It’s Always About Oil:
Opinion by Phillip T. Alden
As the title for this essay implies I’m going to talk about conflict and oil. I was born in 1964 and my oldest and closest friend was born a month after I was. We grew up together in Palo Alto, California, on the San Francisco Peninsula roughly halfway between the City and San Jose.
For as long as we’ve been alive and even before we were born we have agreed that every war in our nation’s extremely violent history, at least since World War II, has been about our insatiable greed and avarice for oil. The essence of not only Middle East conflicts, but conflicts all over the world have been and continue to be about oil. There are notable exceptions, although they are also always about resources. In sub-Saharan Africa the endless cycle of death and suffering has been about gem stones and precious metals, particularly metals used to make computer chips. But even in Africa the conflicts that weren’t about gems or precious metals have been and are still about oil. We can’t get enough of it.
Both Bush presidential administrations were all about oil. The Bush family made their fortune in the oil industry. George W. Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, was an oil industry executive, as was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rex Tillerson, an oil company executive, was our first Secretary Of State under the Trump Administration. Our national politics is rife with oil company executives and has been for decades. The three current wars that we’re aware of – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – are about oil. The terrorists who caused the devastating 9/11 attacks were motivated by our ongoing support of Israel and our presence in the Saudi Arabia. “How do I know this? Because that’s what they fucking said!” (to quote David Cross.) Our divisive actions in support of the criminal government of Israel and the ongoing oppression of the people of Palestine is about oil through “regional stability.”
Yeah. Stable is what I’d call the Middle East.
The dedicated Americans who sign up to defend our country should not have their blood spilled to sate the greed of oil company executives, but sadly that’s what all too often happens. The people who suffer most are the innocent women and children who are caught in the crossfire or used as pawns in these violent games of endless avarice. Yet our politicians and oil companies don’t care about our soldiers or innocent civilians, and it’s never enough. Billions of dollars, more than these people could ever spend in multiple lifetimes, is never enough. There is a reason that Greed is one of the “seven deadly sins.” Greed owns those who succumb to it.
The Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen – name the conflict and petro-dollars are behind it all. And too many so-called “patriotic Americans” don’t give a shit. It appalls me that some of our veterans are attacking the people who are trying to protect our country. Our politicians and some of these ignorant Americans are attacking the agencies who keep our country safe and the rest of us do nothing. What does it take? Are we going to let our country slide into fascism and kleptocracy? Some argue, with considerable merit, that we’re already there.
The recent hurricane that hit Houston revealed something that many Texans have known for years – that Houston is one giant toxic waste dump. After the hurricane the water that flooded into local homes was tested and found to contain levels of benzene that were over 100 times above the so-called “safety limit.” Let that seep into your mind for a moment, like the benzene that is seeping in to the bodies of every man, woman and child in the greater Houston area. And benzene is only one of the many caustic chemicals used to refine – you guessed it – oil.
Let me relate a personal experience: I lived in Austin, Texas for about five years. For a relatively short period of that time I had a partner named Jeffrey, who was a native of Corpus Christi, Texas. Corpus is along the same Gulf Coast as Houston, and like Houston, Corpus Christi is a major oil-refining city. Jeff used to tell me that he could stand outside his childhood home, throw a rock in any direction, and hit an oil refinery. Refinery explosions were so common that oil company representatives would routinely make the rounds and write checks to replace the broken windows. Jeffrey had serious mental illness and so did most of his family. Five years after we broke up, due in no small part to that mental illness, Jeffrey took his own life. How much growing up in a toxic waste dump contributed to that mental illness is unknown, but there has been a proven correlation between mental illness and long-term exposure to toxic waste.
We went down to Corpus once while we were together. We visited the site where Jeff’s childhood home once stood. I could have easily thrown a rock in any direction and hit an oil refinery. I was flabbergasted. That evening I stood in our hotel room at the Marriot and looked down on the city of Corpus Christi. To my left was the bucolic seaside that draws thousands of Texans each year and the homes of local residents. To my right were multiple oil refineries. A tanker was making its way out to the Gulf from a river that divided the city. I will never forget that view, and after that night I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Millions of people live in Houston. After the devastating hurricane that destroyed much of the city of New Orleans many of the residents sought refuge in Houston and live there still. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire. Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi, and every city in between, are huge toxic waste sites.
There is an area of San Francisco on the southern edge of the city called Hunters Point. It was the former site of Candlestick Park where the Giants played baseball for many years. Near the highway 101 side are new condos. The other side of Hunters Point is a predominately black neighborhood with the closed navel shipyard on the very tip of the point. The residents of Hunters Point have been fighting for years to close a dirty power plant and to prompt cleanup of numerous former military waste sites. Land developers have hungrily eyed the long-closed Hunters Point Navel Shipyard, but the land sits undeveloped. The reason is obvious; the former shipyard is a super-superfund toxic waste site. The Navy would love to sell it, but it’s prohibitively expensive to clean up the site. It’s actually a question mark if the site can be cleaned up at all.
My father worked for Lockheed Missiles and Space in Sunnyvale, on the Peninsula just south of my hometown of Palo Alto. Next to the site is Moffett Field, a former military airfield. It was closed during the Bush I Administration but partially reopened after the 9/11 attacks. The California Air National Guard base is still there. Lockheed has been replaced by office towers that house Amazon, Motorola, and other tech companies. On the airfield is the historic “Hanger One.” At one time it was the largest dirigible hanger in the United States and it remains a historic site. For the past ten-plus years it has been a skeletal metal frame. The reason; the original skin of the hanger was made with asbestos, a proven cancer-causing agent. Moffett Field itself is a superfund toxic waste site, as were multiple areas surrounding the airfield before they were cleaned up. The land values are obscenely high, which is emblematic of the San Francisco Peninsula.
The federal government claims that Moffett Field remains an active airfield due to anti-terrorism defense following the 9/11 attacks, but every site surrounding the field has been cleaned up at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. They have subsequently been developed and sold for billions of dollars. The levels of jet fuel and other chemicals in the bay adjacent to the runways are off the charts, the fish inedible.
My father died of cancer shortly before he was set to retire. There has been no known link between his work and his death but it gives one pause.
My point is that, while the military-industrial complex has poisoned areas of my home, the oil industry continues to poison American citizens unlucky enough to live near their refineries. People do not choose where they are born and raised, and many people cannot just “up and move” to a less polluted place. But even if they could we would still have poisoned land and waterways, and would still have an industry that has no desire to stop polluting or clean up their mess. If you stood beside me in that Corpus Christi hotel room you would likely be as appalled as I was.
The War in Syria has caused a humanitarian disaster and chemical weapons have been used on both civilians and soldiers in violation of just about every treaty in existence. Both the United States and Russia are directly involved in this dirty and immoral war. The war has become extremely personal for about fifty Russian families whose relatives were recently killed in Syria. Russian contractors from a company called Wagner were advancing on an area inside a rebel-held area of Syria. The U.S. military warned them that a bombing run was already underway and that they should pull back immediately. Either through a communications mix-up, or a callous disregard for the safety of their own people, Wagner personnel entered the area and were subsequently killed. The Russian government has not returned the bodies to the families nor even confirmed that they were killed. “We have nothing more to say on the matter” was the official statement from the Russian government. The bereaved families have said that many of their members worked for Wagner under extremely dangerous conditions because they were desperate for work.
The area in question is an oil field. It is currently inoperable due to the instability of the area but Putin and his buddies wanted it taken, even at the cost of fifty of their own people.
Afghanistan is a terribly poor country whose citizens have suffered centuries of invaders and endless years of tribalism, corruption, and governmental ineptitude. The fall of the Soviet Union was caused partly by years of Russian invasion of the country. The United States invaded the country even though it was clear that the people behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks were hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Steve Coll’s latest book, “Directorate S,” reveals the disaster that is the Afghanistan/Pakistan War. Both countries should be named when referring to this conflict because they are inexorably linked. So why did both the Bush II and Obama administrations stay mired in a war that we are still involved in to this day? Why do we keep propping up a corrupt and inept government? There are actually numerous reasons and I highly recommend reading the book to understand it fully. My point here again is that Afghanistan has a lot of oil and mineral wealth. Donald Trump has openly and publically talked about raping the country for its mineral wealth. You could almost see him drooling at the very thought.
Trumps latest attacks on foreign steel and aluminum producers has been part of a larger scheme to hobble renewable energy industries like solar and wind. The administration’s attacks on our national parks and protected areas is about going after oil and mineral deposits. Even while we ample reserves of both oil and natural gas it’s never enough. The oil companies and mining companies suffer from the disease of More. More oil. More spoiled lands and polluted rivers. More billions of dollars atop their already obscene wealth. We cannot cure them of the disease of More. We cannot appeal to their humanity or sense of decency because they have none. We will never change their minds or their thinking.
But we can fight them and we can keep them in check. The starting point is acknowledging that oil is behind most of our international problems and many of our domestic ones. We can reign them in through environmental laws and regulation. Believe it or not, most American citizens are not wealthy oil executives. When their actions are criminal we can prosecute and jail them. We can elect people who will represent our interests instead of theirs. We can demand change and stop the pollution of our country. We can demand an end to wars of aggression over oil. We can uphold the human rights of Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Palestinians and Africans. We can hold these people accountable and shine the light of law and regulation on them and their actions.
Our country was founded on principles of freedom and care of our lands and our bodies. It was not founded on the desires of greedy oil company executives. It’s way past time to start demanding more of our representatives and less of our oil companies. We can demand that the lives and minds of our young men and women who serve our country are not wantonly spent for the greed of a few. We have to start with accountability, regulation, and criminal and environmental investigation. The students of Parkland have reminded us that we have the power, not the gun lobby or the oil lobbies. We have to reject the status quo.
Our country is better than that. We are better than that. We can save billions of dollars in energy costs and generate billions of tax income to benefit the 99% of us instead of the 1%. We can and must save our land, our people, and our world from this scourge.