Super Fund that was established to clean up their abandoned polluted sites. 

I am convinced that this is the only acceptable perspective for either the labor or environmental movements.