Americas

Interview with Author Frank Touby

A wellfire put out beneath the black sky of Kuwait when most wells were still blazing, in 1991. (Photo: Frank Touby)

Worldpress: In your book "Burning Sands" you write about your experience fighting the oilfield fires in Kuwait that Saddam Hussein lit 19 years ago. You got a position as a trainee oilfield firefighter with Safety Boss Ltd., of Calgary, Alberta, to essentially better entrench yourself as a journalist. Some of the scenes you describe are quite intense. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

Frank Touby: It was the most fascinating and virtuous adventure of my life. We worked 14-hour days with no days off, and yet we were eager to get out there again at the start of each day.

When we quenched a fire on a wild well that had been burning for five or more months we pinched off a toxic smoke trail that had stretched for thousands of miles around the earth. As the tail end of that noxious smoke stream trailed into the sky there was such a sense of exhilaration that came with participating in a truly worthy effort.

I especially gained an appreciation for the skills and intelligence of farm boys, who provide most of the labor in the oil patch. They can operate almost any piece of heavy equipment for the first time just by looking at it. They are smart, dependable and energetic. I'm a guy whose career resulted from formal education and had an inclination to disregard such people whose work gets them dirty and who speak in less-than-correct English. Never again.

On the other hand, these guys were so strong, so competent in their rightwing universes, that many of them couldn't imagine others being truly needy of aid that government properly must provide. Not entirely their fault.

WP: Can you elaborate on that last point? What do you mean by "so competent in their rightwing universes…"?

FT: Sure. They were brought up in that rugged frontier milieu of independence, strength, self-made personhood and self-reliance. You look after yourself, your buds and your family in that model and everyone else does the same. So there is no need for crooked politicians or carpet-bagging bureaucrats to come in and tell you what to do with your land, your property and yourself.

The men I worked with at Safety Boss, the blowout company, were Canadians mainly from Alberta and Saskatchewan. But it was very much the same with many of them. Mike Miller, the owner of Safety Boss, was not like that at all. He is a more urbane, philosophical man and a great, considerate leader.

His company set a world record that likely will never be duplicated: 126 wild wells "killed" in five months. It probably won't ever happen again because nobody will again set so many wells ablaze. There's no point to it since it's now proven that the wild wells can be quenched in a relatively short period of time. But nobody knew that at the time Saddam had his troops and sappers spend over a year preparing 700-plus wells to be torched.

WP: What did it teach you about the effects of war over resources?

FT: I must admit to having a jaded view that didn't come from my experiences in Kuwait, but from events that transpired ever since. In short, I think war is almost a requirement to keep certain resources scarce and their prices high. Monopoly also serves that purpose—as it does with diamonds and with oil refineries that produce gasoline.

War also accommodates the needs of the cabal Dwight Eisenhower warned us against as he left the presidency in 1961: "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." So far we have failed.

WP: How do you think the BP oil spill compares to the oil fires in Kuwait?

FT: Aside from being wild wells, they couldn't be more dissimilar. While the desert in Kuwait was aflame with over 700 oil fires, BP managed to contaminate an area larger than that from a single well. Kuwait was heartless and malicious; BP, to the best of our knowledge, was heartless and incompetent.

I fear the harm from BP will both overshadow the severity and outlast the harm from six months of wild wells in Kuwait.

WP: What do you think government's role should be in getting developed countries off oil?

FT: There's no excuse for our dependency on oil from any source. It's solely caused by the control transnational corporations hold over governments. Alcohol (ethanol) is a better fuel than petroleum: higher octane, clean burning, endlessly renewable. It's what the Model T Ford originally used before J. D. Rockefeller gave huge funds to the Women's Christian Temperance League to get it outlawed, allegedly so his oil wells would be worth a fortune. (It's detailed in David Blume's book "Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century.")

Ethanol poses a threat to corporate monopolists because it can be produced by little guys, in contrast to the millions of dollars worth of refinery that it takes to produce gasoline. Ethanol doesn't have to be made from corn grain, which is an atrocity since that's a food crop. Almost any vegetable matter will work, including corn stalks that normally go to waste. Bulrushes, or cattails, are especially productive.

Government's role should be to encourage such oil replacements, but that won't happen so long as corporatists control politicians and corporations are considered equal to real human beings in our laws.

WP: Do you have any ideas as to how people can break that corporate stronghold? Because you're right; in the United States, for example, we've seen Congress' attempt at an energy bill fail miserably. Certainly corporate influence had something to do with that.

FT: Yes. The situation in Canada is nearly the same as in the U.S. Corporations buy politicians and universities. The latter are the principal mechanisms of corruption since universities produce the civil service and also issue the various scientific dictates that are used to justify regulations favored by their corporate patrons. The effects of purchased politicians need no explanation.

In Canada both the Liberal and Conservative parties are on the same corporatist pages, just as Republicans and Democrats are identically compromised in the States. Government ministries or departments, such as the regulators of pharmaceuticals and broadcasters, function as advocates for the corporations they're nominally regulating.

The solution is simple to state and perhaps impossible to remedy, short of a revolution either by law or by arms. It requires an end to corporate personhood: the ridiculous notion that a business corporation has human rights identical to those of real human beings.

That was recently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court (Citizens United vs. FEC), which ruled that corporations mustn't be denied the human right of freedom of speech by limiting the money they can spend on election campaigns. The result will naturally be that corporations can own any elections they choose.

Enabled by government "regulators," junk-food giants wreck the health of billions of people with unhealthful restaurant fare; farm and chemical oligopolies harm our food supplies; drug giants waste our health resources by ignoring or concealing unprofitable health alternatives while inventing new "diseases" and investing their research dollars on marketing schemes to sell prescription cures for such contrivances as "acid reflux disease" (aka, "heartburn," effectively countered with baking soda); oil companies write their own environmental rules. Practically everything government regulates is now compromised by multinational corporations for their profit purposes.

An intermediate step to remediate the harm might be to change tax codes in the U.S. and Canada, since both nations have well-established different tax categories for corporations than for individuals. Prohibit businesses from deducting any expenses and require them to report all worldwide revenues. It would have marked impact on each economy to start with, since many businesses and charities exist because of corporations' abilities to write off related expenses.

It would eliminate "charitable" deeds that are done in corporate names, but really those are promotional expenses. Corporations and all businesses can't be expected to operate in any way except in their own interests. Regulation by government is needed to avoid oligopolies and other cancerous growths that strangle free enterprise or harm consumers and workers.

Universities should be prohibited from accepting funds from individuals or corporations to ensure their independence from corruption. They should be entirely funded by government, which has a responsibility to provide education just as it has to provide the military, healthcare, currency, police, fire departments, roads, regulation of enterprise and so forth. In other words, using the phrase of Seattle-based radio commentator Thom Hartmann, it's incumbent on government to ensure and maintain "The Commons" that comprise civilization.

Frank Touby has been a career journalist in the U.S. and Canada. He has written for a number of Canadian journals including Maclean's, Weekend, Canadian and others. Mr. Touby also served in the U.S. Army, worked in television and radio, and started Community Bulletin Newspaper Group with his wife Paulette. His ebook, "Burning Sands," can be found at http://www.BurningSandsBook.com.

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