Fuel: A Love Story

Author | Gaynell Gavin

1. Ark

I see my godmother and godfather, Rhoda and Rob, in the snapshots of early memory.

She had short blond curls. His brown hair was thin, with a bald spot on top. I stood in their kitchen, looking from the window to the lush green hollow into which their back yard plunged. Rob handed me apple juice in a plastic, red Howdy Doody cup with red-haired, freckled, goofy Howdy Doody standing on a yellowish oval background wearing a red-and-white checked shirt. He was very ugly, but I liked the sound of his name.

“Drink your juice,” my godfather told me, “and we’ll go pick Robby up from Little League practice.” Once in the car, we stopped for gas, where a big yellow seashell, edged in red, showed us the gas station’s name, Shell. Rob worked for Shell.

At the practice field, I ran to Robby, standing on tiptoes to kiss the bottom of his chin. At eight, with his dark hair cut in a fashionable “burr,” he was very handsome, just big enough to pick me up and swing me around. The sky darkened, and we dashed to the car while a summer storm began its sudden downpour. When I suggested, “Let’s pretend this car is Noah’s Ark,” he agreed.

2. Heartland Village

I grew up as a child of the Baby Boom in the small city of Alton, Illinois. The oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell was a major area employer.

Decades later, a 2011 public hearing in the Village of Roxana, near Alton, revealed that, due to two Shell chemical spills in 1989, “several homes have a potentially dangerous concentration of . . . benzene in the soil and ground water around their property. Other homes . . . show a lower concentration of the chemical.” The Environmental Protection Agency found that the spills caused “nearly nine-thousand-gallons of chemicals” to leak into the ground. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes benzene as a carcinogenic “component of products derived from coal and petroleum,” used to manufacture plastics, detergents, and pesticides; it is also present in cigarette smoke and gasoline. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene causes cancer,” including leukemia, if there is “long-term exposure to high levels” of it in the air.

Like Alton, Roxana is located in Madison County. Some Roxana residents have developed cancers correlated with benzene exposure. The Madison-St. Clair Record reported on benzene-related lawsuits in Madison County fifty-five times between February 25, 2009 and February 23, 2014. Of course, Shell was not the only corporation being sued. It was just one of many.

3. Colette’s

As a kid, I was taken to visit family or friends and on special shopping trips in cars. With other neighborhood kids, I was picked up from school by a mom—mine or someone else’s—on snowy winter afternoons when it was too cold to walk home. Cars offered both the reassurance of routine and the excitement of occasional adventure.

In the summer of 1967, I accompanied my mother and two of her close friends on a road trip to visit my godmother Colette, in Laguna Beach, California. En route, I was ensconced in the back seat of a car that I recall as metallic, light green. It was large, like most cars in an era when gas mileage was not an issue. During the days, if I tired of the passing scenery, I “learned” about sex and British intelligence from James Bond books. I was not allowed to see Bond films, but my mother tolerated the novels.

We hit the road before eight most mornings and stopped by late afternoon or early evening to get a motel room. The adults, who all still smoked then, would open the car trunk, break out the booze, and have cocktails with their snacks while I had 7-Up or seltzer water with mine.

At Colette’s, my heart was untroubled, a state that did not last, but for two weeks, the most serious choice I faced was whether to swim in her pool or go to the beach.

4. Delta

Shell’s environmental record in the Niger delta was criticized by prominent writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by Nigeria’s military dictatorship, along with eight other members of the Ogoni people, in 1995. Shell was accused of soliciting help from the dictatorship in silencing critics and of paying soldiers for that help.

The company was sued in the U.S. under the Alien Tort Claims Act before the Supreme Court ruled that the act does not apply to Shell’s activities in Nigeria. Denying any wrongdoing, the company entered a settlement agreement in 2009 to pay a total of $15.5 million to ten plaintiffs, including Saro-Wiwa family members. By settling, Shell avoided the scrutiny of its conduct that a trial could have brought. However, in 2011 the BBC reported that Shell had acknowledged responsibility for oil pipeline spills in 2008 and 2009. Facing lawsuits in England (among other nations) for its Niger delta activities, the company proposed, unsuccessfully, settling under Nigerian law.

Members of the Bodo community in Ogoniland claimed that their environment and primary occupation (fishing) were destroyed by the pipeline spills, leaving them to face poverty, hunger, and poisoned water. While the company maintained that fewer than 40,000 gallons of oil spilled in Nigeria, expert research suggested damage comparable to that of the earlier Exxon Valdez spill of over 10 million gallons along Alaska’s coast. In 2011 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reported that Ogoniland “families are drinking water . . . contaminated with benzene . . . at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines.” The report noted the contamination’s proximity to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline and Shell Petroleum Development Company’s failure to adhere to its own procedures, which created “public health and safety issues.” Faced with a London High Court trial, in early 2015, Shell settled the case for 55 million pounds ($83.4M). As 2017 began, Royal Dutch Shell was threatened with trial in the UK over damages from spills alleged by other Nigerian communities, although the promised Bodo community cleanup had yet to begin, more than eight years after that spill.

I find it hard to keep track of Shell—and others’—countless oil and chemical spills in the Niger delta, in the Mississippi River, and elsewhere. After so many, I ask myself what the point of keeping track is when they are allowed to happen again and again. During intense media coverage of British Petroleum (BP) and Deepwater Horizon’s Gulf mega-spill, Canadian energy giant, Enbridge, spilled 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in July 2010. It was the worst inland spill in U.S. history. Detroit Free Press staff writer Keith Matheny detailed the devastation, not only to the river and its wildlife but also to its riverside human communities. Businesses and homes have been destroyed and human health compromised. Yet he reported, Enbridge “is expanding pipelines across North America, including in Michigan, to ship greater quantities of heavy tar sands oil . . . .”

According to Clifford Krauss of The New York Times, BP continued to explore for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, due to leases “from before the 2010 accident,” although cleanup remained unfinished. The U. S. government allows BP to seek new leases there. After the post-spill moratorium on drilling, “several large oil companies, including Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, are flocking back to the gulf.” While negotiations with Shell over environmental cleanup in Nigeria continued, (former) U.S. National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman worried about inadequate safety for rail transportation of oil at home. Meanwhile, debate raged over building the Keystone XL pipeline to carry Canadian tar sands oil from one end of our country to the other, before a veto by (former) President Obama preempted construction, a result the current president has reversed.

Among subsequent pipeline spills and conflict, summer 2016 brought August spills in Canada, California, Wyoming, and who knows where else? One Wyoming spill was caused by a tanker crash near Wright. A few weeks later, another Wyoming crash occurred near Rawlins, as a tanker driver tried to get on Interstate 80.

September brought at least three spills in approximately a week: Colonial Pipeline’s in Alabama; ExxonMobil’s in Arkansas; and Shell’s in a Texas waterway connecting to the Gulf of Mexico, while a train carrying oil derailed in Canada, with disastrous effects. In North Dakota, Standing Rock Sioux and allies protested construction of the Dakota Access pipeline (like XL, resurrected by the Trump administration). Their resistance brought initial, but only temporary, success. They worried that a spill into the Missouri River would jeopardize their water supply, but why the controversy? Why such drama? What could possibly go wrong?

5. In the Wagon

When I picture our “family car,” it is always the metallic blue station wagon, a Plymouth Fury, with a blue vinyl interior, probably bought from the car dealership that my mother’s brother managed. We got the car new about 1965. I had occasional preteen rides in the wagon’s cargo area with other kids, and a few years later, I learned to drive in the Fury.

My mother was tired of hauling kids around town when I turned sixteen, about the same time that wearing seatbelts, as emphasized in high-school drivers’ ed class, became a habit for us. She had me run errands, drive my brother to Little League practice, or pick my sister up from gymnastics. We had moved from Alton to the adjacent Village of Godfrey. The areas through which I drove rarely had heavy traffic. Car time did not entirely offset the tumult of my teen years, but my drives did bring moments of peace and appreciation of the natural beauty around me—trees, woods, and bluffs, along the Mississippi River. These associations, which I might not have articulated at sixteen, remain, but they are clouded.

6. Let Them Eat Pizza

Now, through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) massive amounts of water, containing benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals, will be injected deep into my Southern Illinois homeland with enough force to fracture the shale where oil and natural gas wait. Fracking, which will bring badly needed jobs to the area, is happening in many states. But if chemicals used in the process migrate into drinking water, human health and the environment are at risk, which may be among the reasons that former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, joined a suit to prevent activity related to hydraulic fracturing near his Texas home and horse ranch. Tillerson expressed concern about the impact of nearby fracking on his property value. Apparently he feels fine about Exxon’s fracking activities on or near other people’s land. Currently Tillerson is our country’s Secretary of State.

Meanwhile in 2010 the EPA found high levels of benzene and methane contamination in a Texas homeowner’s well water, with the methane creating danger of explosion. The agency also found that a gas production well operated by Range Resources “caused or contributed to” the contamination and reaffirmed these findings in its 2013 Office of Inspector General’s “Response to Congressional Inquiry Regarding the EPA’s Emergency Order to the Range Resources Gas Drilling Company.” And what is the industry response if methane from hydraulic fracturing actually causes an explosion? Chevron provided an answer after one of its Pennsylvania fracking wells exploded in February 2014, causing a fire that burned for four days. Families living nearby each received a twelve-dollar coupon for a large pizza. This largesse also included two liters of soda per household.

Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from compliance with provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2008. Yet a 2011 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce minority report specified the danger of contamination if fracking chemicals leach into water and noted that migration of these chemicals is not necessarily predictable.

Recently, I called a friend in California, an attorney whose undergrad major was biochemistry, and asked her opinion on hydraulic fracturing. “I have clients, good people, who are working hard to improve the safety of fracking,” she assured me.

“Fair enough, but if it was not dangerous, your clients wouldn’t be trying to reduce the danger, and it wouldn’t need exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. What about the risk of methane leaks? Shouldn’t there at least be a moratorium until we are sure of a safe way to frack?”


I was surprised by my friend’s agreement, by her comment that methane poses risks, and by her opinion of companies’ refusals to disclose the chemicals that they use under a “trade secret” argument, as she added, “That argument is a red herring. When people turn up with cancer and with carcinogens in their water in areas near fracking, these companies do not want to have to disclose whether or not they use those chemicals in their fracking fluid. It is not about protecting trade secrets. It’s about making it harder for people whose water has been poisoned to sue.”

There is also the question of danger posed by the “mini” earthquakes that hydraulic fracturing causes, controversy over recycling fracking fluid for agricultural irrigation, and reservations about the amount of water used, especially in drought-stricken states like California and Colorado. In Greeley, Colorado, concern about two June 2014 earthquakes caused state regulators to suspend activity at an injection well, which disposes of fracking waste fluids by injecting them into the earth.

Like Chevron and Exxon, Shell fracks, as do countless other corporations in many states and abroad.

7. What I Knew

As my eleventh birthday approached, my crush on Robby began to wane. When he died of a heroin overdose at twenty-two, I was eighteen and married to someone else. Rhoda followed Robby within a few years, and Rob was not far behind her.

Evening colors mark later memories of getting my stepdaughter from Hebrew school twice a week on my way home from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. When I took on this task, she was so small that her feet did not touch the floor as she sat in my 1990-something white Ford Taurus. My car-time routine with her ended long ago. She has her own car, the gold Toyota Corolla that replaced my old Taurus and used to be mine. My work commute has become much longer and is mostly solitary.

My son and stepchildren are grown now. Even their children are older than I was when a surge of joy sent me running across a field to Robby after Little League practice.

What I knew about gasoline when I was young was that we drove across the Mississippi from Illinois to buy it because lower taxes made it cheaper in Missouri. The stations we went to had “gas wars,” trying to undersell each other. The question was, if one station sold gas for twenty-three cents a gallon, could we find another nearby offering it for a penny or two less? The American way—cheap fuel, vacations, adventure, family fun in the car—what was not to like?

I did not think then about gasoline and where it came from. I certainly did not think, or even know, about the 1953 U.S. and British overthrow of Iran’s prime minister in response to his nationalization of the country’s oil fields. That coup, at the behest of British Petroleum, was not covered by the education I received on British intelligence from James Bond novels, but we live in the shadow of its legacy, along with that of BP’s more recent activity off our shores in the Gulf of Mexico.

8. Public Trust

In recent years, fires have ravaged places where I lived in Colorado, including the community of Black Forest, where many houses burned. I have no idea if the house that was once mine still stands there. Visiting California in my teens and living there briefly in my twenties, I knew the state had intermittent wildfires, mostly in late summer and early fall; but I could not have imagined the news bringing me films of a “firenado.” I had not yet even heard of such a thing.

Along with much of the country, in spring 2014, the season that also brought apocalyptic mud slides to Washington and Western Colorado, I watched tens of thousands of San Diego County acres devoured by walls of flame, soaring as high as thirty feet. And I read AP science writer Seth Borenstein’s article in which he quoted University of Arizona Scientist Jonathan Overpeck who said, “The fires in California and here in Arizona are a clear example of what happens as the Earth warms, particularly as the West warms, and the warming caused by humans is making fire season longer and longer with each decade. It’s certainly an example of what we’ll see more of in the future.” His prediction seemed confirmed when I returned to California in late fall 2017 to for a dear friend’s memorial service. As I drove from LAX to Santa Barbara, fires glowed in the night hills, and I was glad that firefighting vehicles were never far from me. There was ash on streets, sidewalks, and cars. Like many people, I wore a mask when the ash was especially bad.

In 2011, Our Children’s Trust (OCT) legal teams filed the case of Alec L. et al v. Lisa Jackson et al in federal court, subsequently Alec L. et al v. Gina McCarthy et al due to the change in EPA administrators. The plaintiffs’ allegations included, among others, failure “to control atmospheric contamination that has caused catastrophic and irreparable damage to our lands, businesses, national security, and health” in violation of the Public Trust Doctrine. That doctrine requires government to hold vital natural resources in trust for present and future generations of its citizens. Defendants included the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and Defense.

The District Court for the District of Columbia granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss that case in 2012. The plaintiffs’ appeal sought an order to that administration for immediate implementation of a comprehensive Climate Recovery Plan from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Friend of the court briefs supporting the plaintiffs were filed by retired NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen and ten other prominent scientists, thirty-four legal scholars, the National Congress of American Indians and other native community representatives, faith groups, national security experts, government officials from around the country, and social justice, human rights, and conservation organizations.

The appellate court upheld the district court’s dismissal of the Alec L. case, but with similar actions pending elsewhere, a victory came later. On November 10, 2016, Judge Ann Aiken denied a motion to dismiss another OCT suit, Juliana v. United States, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. In her opinion’s substantial discussion of infringement of a fundamental right, Judge Aiken stated, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ . . . I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” The Oregon case is expected to go to trial in 2018, although the Justice Department has asked the court to dismiss it. Mostly news media ignored OCT suits, as they largely ignored reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; they did slightly better at covering the Obama administration’s “National Climate Assessment,” which said climate change is happening now, including northeastern storm surges and western droughts and wildfires.

I take my shreds of hope where they can be found, and OCT efforts offer a shred.

9. Heart of the Matter

There was a moment in time when I believed the people who loved me would keep me safe from any storm.

On a late December morning, I sit on the side of the bed where my fourth-grade grandson, Liam, is sleeping. Careful not to wake him, longing to keep him safe from all storms forever, I touch his dark blond hair, spilled across the pillow. “We were up late reading,” I whisper to my husband. “Let him sleep.” I watch a little longer, knowing that as we dress and load our Honda Civic, he will awaken.

The previous night, singing as he put on his pajamas, Liam’s choice was “Jingle Bells.”
“Actually,” I told him, “it’s bells on bobtails, not cocktails, but I do like your version much better.”

Soon my husband and I will leave my son’s family in Virginia for South Carolina, where we live now. It will be weeks, or months, before we see Liam and his seventh-grade sister, Kayla, again. He wants to start archery. She hasn’t decided whether or not she wants to also, but she reports that playing basketball is “awesome.”

True to its nature, bells on cocktails ringing, my conflicted heart longs for car time with them, to and from archery or basketball, longs for that journey.

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About the Author | Gaynell Gavin‘s work appears in many journals and anthologies. An earlier version of “Fuel: A Love Story” appeared in the print journal, Concho River Review in 2015. Gavin is the author of a novella, Attorney-at-Large, an editor of the dog anthology, To Unsnare Time’s Warp (both from Mint Hill Books), and an associate professor of English at Claflin University in South Carolina.