Nature and Environment Archive


Libyan Violence Moves Oil Price - And It Could Get a Lot Worse

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Reports of escalating violence in Libya, intransigence of its lunatic dictator, Muammar Ghaddafi, and announcements of the evacuation of foreign oil workers has thrown the markets into turmoil.  US stock markets were down again today, and Brent Crude hit as high as $111 per barrel.  West Texas Intermediate traded over $100, closing slightly below that mark at the end of trading.

Over 500,000 barrels per day of Libyan production has already been announced as being shut in, one third of the country’s production and over half of its import volume.  BP, Wintershall, Repsol, Shell, and OMV have all announced curtailment, and all but Libyan nationals are being evacuated.  Even the National Iranian Drilling Company is shutting down and bringing their workers home.  You know it’s pretty bad when the Iranians leave.  Turkey has 25,000 nationals working in Libya, and many of the 200 Turkish companies are evacuating.  With violence spreading, an orderly evacuation has turned into a full blown rout, especially since the Libyan government is AWOL and foreign flights can’t get in to fly people out.

The big problem, here, though, is oil supply.  Saudi Arabia has already asserted that it can make up the difference in production lost from Libya, but we know their ability to actually ramp their production, at least for any sustainable period, above the 7 1/2 million barrels that they are exporting today is questionable, especially in light of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this month.  If they and other OPEC countries can’t step up their production, or more countries fall into chaos, the volatility in the markets could double the price of oil very quickly.  This crisis, if nothing else, emphasizes the weakness of world oil supplies and the utter lack of control the US has over its own destiny.  Here our country is sitting on huge supplies of natural gas, but burns oil at double the rate per capita of all other industrialized countries, yet, there is no call by our leaders for a comprehensive energy policy (besides drill, baby drill), and no shift toward changes in major transportation or power generation infrastructure.  There’s no major push for alternatives, no adult conversations about nuclear power, no major investments in new technology.  Hell, we’re not even talking about curtailing even a little of our gluttony for oil.

We’ve apparently learned nothing from the Santa Barbara spill, the oil shock of 1974, the 2 Gulf Wars, upheaval in Lebanon and Israel, the Ixtoc spill, Exxon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, or this building crisis as oil-rich countries sink into civil unrest.  Even as the Middle East burns, our ignorant and tone deaf politicians are arguing about ending abortion rights, busting labor unions, making sure everyone has automatic weapons with 30 round clips, and other ridiculous social issues to ramp up to their 2012 re-election rather than actually taking a few minutes to do their goddam jobs.

The threat here is clear.  High and volatile oil prices threaten our economic recovery, millions of jobs, and our basic energy security.  Once again the balance of power and energy supplies is threatened, and once again, we are utterly and totally unprepared for it.

We never learn.

Read the original post on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

New Scientific Study: BP Macondo Oil “…On the Bottom” Still

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

You remember the August 4, 2010 “Oil Budget” published by NOAA and the USGS that most of the oil spilled from BP’s Macondo well blowout had magically disappeared.  In a White House press conference held that day, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen did a victory lap that the leaking well was “static” and Jane Lubchenco joined in the happy talk saying that fish that had ingested oil would quickly rid themselves of that oil and soon be safe to eat.  Shortly after, respected scientist Terry Hazen of Berkeley National Labs published a report that microbes were quickly degrading the oil and that it would soon be gone.

Dead Sea Floor - Samantha Joye.jpgI believed at the time that all that happy talk was intended to calm public fears and get coverage of the largest environmental catastrophe in US history off of the television and out of the newspapers.  I also believed that the government was intentionally downplaying the damage to help BP stay afloat so they could pay out the $20 billion in damage payments that they had committed.   Some of my fears have now been confirmed.  An extensive new study, presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia has found that much of the oil from the Macondo well is still on the bottom of the Gulf and has killed much of the deepwater sea life in that area.  Joye’s study consisted of manned deepsea submersible trips and over 250 seafloor cores over 2,600 square miles of the Gulf. (Photo by the University of Georgia)

Joye said of the report, “Magic microbes consumed maybe 10 percent of the total discharge, the rest of it we don’t know; there’s a lot of it out there.”  Disputing oil spill czar Ken Feinberg’s assertion that the Gulf will be back to normal by next year, Joye told the Associated Press, “I’ve been to the bottom. I’ve seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It’s not going to be fine by 2012.  You see what the bottom looks like, you have a different opinion.”  Jane Lubchenco, director of NOAA who published the Happy Talk Report last August, though, is undeterred.  On Saturday, she said, “…it’s not a contradiction to say that although most of the oil is gone, there still remains oil out there.”

So.  We have a new, exhaustive report by academics that says the sea floor around the Macondo well is dead with a lot of oil on the bottom, yet we still have formerly respected scientists like Lubchenco, who now work for the government, issuing confusing, if not conficting statements claiming the contrary based on little, if any credible research.  And, in the midst of this continuing crisis, we see little to no interest from the media about the tragedy and destruction.  To my knowledge, this is the first rigorous study done of the sea floor that has been made public.  It’s not surprising that it directly contradicts the claims made by the US government over the last six months that everything in the Gulf is okey-dokey.

Of course, it’s not.  Far from it.

Read the original article on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

Source: EPA Will Agree to Cut BP Oil Spill Estimate

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

I know I keep saying it, but I told you so.  The Observer is reporting that, according to its sources, the EPA is likely to agree to cut its current estimate of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by BP’s Macondo well that blew out on April 20.  BP has officially disputed the government’s estimate, saying that it could be half of the official estimate, citing multiple estimates and lack of actual measurement of the flow.  The Observer is reporting that the EPA agrees that estimates are not 100% accurate, signalling the weakness of the government’s position.

You’ll recall that I repeatedly rang the alarm bell in the middle of July that BP was foot dragging the containment of the flow and the fabrication of facilities that could have captured (and measured) 100% of the flow rate.  When the US government agreed that the well would be shut in for the “well integrity test” on July 13, the opportunity to actually measure the total flow was lost forever.  BP knew that no government official would have the intestinal fortitude to ever risk releasing more oil into the environment, and won the Battle of the Flow Estimate when Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen agreed to the high risk operation of shutting in the well without proper contingency plans and inadequate containment facilities in place.  Remember that EPA fines are determined by the amount of oil released into the environment, so it remains in BP’s interest to minimize that amount.  As feared, it appears that they are going to win this battle.

If BP gets away with reducing the flow estimate to half of the current estimate, it will be a masterful manipulation of government regulators and inexperienced administration officials.    It appears that with the media now completely ignoring this tragedy, BP will successfully lowball the flow to minimize its liability.  To give you an idea of the size of this issue, let’s look at a few numbers:

First, the official government estimate for flow into the Gulf is 4.9 million barrels, or about 60,000 barrels per day (this estimate is likely way low due to flow characteristics of these big deepwater wells, but that fact just complicates an already complicated subject, so I’ll ignore it for now).  Second, at the peak of it’s “top hat” containment, BP was capturing about 25,000 barrels of oil per day, even as oil roared into the water around the cap.  Here’s a little video to remind you of what it looked like at the time:

Watch the video on YouTube.

So.  If BP is now claiming that the flow rate was half the estimated 60,000 barrels per day, that means that when they were capturing 25,000 barrels per day, they were capturing close to all of the flow.  I don’t know about you, but all that oil roaring into the water around the cap looks like a lot more than nothing.  Additionally, recall that on July 6, Doug Suttles actually used 53,000 barrels per day as his estimate of flow for the calculation of the amount of dispersant BP wanted to apply at the sea floor.  To now assert that the flow rate was half of the government estimate, and far below their own estimate is disingenuous on the face.  It appears that when inexperienced administration officials faced BP’s steely-eyed negotiators on this issue, they were buffaloed into shutting in the well without measuring the flow.  Once again, said steely-eyed negotiators out-negotiated the government negotiators.

So the die is cast.  Without media focus on this tragedy, there’s nothing any of us can do about this miscarriage of justice.  BP wins again.

Oh.  BTW. BP turned a profit of $1.79 billion in the third quarter of 2010, at the height of the oil spill crisis.  Bob Dudley, BP CEO, is expected to soon communicate to his shareholders that the $39 billion reserve established by the company in 2010 will be more than enough to cover the costs of the blowout and resulting spill clean up.

And the beat goes on.

Read the original article on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

The Hydraulic Fracturing Dilemma. And Danger.

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Hydraulic fracturing, known as frac’ing, of oil and gas wells has been a common practice for decades yet little is understood about this complex, and potentially very dangerous well treating practice.  In the last 10 to 15 years, more and more questions have been raised by both the environmental community and regulatory agencies, and the industry has characteristically kept most information under wraps, citing proprietary technology as their reasons for concealing specific chemicals and concentrations they use.  In the last several years, concerns of the environmental community have spilled over into the awareness of the general public, fueled by Gasland, a documentary about shale gas drilling and frac’ing produced by Josh Fox in 2010.

Before we talk about the controversy of frac’ing, let’s first talk about exactly what it is and how it’s done.  Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation technique that increases the production from very tight oil and gas formations.  In the industry “tight” has several meanings, but in this particular case, it means it has low porosity and permeability.  Porosity is the void space or “pore space” within which hydrocarbons reside.  Permeability is the ability of the rock to allow the oil and gas to flow within the rock.  Frac jobs increase relative permeability, allowing more oil and gas to flow to the wellbore, making the well profitable.  It’s generally believed that over 80% of wells drilled today are not economic without hydraulic fracturing.  Here’s a good illustration about how horizontal wells are frac’ed:

Watch Video on Youtube.

The problems with frac’ing are generally twofold; first, control of the frac fluid within the well is always questionable, depending completely on good well design as well as quality of steel casing and properly applied cement jobs.  As we all witnessed during the BP well blowout, casing quality and cement quality are critical to proper well design, with potential catastrophic consequences if there is a failure.  The second key issue is proper disposal of the frac fluids as they are flowed back from the treated well.  These two issues are greatly exacerbated when hazardous materials (like diesel fuel) are used in the treatment, hence the current controversy over hydraulic fracturing.  There are fears that chemicals from frac jobs can (or already have) reached fresh water aquifers, especially when the oil and gas wells are in close proximity to fresh drinking water sources.

Up until just recently, the industry has done what it always does; dismiss concerns about frac’ing as hyperbole with the attendent “it’s just too complicated for you to understand” rhetoric pushed by lobbyists.  This time, though, fueled by Cabot Oil & Gas being fined for contaminating water sources in Pennsylvania, a ban on frac’ing in New York state, and constant pressure from environmental groups, the industry has begun to respond to demands for more transparency.  While still defending the practice of frac’ing as necessary, some companies have begun efforts to use more benign chemicals and disclose ingredients used by service companies.  Energy giant Chesapeake has even started what it calls GreenFrac, a program it claims is designed to reduce the risks to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing.

Yesterday, Democratic members of the House Committees on energy, oversight, and natural resources sent a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, claiming that oil field service companies have pumped over 32 million gallons of diesel fuel as frac fluid from 2005 to 2009 without proper EPA permits.  The letter points out the same difficulties that we witnessed during the BP crisis; lack of communication between service companies and operators, and the lack of risk mitigation and record keeping due to that lack of communication.  The alarming thing about the use of diesel fuel in frac jobs is that virtually everyone, including the industry, had assumed that the practice was stopped in 2003.  Apparently, that is simply not the case.

This practice, though necessary to make US oil and gas wells productive, requires much more government oversight and industry disclosure to lower the risk of contamination of precious groundwater resource.  As long as we don’t know what the industry is pumping into the ground and the extent of the damage it may cause, it will be virtually impossible to assure the public that the technique is indeed safe.  It’s time for the industry to take a pause, similar to the pause we continue to experience in the deepwater, and take the time to determine harmful practices and materials, then replace these techniques with safer operations.

Read the original post on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

Sargent Shriver, The Quiet Hero, 1915-2011

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

One of the heroes of my early life died today after his own long life of 95 years.  Sargent Shriver, who will live forever in my memory as the young, vibrant brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy and husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, set the example of selfless public service to my generation and those who followed.  Shriver was the first director of the Peace Corps, established by JFK in 1961.  This photo, from UPI, is of the President handing Sarge the pen he used to sign the bill making the Peace Corps permanent on September 22, 1961.  In addition to a decades-long commitment to the Peace Corps, Sarge lived a life of public service, serving in the US Navy from 1941-1945, as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity from 1965-1968, and as US Ambassador to France from 1968-1970.  He ran for Vice President with George McGovern in 1972, replacing Thomas Eagleton after reports surfaced of his battle with mental illness.  In 1976, he briefly ran for the Democratic nomination for President.

In 1984, Sarge became president of Special Olympics, the passion of his wife, Eunice.  In 1990, he became chairman of the board.

Sarge was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003, and fought the battle of the long goodbye through Eunice’s death in August, 2009 and the death of his brother-in-law, Ted Kennedy, just weeks later.

This great generation of Kennedys and Shrivers served as an example to us all.  Sarge was the last, and probably the most humble, but his life of quiet service shouted to us all.

God bless him and his family.

Read the original post at The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

A Missed Opportunity

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Today, the presidential oil spill commission issued its final report concluding that the blowout of BP’s Macondo well was certainly preventable, was caused by identifiable mistakes made by BP and its contractors, and resulted from complacency and poor risk management–placing doubt on the safety culture of the oil and gas industry as a whole.  The commission also pointed out that the regulatory agencies charged with oversight were outclassed by the industry and failed to keep up with rapidly developing technologies of deepwater exploration.  The combination of these failures resulted in the BP disaster.

The commission’s conclusions are surprisingly astute for a panel that had no member from the oil and gas industry.  Though I don’t agree with all of the panel’s conclusions as to who is to blame for the catastrophe, their recognition of systemic failures and inadequacies of both safety policy and systems were spot on.  However thorough the conclusions and recommendations are, though, they are of little consequence outside the world of media and Washington politics.  Because the White House ignored calls for a more inclusive commission–including not just environmentalists, academics, and politicians, but representatives from the technical disciplines and the industry itself–the conclusions and recommendations of the commission have already been dismissed by those most in need of them, members of the industry itself.

No industry likes to be preached to and scolded as the oil spill commission has done in this report, no matter how well deserved.   There was an alternative, though.  The objective of the commission was to determine the causes of the blowout and subsequent spill, then make recommendations to prevent this kind of disaster from occurring again.  The problem is that in order to initiate necessary changes, something actually has to be done.  That means getting the industry itself to admit mistakes and accept changes to their way of operating.  We all knew that the industry as a whole would resist changes to offshore operational and safety procedures for two reasons. The first is simple: money.  The second is that the industry believes it knows better than everyone else how to drill big, deep oil wells in deepwater because it’s complicated and they’ve been doing it for years.  To them, no environmentalist, bureaucrat, or politician is ever going to tell them what to do. In our deregulated nation, oil companies remain free to keep profit as their top priority, and set their own safety standards.

That could have been different. The Obama administration missed a golden opportunity for a teachable moment in this tragedy due to its own proclivity to push the oil and gas industry away.  That distance from the industry is the key reason the White House was so far behind in its response to the blowout to begin with: there was no one close at hand who knew what they were looking at or who recognized the potential scope of this disaster. You could tell in the early White House statements that the president wasn’t being well advised.  In establishing the commission, the administration continued on this path, excluding any industry representation on the commission itself and hiring engineers and scientists only in staff or lower-level advisory roles.  The panel itself was appointed to meet political objectives, relegating its primary objective–improving safety–to secondary importance.

Because the administration made little more than a token effort to include influential industry representatives on the commission,  the results are predictable. The industry will reject the report’s important conclusions and recommendations wholesale, and the new Republican controlled House will support that rejection.  Since much of the significant change must be legislated, if the industry doesn’t support that change, the House leadership will simply do the same; therefore, nothing will improve.  . Had there been an industry member on the commission, that member could have sold the industry, and the Congress, on making critical changes to make drilling in the deepwater safer.
Clearly, it’s a missed opportunity.

Read the original article on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

Preview of Spill Commission Report - Confirms Weaknesses in Industry, Government

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Yesterday, the President’s oil spill commission issued one chapter of its report to be released in total on January 11.  The released chapter, Chapter 4, goes through the commission’s recounting of the events leading up to the blowout and its own conclusions about causes.  No new information was revealed in the released chapter, though the commission continues to spread blame, primarily to BP, Transocean, and Halliburton.  It also blamed failures  of the industry and government which are clear to those paying attention.  In pointing out these failures the commission said,

Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur. The missteps were rooted in systemic failures by industry management (extending beyond BP to contractors that serve many in the industry), and also by failures of government to provide effective regulatory oversight of offshore drilling.”

Clearly the commission’s full report will go against the Obama administration’s decision this last Monday to allow 16 deepwater projects to resume without safety system redesign or environmental review.  Although there are some new safety training and third party certification rules now being required of deepwater operators, there are no required changes in rigs or well control systems, there is no change in liability limits, and the statutory thirty day permit review limit remains in place.

I also continue to disagree with the commission’s (and BP’s, for that matter) conclusion that Halliburton is one of the primary party’s at fault.  Were there communication errors on Halliburton’s part? Yes.  Could Halliburton have done a better job alerting BP about its cement lab tests? Certainly.   Could Halliburton be more forthcoming to the various investigative bodies about its tests and own actions?  Absolutely.  However, as I’ve said before, bad cement does not equal blowout.  Bad cement jobs, especially in deep, hot, high potential wells happen every day, and not due to any particular party’s fault.  Bad cement jobs that require remedial work during completion are a simple fact of life.

The failure here was clearly human, clearly on BP’s shoulders as well as its contractor Transocean.  BP’s casing design was over-reliant on a good cement job and vigilant well control.  On-site management failures and BP’s convoluted management structure were the real causes of the well getting away from them.  Transocean’s failed blowout preventer failed to shut-in the well after they lost control. Even with no cement in the well, it must be kept under control with careful well monitoring and redundant procedures.  Assuming the cement job was good, shortcutting the plugging and abandonment procedure, hurrying, and having multiple simultaneous operations blinded the rig crew to what was really going on in the well.  Even with anomalous pressure readings and volume gains in the pits, both BP and Transocean management were distracted by visiting VIPs, a rushed schedule, and a crew change in the middle of the operation.  Overconfidence and complacency born from 7 years of safe operations were also certainly direct causes of this massive failure.

The spill commission’s conclusions, though not completely off base, are tainted by politics, lack of industry experience on the panel, and what I believe to be its effort to spread blame, not pinpoint it.  I would imagine that no new information will be forthcoming when its entire report is released next week, so I’m looking forward to the Joint Investigation, managed by the Coast Guard and the BOEMRE, report to be issued in March.  I expect it will be much more objective and thorough, and should provide vital information gained from the forensics testing on the BOP that are yet to be released to the public.

In the meantime, oil continues to wash up on the beaches of Alabama and the wetlands of Louisiana.  Thousands of businesses and workers continue to suffer all around the Gulf coast.  The oil and gas industry continues to ignore its own complicity in this disaster and lobby for status quo.  The MSM continues to ignore the massive economic and ecological damage in the Gulf since they are now focused on the size of Speaker Boehner’s new gavel, Lindsay Lohan’s most recent probation violation, and whose going to be on the next Dancing with the Stars.

Read the original article on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

Another Nail in the Coffin of Offshore Drilling Safety Reform

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Earmarks were not the only government spending plans that died when Harry Reid pulled the Senate omnibus spending bill this week.  So, too, did fees and rule improvements that would have helped the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the revamped agency overseeing offshore drilling safety, fund increased inspections and reviews.  The omnibus bill contained $51 million of increased budget to fund inspections of offshore platforms and rigs, as well as increasing the statutory time limit for permit review from 30 to 90 days.  The 30 day limit on government review was a key factor in the MMS’s poor oversight of offshore drilling permits, allowing operators to file environmental studies that included protecting walruses, which don’t live in the Gulf of Mexico.  The stop gap funding bill that will follow to keep the federal government limping along for another few months more will not contain these badly needed reforms.  After the new congress convenes in January, with resurgent Republicans controlling the House, these key improvements will die a quiet death.

The oil and gas industry, with collusion of the politicians on their payroll, have now successfully killed almost every proposed reform that could help prevent or at least limit the damage from another offshore blowout.  Politicians have known for decades that the best way to kill reform is to de-fund it.  They have done it to environmental reform, education and labor protections, and are threatening to do it to healthcare reform.  They’ve now successfully done it to offshore drilling reform.  In the meantime, oil, which the government would have us believe magically disappeared from the water last summer, continues to wash up on Gulf of Mexico shore lines.  This video is of a huge submerged tar mat that washed up on Orange Beach, Alabama on December 3.  Two weeks ago.

WKRG.com News

It’s now a virtual certainty that we’ll have to suffer another one of these catastrophes before we will have any prayer for any material safety and environmental reform.  The industry has successfully bought their way out of increased safety requirements, and our elected leaders have once again neglected their constitutional duty to protect and defend the United States and its citizens.

Read the original post at The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

How the Tea Partiers Will Govern: Stupidity in Action

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

If you are wondering how incoming Tea Partiers like Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, and Marco Rubio will govern once in office, you need look no farther than Nassau County, New York.  And it ain’t pretty. In January of this year, Edward Mangano was one of the first Tea Partiers to be swept into office by anti-tax fervor by promising to…wait for it…cut taxes in the face of huge deficits.  As county executive, he did just that, but made no real cuts in services including eliminating the county’s mounted pollice unit or imposing a hiring freeze.  He also didn’t cut borrowing to subsidize one of the country’s richest school districts.

The result was not surprising.  In less than a year, Mangano added $40 million to the county’s deficit, now totaling over $350 million.  Virtually ignoring the growing crisis, Mangano plans to reduce the county’s deficits by demanding union concessions from contracts that don’t expire until 2015, and borrowing more money to pay tax refunds.  Moody’s, one of the country’s largest rating agencies, not liking his plan, has downgraded the debt of one of the richest counties in the US to junk status.  In criticizing the county, they included a comment that Mangano’s contingency plans needs a contingency plan.  The state of New York also announced that there would be no state assistance to Nassau County to bridge the revenue gap.

It’s easy to stand on a podium and in front of television cameras howling about taxes and whipping up anti-government fervor.  It’s another thing to have to actually govern.  Rand Paul has already hinted that he’ll block raising the federal government’s debt ceiling after he takes office in January, a stupid decision that could throw the world economy into a spiral as the US defaulted on its obligations.  If Edward Mangano’s management of Nassau County’s finances is a foreshadowing of Tea Partier’s governance, we all need to brace ourselves for 2011.

Read the original post on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.

My Week in Japan…Seeing What the US is Missing

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

I’ve been in Tokyo, Japan this week for business meetings, so have spent a couple of days walking the city and riding in the back of cabs from place to place.  In my spare time, I’ve be absorbing as much as I can of Tokyo, walking back streets of shops and trying to experience Japanese culture and cuisine as much as I can.  As I’ve become comfortable in this city, I’ve also become painfully aware of the contrasts between Japan and the US of today that couldn’t be more stark.  Having been in New York just a few weeks ago, Japan seems like the world of George Jetson while the US reminds me of Fred Flintstone’s City of Bedrock.  The streets in Tokyo, even the older narrow ones, are clean, smooth and well maintained.  There is no smell of urine and garbage, no panhandlers, no homeless on the streets.  The cabs are clean, late model cars with white lace headrest covers and white-gloved drivers wearing suit and tie.  The restaurants are soap-and-water clean with friendly service, even in those small establishments where no one speaks a word of English.  I’m perfectly comfortable walking the streets and enjoying window shopping the out-of-the-way stores and bars.  What a place.

Compared to my last trip to New York, this is a different world.  New York has become a cesspool of deteriorating New Deal infrastructure with bone-jarring potholes being slammed into by broken down cabs carrying unhappy passengers in filthy interiors driven by gruff, poorly trained drivers running at life-threatening speeds.   Surrounding the oasis that is central Manhattan is an ever encroaching blight of poor buildings, poor jobs, poor services, and poor people.  The homeless have multiplied in this latest economic turn-down, adding to the already huge population of the chronic unemployed and abandoned mental patients, who in more normal times of past eras would have at least been cared for with a roof over their heads.  Even those with jobs are terrified about threatened unemployment, health insurance companies still dumping “customers” who just happened to get sick, rising food, energy, transportation, and living costs even as salaries shrink.  America’s way of life is threatened, while elected leaders in Washington have abandoned the populace (and their Constitutional oath) for power, money, re-election, and perpetual politics.

Usually, when someone (like me) criticizes the direction of the country and pointing to countries like Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Germany as examples of doing it right, you get the huffy, “Well.  You KNOW they’re socialists.  You want to make us more like socialist countries.” They also always retreat to the “Not with my money!” retort to any suggestion that we can actually improve the plight of all Americans.  Shamefully, most of the population has bought into the myth perpetuated on a daily basis by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh that government can do nothing good and that the “free market” cures all ills when that assertion is patently and easily proven false.

So.  How is Japan so successful even while the US crumbles?  Are they really socialists?  Do they pay all their income to taxes and “socialized medicine”?  Actually, no.  Japan, which has one of the highest standards of living in the world, is the third largest economy, behind the US and China in size, second in trade.  Life span is longer, health is better, everyone is covered by a privately run health care system.  Oh, and their annual per capita cost for health care is less than half that paid by Americans.  And, everyone is covered.  Highest individual tax rate is 40%, corporate tax rates are 30%.  Individual tax rates are progressive, just as in the US; the more you make, the more you pay.

How are they successful?  First, the Japanese are for Japan.  It is a collaborative society based on respect of others, and their ancestors.  They feel a real responsibility to contribute to the greater good, not just their latest video game purchase.   Their investment horizons are years-long rather than monthly as in the US.  Even though Japan’s doctors are fiercely independent, they also work in a system that requires coverage for all; pre-existing conditions are non-existent, and no one is turned away, even visitors and illegal immigrants.  Because everyone is in, the risk is spread, insurance companies strictly regulated and administrative and treatment costs driven down.  Everyone is better off.  Contrast that to the US, which is the increasingly popular every-man-for-himself culture, whose health care system is designed to exclude entire segments of the population to increase profits.  Preventive care is becoming non-existent, the elderly and the poor face decreasing benefits, even as their needs increase.  Genius Governor Rick Perry of Texas boastfully thumps his chest about how tough he is while Texas falls to 50th in health care coverage among the states. (There are only 50, so he’s successfully beat Mississippi to the bottom.  Congratulations, Rick.)  At the same time, darling of tea party conservatives, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey actually turned down federal funds for a badly needed new tunnel project, killing 6,000 jobs for his citizens while calling for new jobs through tax cuts.  Stupid.

As a society, lead by our elected officials only out for themselves, the US has devolved into an isolationist, jingoistic mob.  Throw in a little xenophobia, bigotry, and ignorance and you have what we see today.  We elect officials who campaign on jobs and reducing the deficit, only to immediately vote in policies that add trillions to that deficit while doing nothing to add jobs.  As long as we are an ignorant electorate, voting for narrow, single issue candidates, we get what we vote for…

Ignorance and decline.

Read the original article on The Daily Hurricane.

disasteronthehorizon Bob Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon.