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March 12, 2013

Considerations for Extraction

, March 12, 2013

By Sarah Ganong

After having had the amazing opportunity to speak to Ruth and Peter Bechtel during class last week, as well as Veronica Coptis and Erika Staaf this week, I feel like I’ve gained a much wider appreciation for the role of extractive industries and fossil fuels in the lives of everyday people, both here in Pennsylvania and across the world in Mozambique. As someone who considers herself an environmentalist, I often rail against the dangers of fossil fuels for a wide variety of reasons, predominately climate change. But after these two opportunities to speak to these individuals in class, as well as attend outside lectures, I feel like I have a broader and more nuanced understanding of the role that extractive industries play directly in the lives of millions of people and acres of land around the world.

Like several people have already mentioned, I find the lack of responsibility on the part of many extractive industries to address social, environmental, economic, and health benefits they leave in their wake to be shocking, something that must ultimately change on our way to an equitable and clean energy future. A balance must ultimately exist between the community where these industries are working and the industries themselves, but to me this balance and responsibility does not come out to be 50/50. A community absolutely must understand what is going to happen and the likely consequences for those actions on the part of the extractive industry, and require the industry to hold up its own end of the bargain. But the industry must take responsibility for payment of preventative measures and damages, as well as providing other positive benefits to the community. The community must be able to ask for these types of actions and assurances, but the extractive industry must deliver.

Social problems emerging from extractive industries are many, from the migration of male workers in Mozambique to the new distributions of wealth in fracking communities throughout Pennsylvania. Difficulties abound when addressing social problems, as it can often be hard to determine which existed before entry of the industry and which came about as a result of industry itself. For communities without extractive industries already, then, responsibilities must include determining a baseline of different factors before industry enters. This will then make determining the problems associated with industry easier, and potentially easier for the industry and community to address together.

For instance, as Ruth Bechtel discussed, problems tied in with male migration to work on extractive industries include a break-up of families (particularly in rural areas), negative impacts on children’s development, a huge increase in sexually transmitted illnesses, particularly HIV/AIDS, polygamy, and increased prostitution rates. Knowing statistics for these social concerns, such as the rate of HIV/AIDS spread throughout a state, before entry of the extractive industry will be helpful in determining that industry’s impact. Additionally, knowing the impacts of extractive industries means that providing solutions can be easier. Perhaps the industry could use some of its profits to construct more health clinics in areas where it operates and the communities think that they would be the most helpful. Or perhaps a more cohesive, affordable, and widely-available public transportation network could be set up, so families would be able to see each other more often while the male figure is away at the extractive industry sites. Thinking about many of the social and health problems that Ruth pointed out with the emergence of extractive industries in Mozambique truly shocked me. I’m used to associating, as I mentioned, extractive industries with environmental pollution and social problems in terms of those living directly near the extractive industries, but I had no idea the extent to which extractive industries could be socially damaging for families, the spread of disease not directly related to pollution, and how widespread those impacts could be. While communities must work to ensure they know their baseline information (obviously much easier said than done), the extractive industries must take responsibility as well.

Environmental impacts, for me, are much more clearly the responsibility of the extractive industry rather than the communities in which they work. I would argue that in many cases, the impacts of extractive industries can be the easiest to see in terms of environmental damage, rather than social, economic, or health. Coal mining in Green County, as Erika discussed, leads to collapse of the soils and gigantic slurry pits. Natural gas refineries off the coast of Mozambique reshape entire coastlines and decimate local fish populations. Fracking in Pennsylvania poisons water supplies and releases methane into the atmosphere. While determining all of this information must be done with community input, if for no other reason than to ensure industries are kept honest about their impacts, the industry must be responsible for preventing as many damages as they possibly can, and for cleaning up and reimbursing the communities for damages that they cannot.

Another challenge, however, is the international community’s role in regulating natural resource extraction, especially in cases where countries do not and cannot regulate on their own. In many countries, including Mozambique, so many different problems exist that even a stable, supported government would not be able to adequately address successful regulation of the extractive industries. Additionally, many countries with extractive industries do not use many of the resources themselves, but instead export them to other countries. While of course they do receive economic benefits and compensation for exporting the resources, they also receive all of the negative social, economic, health, and environmental consequences as well. This, to me, seems like a place where the international community must establish baseline standards for natural resource extraction that would protect countries and communities unable to protect themselves, but whose resources are so valued by the rest of the world.

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