When I was a little boy, I lived with my family in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, a town on the Orinoco River. At times we would drive to the capitol city of Caracas, or to Maracaibo, where, as I recall, we would take a Grace Line boat back to the United States. Both drives are quite long, even longer with the poor roads and the car tires of the years ca. 1946-50; rarely did we make the over 600 km. drive without at least two tire changes.
However, my strongest recollection of the trip was driving through the oil fields somewhere outside of Caracas and, most definitely outside of Maracaibo, which has some of the largest oil fields in the world. Because of the length of these trips, we always entered Caracas or Maracaibo in the evening, and my most powerful memory was of gas flare-offs illuminating the distant night sky. Bright tongues of fire, rising for what seemed to me like hundreds of feet, dotted the landscape beyond the relative safety of our road.
|Gas Flare-off from an oil rig|
To me, these flare-offs were like threatening, prehistoric beasts, and I would feel uneasy until our car would leave them behind. I was somewhere between the ages of seven and ten during these Venezuelan years, a fairly innocent young lad. Still, I questioned my father about those flare-offs. I would ask: “Isn’t it a waste of perfectly good gas?” “Why can’t they find some way to pipe and contain it?” “Can’t they turn it to use for the people living in the region?”
I don’t recall many specifics from my father’s answers to my questions, but, essentially, he said this is the way oil extraction work is done, that the burn-off of gas is also done as a safety precaution, and, anyway, there is no easy way to bottle or contain the gas. Now, this latter statement, coming from a man who had taught me, early on, “never to say never,” did not sit well with me. I thought: “So what if it may not be easy?” “There must be a way to contain that flare gas, and we should find that way to avoid such a waste of resources!”
But as the oil fields disappeared from view, I would drop the subject and accept my father’s explanations. After all, my father was a highly-educated geologist and the head of iron ore exploration in Venezuela for US Steel. Still, to this day, in my mind, the flame-off is a metaphor for thoughtless corporate greed, lazy technology, and inadequate science. It reeks of complacency and sloppiness.
Now, keep in mind, these were the thoughts of a young boy under the age of ten. The environmental movement which had its beginnings in the nineteenth century had waned by this time; DDT was still the pesticide of choice; and Rachel Carson had yet to awaken the world with her wonderfully popularizing books, The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Silent Spring (1962). Not that this particular boy, in 1951, would have ever read The Sea Around Us; reading, back then, was far from his favored activities, such as combining tree branches, strips of rubber cut from Mack truck inner-tubes, and leather patches to make slingshots, climbing mango trees, and taking pot shots at iguanas.
All I was doing with my questioning was simply giving free rein to my common sense. It hardly takes a grown-up or a college education to distinguish activities that are destructive from those that are constructive. Common sense, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary constitutes “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.”
To me, those gas field flare-offs were neither reasonable nor safe. And today, we have the data to prove this to be true. Canadian researchers have measured more than sixty air pollutants carried downwind from natural gas flares, and among the air pollutants released, according to a California study of 2001, are: benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including naphthalene, acetaldehyde, acrolein, propylene, toluene, xylenes, ethyl benzene and hexane. [for more on oil industry harmful pollutants, see my blogpost “Our Water & Fracking, Sunday, February 6, 2011]
Moreover, these pollutants are merely the icing on this destructive “cake.” The cake itself is the tons of carbon dioxide and methane that are major contributors to global warming and to the (very likely) eventual destruction of life on earth.