The Columbia River, stretching from Alberta, Canada, and serving as a large portion of the border between Oregon and Washington before emptying into the Pacific, forms a unique ecosystem that has been shared by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
Called “Wimahl” by the Chinook people at the lower part of the river, “Nch’i-Wàna” by the Sahaptin-speaking people along the middle of the river, and “Swah’netk’qhu” by the Sinixt people in the river’s upper origins in present-day Canada, each name translates as “large river.” The river has served as a way of life and a natural treasure. Salmon and sturgeon inhabit the river, forming a central part of both the river’s ecosystem and the cultures of the peoples living along it.
But for decades the river’s ecosystem has been under attack, from hydroelectric plants that obstruct migratory fish, to the Hanford nuclear site in Benton County, Wash., which was used to enrich plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. The fissile material used in the bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, was produced there, and today Hanford is an environmental Superfund site that also stores spent nuclear fuel.
Over the past several years, another threat to the river has emerged: increased fossil fuel infrastructure in the form of oil refining and storage facilities, freight trains carrying crude oil and petrochemicals, and pipelines. In 2008 the Oregon government invested $36 million in “green energy” by subsidizing the construction of a privately owned biofuel plant at the Port of Columbia County. But a year later the plant’s owner went bankrupt. In 2012 it was purchased by Global Partners, which announced it would instead be using the facility’s tanks for crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands mines.
Originally approved to handle 50 million gallons of oil a year, the company quickly began shipping as much as 297 million gallons. In 2012 the state fined Global Partners $102,292 — a small sum considering the enormous profits made from illegally transporting an extra 250 million gallons in less than a year. In August of that year, the state reversed course, giving the company approval to handle 1.8 billion gallons of oil a year at the facility, despite having violated state regulations and paying a fine only months earlier. (streetroots.com, March 22)
In 2014 Zenith Energy applied for building permits at its Portland facility to expand its oil train operations, increasing the number of trains in the state’s largest city.
In 2016, unknown to the mayor of nearby Rainier, the Port of Columbia County facility began handling ethanol, a gasoline additive, transporting it on mile-long trains from the port through the surrounding towns and cities. (tdn.com, Sept. 3, 2016) On June 3, 2016, an oil train traveling in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier from the oil fields of North Dakota derailed and exploded. The city was evacuated as 42,000 gallons of oil were spilled, some ending up in the river.
Trains started running again on that section of track while damaged cars, still containing oil, lay where they had derailed next to it. The National Transportation Safety Board declined to investigate the explosion due to the lack of fatalities. (opb.org, July 7, 2016)
Today, fossil fuel infrastructure continues to ramp up. The city of Portland banned new fossil fuel infrastructure within its jurisdiction, but the regional trend seems to be heading in the opposite direction. A proposed plant in Kalama, Wash., may become the world’s largest fracked-gas-to-methanol plant, becoming one of Washington state’s largest single sources of emissions. In December the Port of Columbia County hastily approved handling of heavier crude oil, which could sink to the bottom of the river in the event of a spill. (streetroots.com, Dec. 21)
In southern Oregon and along the coast, a proposed pipeline and liquid natural gas terminal to transport fracked gas would require dredging 6 million cubic yards from the Coos Bay estuary. It is predicted to become one of the state’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, reversing the limited progress Oregon has made to reduce emissions and protect the environment. (columbiariverkeeper.com, June 12)
Left to its own devices, capitalism will continue to expand oil infrastructure. It will continue to damage ecosystems and aggravate climate change, with no shift in direction that isn’t dictated by the profit motive.
From a scientific perspective, it is clear that the fossil fuel industry must end, due to its contribution to climate change. If carbon emissions aren’t rapidly brought down, the planet faces dire consequences. Yet those who control and profit from the oil industry would rather chase short-term, temporary profits at the expense of the planet’s survival.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable, carbon-free sources of energy, including safer, next-generation nuclear power, is not something that can be left to the free market. Capitalism doesn’t invest in things that necessarily benefit the majority. Owners of industry invest in what is profitable in the short-term. Meeting people’s needs — or even the very survival of our species — is secondary to the profit motive, at best mere afterthoughts to the process of capital accumulation.
What is needed isn’t always what is profitable. A massive, transformational reorganization of both the energy sector and social relations is needed to tackle climate change and transition from fossil fuels.
This isn’t something that capitalist states can achieve. Only a state built around the needs of the working-class majority can effectively plan and coordinate societywide transformations that benefit everyone, not just a few profit-seekers.