By Martin Leatherman & Newsdesk.org staff
The United Nations faces louder calls for reform as the Iraqi oil for food scandal unfolds, and is under new pressure after the failure of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty summit and the nomination of John Bolton as America’s U.N. ambassador. The $64 billion “oil for food” program was created by the U.N. after the first Gulf War to supply war-torn Iraq with food and medicine in exchange for oil. But revelations of illegal profiteering from the program have implicated a wide range of politicians and business leaders from around the world. The first casualty is at the U.N. itself. Joseph Stephanides, head of the U.N. Security Council affairs division, was dismissed for “serious misconduct” in urging that a British company win an Iraqi inspection contract, according to Agence France Presse.
A report issued earlier this month in Chile found that 35,000 people were abused by the Pinochet regime. The document also says the junta operated “dozens” of secret facilities, engaged in extreme and varied torture, and systematically targeted civilians. Although the report, which has not yet been made public, was intended as a “historical” document rather than a tool for prosecution, recent developments indicate new action against members of the former junta:
–Pinochet himself was brought up on new charges after losing a battle over amnesty. His former spy chief also faces new prosecution. –Chile has also announced plans to build a new prison that will be almost exclusively dedicated to holding Pinochet-era human-rights abusers.
A 215-year-old law originally written to address piracy and crimes abroad against American ambassadors is at the heart of litigation targeting some of the world’s largest energy corporations. Plaintiffs allege that ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Unocal and Royal Dutch/Shell are responsible for atrocities committed by foreign troops guarding their refineries and facilities overseas. The corporations say that the lawsuits are without merit, and that such human rights problems are the domain of U.S. foreign policy, not domestic courts. But a recent Supreme Court ruling may have left the door open for the suits to proceed. Anticipated ruling
The cases were filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, a law giving federal courts jurisdiction over international civil suits brought for violations of “the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”
Critics cite a January 16 article in the Wall Street Journal, describing a meeting between State Department officials and oil company executives. “The Bush administration is eager to secure Iraq’s oil fields and rehabilitate them, industry officials say,” the article reads. “They say Mr. Cheney’s staff hosted an informational meeting with industry executives in October, with Exxon Mobil Corp., ChevronTexaco Corp., ConocoPhillips and Halliburton among the companies represented. Both the Bush administration and the companies say such a meeting never took place.” Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader believes the meetings happened, and said that “41 members of the administration have ties to the industry.”
In 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force became the Central Command, the instrument of American military policy in the region, and capable of drawing up troops from all branches of the armed services. “Each of the four services provides personnel on an as-needed basis, depending on the requirements of the mission,” explained Central Command spokesman Commander Dan Gage in an email correspondence. “In other words, there is no set number of personnel who are assigned to Central Command.” The Central Command was never used during the ’80s to directly confront Soviet ambition in Afghanistan, that crucial access route to Persian Gulf and Central Asian oil and natural gas reserves. Such matters were left to the Islamist mujahedeen, who, according to the CIA World Factbook, were trained and armed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others.
When 19th century entrepreneurs began drilling and refining oil, natural gas was an unwelcome byproduct. The fledgling industry lacked the pipeline technology now used to capture and transport the volatile fuel released when oil is extracted from the ground. Instead, gas was simply burned off — a process known as flaring. Today the natural gas industry is worldwide, netting billions of dollars each year. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that demand for natural gas will double by 2020.
While the debate rages in Nigeria and Alberta, flares continue to burn around the world. According to Dr. Chris Elvidge, a scientist at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration who studies satellite images of flares, other hot spots include northern Siberia, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. The United States, like Canada, is home to plenty of flaring. According to Julia May of Communities for a Better Environment, California refineries share many of the same issues as Alberta and the Niger Delta: a lack of comprehensive studies on the community impacts of emissions, and little or no monitoring of what kind of gases are in the flares. According to Paul Faeth, economist and managing director at the World Resources Institute, impacts on the environment and society are costs that the oil companies currently don’t pay — a phenomenon he calls “market failure.”
In Alberta, Canada, many oil and gas operations are located near towns and farms, sometimes less than a kilometer away. Residents blame a rash of severe public health and environmental problems — from crop damage and childhood illness to miscarriages, livestock deaths and human brain damage — on the flaring and venting of natural gas at drilling sites and refineries. At the center of the controversy is hydrogen sulfide — or “sour gas” — a poisonous substance that has been compared to cyanide, and described by the 1924 U.S. Public Health Service as “one of the most toxic of gases.” According to Dr. Kaye Kilburn, a neurotoxicologist at the University of Southern California and the author of the book “Chemical Brain Injury,” hydrogen sulfide causes permanent brain damage at very low levels and can kill at 500 parts per million. Sour gas is widespread in Canada and throughout North America, he said, and “in Alberta, particularly, [oil companies] have exposed quite a few people who farm and ranch in the areas where they’re putting a lot of wells down …
According to the World Bank’s 1995 report “Defining an Environmental Development Strategy for the Niger Delta,” about 187 cubic meters of associated gas billows forth with every cubic meter of oil pumped. Shell estimates the amount to be much lower at 28 cubic meters per barrel, but affirms that 95 percent of this gas is flared — more than 56 million cubic meters every day. According to Nigerian Minister of State for the Environment Imeh Okopido, flaring in the Niger Delta makes up about 20 percent of the worldwide total. The U.S. Department of Energy calculated a release of 11 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon by Nigerian flares in 1998 and more than 300 million metric tons since 1963. About 12 million tons of methane were released from Nigerian flares last year.