Monday, December 08, 2008


by Barron Harper

When I was growing up in Odessa, Texas in the 1950s, I remember with no particular fondness the considerable oil and gas drilling going on in the Permian Basin. Big oil literally transformed the economies and populations of my town and neighboring Midland 20 miles to the east. Business catered to it. Drillers and suppliers reeked of the smell of it. And the locals tolerated the changes it produced.

But some of us remember that where oil was being drilled gas was being burned off. For years in fact gas burning in West Texas sent up pinnacles of smoke and fire that nightly lit up the landscape of those high plains. Seen from long distances, onlookers over time grew somewhat accustomed to these fiery spectacles among scores of unsightly wells. But to astute observers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, closer inspections of these towering infernos would have portended catastrophic reckonings for peoples caught up in the explosive growth of intractable global societies.

Some 30 years later in the heart of Guadalajara, Mexico’s downtown district, ten massive gas explosions occurred over a two hour period due to gas leaking in the sewer system. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the explosive quakes damaged and destroyed over 1,000 buildings and created an enormous nine mile ditch down the middle of a major thoroughfare that measured 80 feet wide and 25 feet deep. The blast killed 200 people, injured 2,000 local inhabitants and left 20,000 homeless. Buildings suffered over $300 million in damages. The suffering of the people could not be measured.

Gas is volatile, inflammable, explosive. The production, transport and storage of this diminishing resource in spite of due diligence destroy property and lives due to inevitable accidents. In the drilling process, hazardous chemicals are injected into the ground. Radioactive materials, arsenic and hydrogen sulfide in the ground are disturbed. These and other toxic substances contaminate the ground and the air, gradually poisoning the environment and the people. But should any gaseous substances be ignited as demonstrated in Guadalajara, the consequences will be felt in less than a heartbeat.

While my childhood was giving way to adolescence in West Texas, my grandparents, Joe and Mary Clarke, were leading lives as prominent citizens in Fort Worth. He was the executive vice-president of the Fort Worth National Bank and she was a noted historian and author. The two of them cared about the welfare of the city, belonged to influential organizations, received favorable publicity, and in general supported causes that were fair and open-handed. They resided near Texas Christian University in an unpretentious home made beautiful by their patient and loving care.

Joe and Mary possessed an integrity that tolerated no deception or manipulation. Generous with their time and resources, they were blessed by their inherent goodness. Rather than being somehow compromised for their generosity, they prospered. They appeared to understand that deprivation in the end is the consequence of coveting.

Exceptionally well-liked and respected in the community, they would have been horrified to learn that gas drilling was being contemplated in some 15 neighborhoods in their beloved city. They would have unhesitatingly considered the consequences to public health and safety as eclipsing any benefits to the city from the discovery of gas or the enrichment of coffers. So like me they would never have compromised human security for a fickle prosperity.

-Barron Harper is a U.S. international tax advisor residing in France.


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