Andersen: Thompson Divide meets the Philippines

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The New York Times reported last week that the government of the Philippines is asking the rest of the world to cut back on fossil fuels. This is about more than energy efficiency; it’s a plea for survival.

“Scientists say the nation is among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” reported the Times, “and the Philippine government says it is suffering too many human and economic losses from the burning of fossil fuels.”

The Filipinos might be happy to learn that — on the same day they made their plea — oil and gas drilling was restricted within the White River National Forest.

That decision wasn’t made for climatic reasons but “in order to maintain the natural character of the landscape and continue to protect the outstanding wildlife and recreation values of these lands.”

These words from Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams have earned praise from the Thompson Divide Coalition and Wilderness Workshop. Both local environmental groups campaigned hard and successfully for preservation of roadless areas, pristine watersheds, grazing allotments and recreational lands.

While conserving wild landscapes on Thompson Divide may not really make much difference to the Philippines, it could hold back a small increment from the glut of fossil fuels that has cheapened the costs of energy far beyond the true costs of burning it.

These costs are borne by low-lying places such as the Philippines, where the rise of ocean levels is a direct threat to their security. Asking the world to cut carbon emissions may seem quixotic, but what else can they do when the filling of sandbags is not enough to stem the rising tides of the industrial world?

Oil and gas are dirty fuels where climate change is concerned. They are better than coal and tar sands but still carbon-producing. Limiting drilling on the White River, blocking the XL Pipeline and deposing King Coal can cumulatively have a measurable effect in reducing carbon emissions by making them more expensive.

Meanwhile, most consumers are cheering for low gas prices they haven’t seen in five years. Assuming that reduced oil and gas production will eventually drive those prices back up, the decision to restrict drilling on the White River may seem like a negative economic move.

Not all American consumers care about wild lands, clean water and pure air, and fewer still care about the Philippines. The fossil fools among us will no doubt blame environmentalists and federal land managers for any economic repercussions resulting from drilling restrictions — or from any regulations at all.

But it’s already too late for that — and at no fault of tree-huggers. The economics of oil and gas are volatile. There is no cornucopia for the workers who man the rigs, the companies that own them or the communities where drilling takes place.

Take Garfield County, where rapid population growth from a huge influx of drill rigs is straining community infrastructure. Royalties and taxes paid to the county are falling behind municipal budgets, strapping schools and various social services.

Because of a glut in oil and gas, production revenues are failing to meet community costs. Energy-company stocks are tanking, drilling crews are in less demand, and the need for social services is on the rise.

The boom-and-bust cycle of the extractive industries may seem at first like a godsend to rural communities but can later become parasitic. It can shatter small communities that are suddenly saddled with major urban problems.

In the Philippines, typhoon Hagupit was a recent reminder of vulnerability and of global connectivity — all the way to Thompson Divide. That’s why they’re asking America and other high per-capita consuming nations to recognize that their emissions are a threat.

Americans are often the first to provide aid to typhoon victims, but we routinely fail to take preventive measures before the next superstorm. We respond to crises but often fail to avert them. Part of this comes from protecting the coveted American lifestyle that George H.W. Bush, at Kyoto, fatuously stated was “non-negotiable.”

Saving Thompson Divide is a good thing. Saving the Philippines is a far greater challenge that asks far more of us all.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at