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Mary Wildfire: Industries kick the cleanup can down the road

A recent Real News interview says leaked documents have revealed that the Alberta tar sands cleanup costs could be several times higher than the $50 billion publicly announced. In the interview, Regan Boychuk says the oil companies say they are cleaning up old wells. And they are. At the rate they’re doing it, they’ll have all the old wells done in something over 2,000 years.

The industry, and provincial and federal officials — hard to distinguish between these two entities — started by denying the amounts, and they are now working on schemes to begin to address the needed cleanup, by getting taxpayers to cover the costs.

All of this is familiar to us in West Virginia. Half a century ago, we got legislation to make coal companies pay for the cleanup of abandoned coal mines. In that case, the companies have actually been made to pay the costs (of cleaning up old sites left by other, now defunct companies), but the cleanup has not been done — because Congress has control of the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and doesn’t want to disburse it for its intended purpose.

And then there is gas. According to Dave McMahon of Surface Owners Rights Organization, there are 4,500 “orphaned” gas wells still unplugged in West Virginia. The state uses permit fees to plug about 10 a year. You do the math, as to how long it will take at this rate to close up all the old wells.

Meanwhile, the rash of new, horizontally drilled and heavily fracked wells is creating a whole new future burden. The companies pay a $50,000 reclamation bond, which is enough to plug a well — but they each pay that once, regardless of how many wells they have.

Why are the various agencies which are supposed to regulate these companies allowing them to go merrily on while not putting up the money to clean up the messes they leave behind? In all these cases, it’s predictable that the companies will go out of business as soon as they become unprofitable, leaving nothing for legacy costs. In the case of the gas industry, it’s already losing money, but it is trying to patch together profitability exporting as much of their product as they can, and by creating a massive petrochemical corridor in our region and elsewhere.

We can expect the petrochemical complex fed by the gas wells to also leave a nasty mess behind once either the source dries up, or many types of plastics and/or fossil fuels are banned for climate reasons. Possibly this will happen long before the costs are repaid on this enormous complex.

That Real News video suggested that “taxpayers could be on the hook” for these cleanup costs if regulators don’t force the companies to pay. But it seems to me more likely that most of the toxic messes left behind by all three fossil fuel industries (coal, oil and gas) will simply be left festering for millennia — they will never be cleaned up, because we won’t have the kind of advanced economy capable to doing such work much longer.

This also goes for another energy source — nuclear power plants. Their spent fuel rods need to be kept artificially cool, and along with other waste left by the associated weapons industry, must be kept sequestered long past the time when people capable of reading English warnings can be expected to be around.

Why don’t regulators do their jobs and force these companies to cover their costs? Yes, the revolving door and corruption explain a good deal of it, but I expect an underlying reason is this: none of these industries would be profitable if made to pay their own costs. Externalizing is the only way they can do business.

Yes, we do pay the “externalized” costs anyway, in other ways — but it’s primarily future generations that will pay. What governments do best is kick the can down the road, postponing the day of reckoning. They’d rather let some future government face the wrath of the public when the shocking bill comes due (really, it’s due now — but when it can no longer be hidden).

Unfortunately, this is likely to happen at a time of breakdown, a breakdown made inevitable by the sort of irresponsibility I’m talking about here. Proper cleanups may not be possible — future generations will just have to avoid a good many places.

There are plenty of things you can do to shrink your own footprint, but it would be much easier with responsible policy. It’s hard to say whether we’ll ever be able to get comprehensive, sane energy policy — but meanwhile, we can delay and block the construction of these monstrosities that would lock in fossil fuel use for another generation, time we cannot afford to waste. Fortunately, solar and wind are cheaper, and so is battery storage. We should be putting our collective effort toward speeding the transition, not into clinging to 1950s era technology.

“These monstrosities” refers to the petrochemical complex, new gas-fired power plants, and the pipelines heading east, north and south to export hubs. And one piece of this effort is to get a lot louder about these legacy costs, and insist on their being included in the reckoning.

Mary Wildfire, of Roane County, is a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Funerals for Friday, July 19, 2019

Cawley Jr., George - 3 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Cunningham, Corinna - 11 a.m., Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mt. Lookout.

Evenson, Warren - 2 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Lawrence, Jerry - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Ratliff, Sarah - 2 p.m., Odd Fellow Cemetery, Oak Hill.

Williams, Scott - 11 a.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.