The Farce of Democratic Party Climate Change Policy


As the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak continues to spew into the air, Rhode Island’s small hamlet of Burrillvillle is now facing the chance to be the future site of such a catastrophe. With the help of a key Democratic Party endorsement and accession from labor union bosses who should know better, Rhode Island may soon host a fracked natural gas plant rather than the saner move of a sustainable electric plant.

Recently, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is lovingly nicknamed ‘Wheldon Shitehouse’ by constituents in the know, has posed and postured around the Senate regarding climate change, browbeating and hectoring the Republican denialists with all the pomp and circumstance of the pontificating charlatan he is. One of Sen. Whitehouse’s claims to fame is going after the paint corporations in a lawsuit regarding lead poisoning in children, yet his recent behavior makes one wonder if he in fact consumed a fair share of paint chips in his youth.

What makes this such a joke is his adamant support of the construction of a Spectra Energy natural gas plant in Burriville. My colleague Steve Ahlquist at RIFuture.org, a better journalist and investigative reporter than I will ever be, has done a truly amazing amount of muckraking on this issue that shows the calamity in construction, reporting I would highly encourage CounterPunch readers to peruse at their leisure, including ones about whistleblowing regarding corporate pollution and protests by residents willing to go to jail. What I offer here is a mere summary.

Let us begin with the science, which says that the methane generated when one burns natural gas is actually, at this point, far more dangerous than carbon emissions. Methane dissipates faster than carbon but also magnifies heat to a greater degree, which at this juncture is unacceptable.

[T]he media are discovering that the claim fails to account for the climate impacts of methane, the main constituent of “natural” gas, over its full life-cycle. The latter starts at the well. From there, gas is transported via pipelines and compressor stations, to its final destination downstream. Gas escapes unburned at every stage.  When the global warming potential of this so-called “fugitive methane” is taken into account, it turns out that “natural” gas (both conventional and fracked) is a greater threat to the climate than coal or oil burned for any purpose. This came to light in 2011, when Cornell University researchers Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth, along with actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo, were named among Time Magazine’s 50 “People Who Matter” for performing and publicizing a study that undercut the bridge-fuel claim. In April of 2014, a recent update of the research has confirmed this finding. (http://www.rifuture.org/methane-gas-is-no-bridge-fuel.html)

The proponents of this move argue that natural gas is a ‘transition fuel’, but the reality is that the transition period came and went during the Bush administration. And to be precise on that point, I mean the H.W. Bush administration, that is why Gorbachev embraced climate change issues in the final days of the Soviet epoch.

University of Rhode Island scientist Dr. Peter Nightingale has recently engaged in a series of protests against the Spectra plant to the chagrin of unionized workers of a construction industry in the doldrums. But the reality is that, despite the fact these workers see him as a job killer, he is trying to save their houses. Recent maps generated by Climate Central and National Geographic demonstrate that the coastal areas of Rhode Island, which are thoroughly populated by unionized laborer domiciles, could be inundated by the end of the century. The fact that Union leaders allow a situation where laborers are pitted against their fellow workers from unionized public universities just goes to show that class war is so classy.

Sen. Whitehouse has said recently he would like to use the model created by the tobacco lawsuits in the 1990’s to go after the fossil fuel companies, who knew decades ago that their carbon footprint was causing an ecological catastrophe. Some time ago, I talked with a neighbor who told me the insurance companies had lowered her bill by saying she no longer needed to pay for flooding coverage. With what we know now about the forecast, will Sen. Whitehouse dare take on the home insurance companies that are running such a fraud? What will he tell constituents when the route he walks during the annual Gaspee Days Parade down Narragansett Parkway in Warwick is under water?

These maps show the historic African and Latino neighborhoods of South Providence are under water in two decades, which gives new meaning to the ethnic cleansing description of gentrification. Will Sen. Whitehouse, whose offices are above sea level on the East Side of Providence, be giving shelter to these flood victims?

Instead of creating a few jobs that will last for a brief window of time Sen. Whitehouse and Gov. Gina Raimondo could instead use this opportunity to create a Green New Deal. The installation of the sustainable grid could create good unionized jobs for years to come, perhaps saving our country from economic woes in a fashion not seen since World War II. Paul Jay of The Real News Network recently interviewed Dr. Robert Pollin of UMass Amherst, an economic professor, who described succinctly how to finance this effort. Yet the union leadership replies that their primary concern is to get cranes in the air. Whether they will answer for when the union members are flooded out of their homes remains to be seen. One must wonder why Sen. Whitehouse finds it necessary to reinvent the wheel while ninety miles away from Key West in Cuba we have a model to follow, one that is wholly pro-union and will grow the rolls of labor unions in measurements that utilize reams instead of lines on a paper. Like I said before, blame the paint chips.

While we wait with bated breath for Sen. Whitehouse to wake up from his petro-funded stupor, I would recommend true activists connect with Fighting Against Natural Gas (FANG), a direct action climate justice group that is taking on Spectra and their pawns movement of faux neoliberal activists one battlefield at a time. I would also love to see FANG network with the Cuban embassy and present a wholly-unionized plan of alternative action that deflates the behavior of the unimaginative union leadership. Perhaps this could also precipitate union support for ending the embargo, something that is far-overdue. But instead Sen. Whitehouse and his collaborators are playing a dangerous game, setting up for another Aliso Canyon, that, like the Cuban Missile Crisis half a century ago, brings us dangerously close to an apocalypse of our own making. I doubt Sen. Whitehouse would like to be compared to President Kennedy in that fashion.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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