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Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion Lights Up Night Sky, Illuminates Need for Sustainability

January 27, 2014

Have you seen the extraordinary photos and video from the natural gas pipeline explosion which lit up the night sky in Manitoba early Saturday?

Manitoba Pipeline Fire

This photo provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police shows a natural gas pipeline fire on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 near Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Because of the explosion and fire, several thousand people in southern Manitoba are without natural gas service as temperatures influenced by the polar vortex hover close to —20 C.

“The explosion and fire at a TransCanada Pipelines valve site near St. Pierre-Jolys happened early Saturday morning, sending a massive fireball into the dark sky,” the Canadian Press reported.

The timing of this latest major disaster — coming close on the heels of series of six major oil by rail disasters and countless other recent pipeline fireballs and spills — underscores the danger of transporting fossil fuel whether by rail or by pipeline.

In an added irony, the icy polar vortex escaping southward — due to warmer air caused, scientists say, by our past burning of fossil fuels — deepens the desperation of 4000 Canadians without natural gas service due to the explosion.

The spectacular series of oil and gas pipeline disasters and oil by rail catastrophes, along with the West Virginia water contamination due to chemicals used in coal processing, beseeches us all to connect the dots to climate, to corporate control, and to our need to rapidly transition to a sustainable energy future.

Deeper meaning of pipeline and oil by rail disasters

This endless series of disasters is not just telling us we need safer rail cars, better pipelines. It’s telling us that our extreme wastefulness and disconnectedness from the earth, from the longer-term consequences of our actions, and from each other must shift.

What remaining fossil fuel we can afford to extract, as slowly and safely as possible, must be used for life support, and for the rapid transition to a sustainable energy economy, with care and planning to achieve energy justice.

This will probably require a shift to stakeholder capitalism in the U.S., rather than shareholder capitalism. Shareholder capitalism, our current system, essentially legislates that blind profit must drive the political economy “no matter what,” even if that means steadily committing long-term climate suicide.

Stakeholder capitalism is also much more protective of jobs and income. This is of tremendous relevance as income inequality in the U.S. continues to skyrocket. Germany, for example, has stakeholder capitalism, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out in a January 14th Washington Post article showing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would increase income inequality tremendously if allowed to pass: “Free Trade and the Loss of U.S. Jobs.”

Rapid phasing out of extreme energy extraction essential

Minnesota is leading the way, with a judge ordering a major utility to invest in a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of solar, instead of natural gas, for power plants — for ecological reasons.

Change is possible. Green jobs are inevitable, with adequate political will. According to a University of Massachusetts study: 

“Spending a given amount of money on a clean-energy investment agenda generates
approximately 3.2 times the number of jobs within the United States as does spending the
same amount of money within the fossil fuel sectors.”

Yet the larger-scale transition urgently needed is barely even being discussed.

We know that most of the current reserves owned by oil and gas companies must stay in the ground in order to protect climate. So it’s logical that the remaining oil and gas must be used for life support, not to make billions of plastic bags. Not for U.S. military bases all over the world. Not for bigger, more powerful cars. Not for bigger, harder to heat homes and unhealthy levels of meat consumption. Not for inefficient construction in cold regions that makes no use of passive solar techniques, double-pane and triple-pane windows, and high R-value insulation. Not for extraction of energy which approaches a 1:1 ration of energy used for cradle to grave production. Not for extreme energy exports. And not for continued subsidies of fossil fuels at the expense of and instead of renewables.

Why is there not more change? Are we so cowed by the Koch brothers? Are we so terrified of change? Are we so petrified of inconvenience? Do we consider going without plastic bags to be the ultimate in deprivation? Really?

Conveniencing ourselves to death

Fossil fuels have contributed enormously to human development, but now they are doing the opposite. We are “conveniencing ourselves to death,” as Wyoming rancher and farmer John Fenton said at our Freedom from Fracking conference this past September in Philadelphia.

Fenton, who has benzene in his drinking water at 50 times the “safe” limit after fracking contaminated his water, had witnessed a plastic bag (manufactured using ethane, a natural gas product) floating high in the sky and had an epiphany.

The massive Manitoba explosion, coinciding with the polar vortex which scientists say is caused by global warming, must be our collective epiphany.

We cannot deny that we are in a true planetary emergency. This endless series of massive pipeline explosions and spills, and this endless series of rail explosions and spills, is trying to tell us something. When will we listen to the deeper message?

  1. January 27, 2014 11:41 am

    This is a beautifully written, concise, and compelling “forest-for-the-trees” piece connecting the dots and helping us see the deeper meaning of these seemingly disparate events. Wonderful job, Iris. Thank you for writing this. I’m reposting this on my blog:

  2. February 14, 2014 4:12 pm

    First Responders ask federal administrations to consider adding secondary containment to rail tank cars used to transport chlorine gas, providing lifesaving safety to First Responders and the public they serve. See First Responders Comments at PETITION C KIT

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