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Sloan Shoemaker: Yanking the rug out from under terrorists
A two-fer, fighting terrorists and climate change
Sloan Shoemaker

“The foundation of a secure energy system is to need less energy in the first place, then to get it from sources that are inherently invulnerable because they're diverse, dispersed, renewable, and mainly local. They're secure not because they're American but because of their design. Any highly centralised energy system – pipelines, nuclear plants, refineries – invites devastating attack. But invulnerable alternatives don't, and can't, fail on a large scale.[6]

–Brittle Power by Amory and Hunter Lovins, 1982

Commissioned by the Pentagon in 1982 and re-released after the 9/11 attacks, Brittle Power is even more relevant today. Concentrated, centralized energy systems are extremely vulnerable to disruption, whether by natural disaster, accident or terrorist sabotage. 

Contemporary America is energy dependent. Energy system disruptions aren’t a mere nuisance. Cheap, reliable power is the foundation of our economy, health care system and food production/distribution. Our lives depend on it. Shouldn’t something so fundamental to our lives it be the most secure, reliable, least vulnerable of all our societal inputs? 

As the Lovins first argued in 1982, only to reaffirm after the unimaginable became real in 2001, our energy system is brittle and easily broken. So, why is this environmental columnist writing about energy security? Because there is a clear nexus between energy security and environmental sustainability. Our current highly centralized system of the production and distribution of highly concentrated forms of dirty fossil-based energy is precisely what the Lovins describe as the most vulnerable that invites devastating attack. One only need to scan recent headlines to see how great the concern is about our energy system’s vulnerability to asymmetric attacks in the far away Persian Gulf. A tremendous amount of military might is currently deployed to protect crude oil shipping from swarming swift boat attacks, the maritime equivalent of the devastating IEDs and suicide bombs so horrendously effective in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In contrast, diverse, dispersed, renewable, distributed, and decentralized energy systems (solar, wind, geothermal, micro-hydro, etc.) make poor terrorist targets and cause little system disruption when taken out by a tornado or hurricane…or tree branches! Remember the 2003 power outage in the Northeast that left 50 million people powerless for 24 hours, and many without power for weeks? That was caused by tree branches hitting high voltage power lines setting off a series of unstoppable faults tripping breakers through the NE grid. 

To localize this, the Garfield County Commissioners are hell-bent on seeing built the liquid natural gas (LNG) export facility in Coos Bay, Ore., because the pipeline feeding it would terminate in the Piceance Basin, Garfield’s rich natural gas boomland. Known as the Jordan Cove Energy Project, it would connect to via the 235-mile Pacific Connector pipeline to the natural gas pipeline system that Piceance drillers are filling as fast as possible. 

Despite lots of industry assurances to the contrary, the natural gas pipeline and storage system isn’t failsafe. There are lots of examples of fires and explosions, big and small. A scary one occurred in 2014 at a LNG facility in rural Washington that put the fear of God into emergency response crews worried that it could have turned into a much greater catastrophe had the LNG tanker exploded. A Google search finds ample treaties on the terrorism attractiveness of LNG because of how utterly devastating an explosion could be. In Brittle Power, the Lovins cite that “[t]he energy content of a single standard LNG tanker … is equivalent to seven-tenths of a megaton of TNT, or about fifty-five Hiroshima bombs” (emphasis added). Prior to the attack on the Twin Towers, using a commercial airliner as a suicide bomb was hardly imaginable. I hope we are no longer subject to such failures of imagination. That much energy content in one vessel docked proximal to a large population center surely has the fevered terrorist mind on overdrive.

A successful terrorist attack on a LNG tanker would be horrific but the damages would be relatively locally contained. That’s not to minimize the horrific loss of life nor cost to local communities and infrastructure impacted in the 3-mile blast/burn zone. But it’s to contrast with the global climate impacts from continued addiction to fossil fuels. 

We are already experiencing unprecedented fires and flooding that are devastating lives and communities across the globe. We don’t know if the Lake Christine Fire and last week’s devastating floods have a direct connection to climate change. But we do know that the worsening climate crisis will make fires and storms more frequent, severe and intense. Perhaps these two recent events severely impacting Basalt weren’t caused by the climate crisis but were just within the normal range of variability. That normal that overwhelmed local emergency response systems and resources. Imagine what it’ll be like in the new normal of a climate changed future. 

The Garfield County Commissioners are lobbying so hard for approval of the Jordan Cove LNG export facility that Commissioner Jankovsky personally journeyed to Coos Bay for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearing to express his enthusiasm for the project. And he specifically cited his concern about local opposition.

“I know when we have an audience full of naysayers or people who are against the project and the applicant doesn't have anybody in favor of a project, it makes a difference. And so that's why I decided to travel this far for this.” (emphasis added)

You catch that? Commissioner Jankovsky traveled all the way from Glenwood Springs to a hearing in Coos Bay, Ore. because no one locally supports the project. 

Expressing the will of the local community, Jackson County Commissioners in Oregon are strongly opposed. Local Native American tribes are also opposed. The proposed connector pipeline would traverse hundreds of miles of private property and tribal land. Unwilling owners would have their property seized via eminent domain. Wait…what? Republicans supporting an override of the local government’s position and the use of eminent domain to seize private property? 

That stench you’re smelling is bald-faced hypocrisy. The Garfield County Republican Central Committee’s Core Beliefs state, “[t]hat the most effective government is government closest to the people.” The Central Committee also promotes the goals of “limited government” and “personal freedom.” It’s pretty hard to see how disrespecting the will of the local county commissions supports the core belief in the supremacy of local government. It’s even harder to see how one can simultaneously support the goals of limited government and personal freedom while supporting the use of eminent domain to seize private property. 

Gotta give ’em credit, though. Those are some pretty athletic mental contortions to be able to bend that far over. 

Arriving in 1984, Sloan has lived in communities throughout the valley, finally putting down roots and raising a family in Carbondale. Having recently stepped down as Wilderness Workshop’s Executive Director after 20-plus years, he’s still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. This column may be a start.