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End of Fossil Fuel

Or, Emma Lockridge and why Marathon Oil should not get off scot free

I would like to drive a couple of cars in the next few years. I would like to drive a Jaguar … not own one, just drive one, across the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe navy blue or slate grey. And maybe a real old school car too. Like an old Chevy. A rounded edges one. No sharp fins.

Why would I like to do this? Because in their own way they are works of art to me, perhaps to all of us. Beautiful works of art in a fossil fuel era. And, that era will be over soon, because it is time. It is time to move on. I just want an elegant transition, not a crashing my way out of the fossil fuel era transition of climate change and poison.

The reason why I know that the fossil fuel era in cars will end is a simple energy inefficiency problem. Of the six gallons of gas you put into the car, about one gallon actually moves the car forward. This is not smart. Mara Prentiss is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard University. Asked about her new book, Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology, Prentiss talked to a Harvard Magazine reporter about energy, Carnots and efficiency, and why the combustion engine is outmoded. The reporter writes: “…The most wasteful example is the gasoline-powered car driven in the city. The inefficiency begins with the engine itself, subject to the Carnot limit (the thermal engine loss exceeds 65 percent of the energy in the fuel burned), and mounts from there: drivetrain losses, 4 percent; parasitic (frictional) losses, 6 percent; and other engine losses, 11 percent. ”

In the final analysis Prentiss explains, just l6% of the energy actually moves the car. So, put it this way, you put in six gallons of gas and only one moves the car. That is inefficient.

I had to impart this sad story to some American car dealers. It was a funny day in June, and an unusual request for an after dinner speech on the green economy. That was the day I spoke to the Minority Chrysler Dealers Association of America, all 90 of them or so. The group had gathered at the swanky Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. All affable, hard-working family men and women, who had earned their way into Chrysler dealerships. This is what you call an awkward moment. Me and 90 car dealers, to whom I have to impart that the combustion engine is a thing of the past. Needless to say, dinner went well until I explained that the cars they were selling were, well l6% efficient, and not the future of the economy. Truth hurts I guess. Not to say that the form of a Jaguar is not beautiful and could not be adapted to a Tesla. It is to say that an electric engine is 60% efficient in the engine, or four times as efficient as a combustion engine. And that is why we know the era will end. Energy and physics. That is, if our common sense and physics can overcome the stupidity of greed.

A Visit to Detroit: Land of Pontiac

If Detroit is an example of what is to come, the future does not look good. The place of the river in Anishinaabemowin is called Wawiiatanong, “where the river goes round.” For our ancestors it was a great place of gathering. This is the land of Pontiac, the Odawa Chief who later led in a battle against British occupation and encroachment. To most Americans, lacking in a proper North American history, Pontiac became immortalized as a car.

As Bill Wylie-Kellermann would write in a beautiful historical essay, “…The Europeans called the river d’Etroit, “the straight” and it was for them a channel for transport of furs, then timber, coal and ores. It was defended with forts and came to mark a border between nations. Eventually it washed their machines and carried off their petrochemical wastes.” This would mean the water would end up in the river, and then in the ocean. Over the long term, this will not work out for most of us.

I wanted to go there because Marathon Oil is a third owner of a proposed Sandpiper pipeline that would cross our reservation and the watershed of our largest wild rice bed. I wanted to see where the oil was to go and to understand “need”.

So it is that I decided to go to Detroit. I wanted to go there because Marathon Oil is a third owner of a proposed Sandpiper pipeline that would cross our reservation and the watershed of our largest wild rice bed. I wanted to see where the oil was to go and to understand “need”.

This “need” is what I refer to, as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, on June 5, approved a “certificate of need “for the Sandpiper, to serve Marathon Oil as the largest client of the pipeline. Marathon is also an owner, and the public was not allowed to know if there were any more contracts for oil that needed to be fulfilled by this pipeline, the Enbridge/Marathon proposal. That would be a trade secret. So I decided to go see where the oil would go that the big companies want to cross my rice beds. And, I decided to see who Marathon was.

It was also my time to visit to the Motor City, the great tribute to the fossil fuel era, the car. Greeted by a water tower in Detroit that said Free the Water, it seems like things have not gone well in the birthplace of the automobile.

The glory days were the post war 1950s. A retooled America made cars the future and Detroit was the birthplace of the American car industry, including Pontiac. The Pontiac was first made in 1926 in Michigan.

Detroit, and in fact Michigan, represented the American dream in many ways, but it did not come easily: certainly not to Native people and African Americans. The union movement had built a strong working class, one with security and the highest median income and the highest rate of home ownership in the 1950s. That working class was multiracial. Not that this was an easy path. Racism existed in the working class, culminating in the 1943 race riots.

In the industry, Kellermann would write, “black folk were consigned to the foundry and the most dangerous or back breaking work – and at the lowest pay. (At a Packard plant), three black workers were promoted on the basis of seniority and 25,000 white defense workers walked out. Outside circling the factory were vehicles with loudspeakers blaring, ‘Better for Hitler and Hirohito to win the war than to work next to a nigger.’”

Things got worse, and it was like dynamite. In the riots which followed, 35 people died. Of the 17 killed by police, all were black, some 1900 people were arrested and 675 had serious injuries. It is said that change does not come without struggle. Yet through this, a working class, a multiracial working class that was unionized was born. Once the wealthiest city in America, known as the “arsenal of democracy” in 1960, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the US, with a population of two million Detroit is the last major black city in the country, for now.

Corporate greed and accommodating federal legislative policies began the process of transformation, and the dismantling of Michigan’s American dream. During the 1960s and ’70s, Japanese cars began entering American markets. Japan had a plan: put American auto companies out of business. Congress seemed to welcome this new foreign competition with open arms. Many of these same government and anti-union policies pushed American auto giants like Ford, GM and Chrysler, out of the country.

NAFTA put the final nail in the coffin, making it too expensive for American auto companies to manufacture cars in the United States. Knowing they could no longer produce competitively, American automakers shipped their jobs to Canada and Mexico. Not to over simplify the stupidity of American economic planning, but, twenty years after NAFTA’s passage, on July 18, 2013 the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

As my family drives into Detroit in 2015, it is hard to imagine the Motor City’s glory days. Abandoned and burned out, tagged houses are in abundance, and as one reporter would write, “Detroit has become nothing more than a devastated landscape of urban decay with a current population of 714,000 whose unemployment rate at the height of the recession was as high as 29 percent, and has only decreased due to the rapidly decreasing population.”

End of Fossil Fuel

No Water, No Life

In March of 2014 the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced that it would start cutting off the services of homes, schools and businesses that were at least 60 days overdue or more than $150 behind. This was to effect 30,000 households, the vast majority of whom were African American, low income and unemployed. They live in a city which declared bankruptcy in the middle of one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The Blue Planet Project, an organization promoting access to clean water, submitted a critical report to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on its resolution for the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Water is a basic human right. City of Detroit officials say that the cash is needed to pay for aging pipes and infrastructure. “We have 90 water main breaks that are running in the city right now that we’re trying to fix,” said Bill Nowling, spokesperson for the state-appointed Detroit Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr.

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Nowling says there are lots of examples of neglected infrastructure. “We have stations that are 80 years old that can’t even fit the fire trucks. They have to park the fire trucks outside the station when they’re not on a call because they won’t fit into the fire station.” The problem was not new. In a statement issued in 2003, Congressman John Conyers noted: "Immediate action must be taken to ensure the health and well-being of Detroit residents who are being deprived of these basic services…No citizen should have to endure what people are facing day after day during the coldest winter months. It is critical to impose a moratorium on the cut-offs. Human rights must come first."

By 2014, things were a lot worse. Michigan Welfare Rights Coalition estimated that 30,000 households will be subject to closures in the austerity measures, of a city without infrastructure and cash. Some folks, however, can pay for infrastructure. Those folks are corporate.

Enter Marathon Oil

“…A reporter asked me what tar sands smell like, and it smells like death. And that’s what it is…”—Emma Lockridge

In 2012, Marathon Oil completed a $2.2 billion upgrade on its 81-year-old Detroit refinery to process tar sands oil. Marathon’s expansion promises to create 135 jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenues. Even more important, Marathon says, it will help ensure that Michigan's only oil refinery will operate well into the future. The upgrade also retooled the facility to enable the company to process tar sands oil. Company data confirms that processing tar sands oil—because of its composition—will increase discharges.

Marathon Oil Refinery is partially located in a Detroit, Michigan community called Boynton. The community’s ZIP Code, 48217, is known as the state’s most polluted.

This is where I met Emma Lockridge. Emma’s a woman about my age, retired now from her media work. She has a daughter who recently graduated from Harvard and is pursuing an MBA at Yale. While her daughter completes her degree and fulfills an internship in South Africa, Emma spends a great deal of time helping her aged mother. Emma moved back into the Boynton community to assist her ailing mother in the house where she was raised. It is located in the shadow of Marathon Refinery Corporation. Emissions from the refinery are often so strong and toxic smelling, Emma complains, “It feels like we live in the refinery.”

I first heard Emma speak in a Detroit church basement, where local citizens had gathered to talk about new challenges in their communities, including no water, fossil fuel pipelines and big refineries. My son and I went to Detroit because we wanted to see what the Marathon refinery looked like, and what “need” according to Enbridge would be met, and how the PUC of Minnesota determined that this need, overrides the health of our community. So I sat and listened, and Emma stands up. She is wearing a protest shirt that says “Blood Oil” with a picture of the Marathon refinery. “ … We have a tar sands refinery in our community and it is just horrific. We are a sick community. We have tried to get them to buy us out. They keep poisoning us. And we cannot get them to buy our houses.” She is holding a sign that reads Marathon Buy my House.

The next day our family drives to Emma’s house. It’s hard not to see the refinery, in all the black pipes, and the bursts of orange and black soot pumping into the air. We drive around a bit, until we find her neighborhood, and wait. It’s a clean neighborhood, every step is swept, every tree is trimmed, and Emma’s house is on a corner. She joins us and we talk for about an hour outside. In the meantime, my son gets sick from the fumes and has to go into an air-conditioned car. My traveling companion Shane Davis, breaks into hives from a chemical sensitivity he got from the fracking industry. I persevere. “I can’t hardly breathe here,” Emma laments to me. “Look at this stuff on my house.” True to form, there’s orange and black soot on her white house, looking something like the Marathon Refinery discharge.

Emma continues, we laugh a lot, share common interests about working on issues, and a love of Bonnie Raitt. “I have had kidney failure and a kidney transplant. Neighbor across the street died on dialysis. Neighbor next door is on dialysis. Neighbor around the block just diagnosed with kidney failure and is on dialysis. The chemicals in our pipelines and in our water will be the same chemicals that come through your land and can leak and contaminate where you live. We have cancer. We have autoimmune illnesses. We have MS. We have chemicals that have come up into our homes through the sewer. Those are from the companies, they end up in the public water and sewer system...They are poisoning us,” she says, pointing to Marathon.

Emma described a homeowner buyout program sponsored by Marathon that left her suffering community out of the program. “In 2011, when Marathon had almost completed its upgrade, it did buy out over 275 homes in Oakwood Heights, another neighborhood on its fence line, to create a green buffer zone. Marathon moved people from Oakwood Heights, and left us at the refinery. The people who they bought out were primarily white. The black people are left here to die…. We want them to buy out our houses, so we can live.”

The state of Michigan maintains that each industrial plant in and around the area emits no more of the chemicals and soot particles than allowed, in their self-reporting monitoring. And, that there is far less pollution there now than there was decades ago, before many plants installed modern pollution controls.

Emma and University of Michigan scientists point out the lack of cumulative impact assessment, and the disproportionate impact on children. "There are no minimum requirements in Michigan for how far away from homes and schools industry must be," said Paul Mohai, one of the professors who did the University of Michigan study. "Kids are most at risk, because pound for pound, they breathe in more air," he said. "Yet, they don't have a say in where they live or go to school."

At least 14 states, including California, Georgia and Washington, prohibit or limit how close schools can be to sources of pollution, highways, contaminated sites or pipelines, according to a 50-state survey done for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006.

California and Oregon take into account the cumulative impact of pollution in decisions on permits for industry. Michigan does not.

Michigan’s regulatory avoidance is particularly problematic in terms of environmental justice. Studies are far from complete, but it turns out it’s hard to get a study done. “We have asked the State of Michigan for air monitors for the past five years,” Emma tells me. As we converse, a low-flying helicopter comes over the neighborhood. The next day, a group of men wearing EPA vests examines the sewer line at the end of Emma’s street. “Marathon discharges more than two million gallons of untreated water daily in our sewer line. EPA was there because a problem was detected.”

Our family visits with Emma a bit more, and I ask her to come to the White Earth and Mille Lacs reservation for formal hearings sponsored by the tribal government on the Enbridge proposed lines. When I get her to northern Minnesota, she says to me, “I can breathe now. I can really breathe. You don’t know what it’s like, to not be able to breathe.”

At the tribal hearings, a smartly dressed black woman, Emma, goes to the front of the hearing to testify. She is far from home, but acknowledges that her life is now linked to the Anishinaabe people, through a pipeline, a permit, and a company or two, Enbridge and Marathon. Describing life to the panel, Emma said, “…When you step outside now, it feels as if you strike a match the air will explode. The chemicals come into our homes, come into our basements and we smell it all the time. Don’t let them put that pipeline here. I mean, it has always been bad in our community, but not this bad. The air is just unbearable. It’s like living inside a refinery.”

From a Tipi to a Tesla

So there is my story. In light of my recent trip to Detroit, I am wondering about the end of the fossil fuel industry. I am wondering because if this is what success looks like, and fifty years later it is Detroit, it is not what I want. I would like an elegant society, not a city of decay, and sorrow. I would not like to contribute to Emma Lockridge’s misfortune, and I would like to not be driving the last car. What to do? Mara Prentiss is full of hope. From her ivory tower, she is sure that an energy transition is underway, but needs a push. Prentiss argues that the inefficiencies will need to be phased out, and since transportation is only 20% efficient and consumes the most energy after electric power generation, we will need to enlighten that sector to move past the poisoning of Emma.

What is a sensible path forward? Mara Prentiss says she wrote Energy Revolution out of a conviction that information is a powerful way to help people make decisions about energy use, whether as citizens or consumers. I believe in our intelligence and our humanity

I am for solar, I am for wind, hemp, efficiency and I am for the future. This past week, some daring guys did a solar flight part way around the world, and that Tesla guy, Evon Musk, has released a new battery for houses.

Last year, I went to Washington DC, rode a horse to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, and hung out in my tipi on the Washington mall. A gentleman came over to the tipi, stuck his head in the door, and asked if I would like to go for a ride in his car. After negotiating with my 15-year-old sons, I followed the guy to his car. That car was a Tesla, a red four-door Tesla. No combustion engine, no six gallons of gas for one gallon of movement. I walked out of my tipi into a Tesla. That’s what I want me and Emma to do.

winona laduke

Winona LaDuke