Last fall, black dust began to blow through residential neighborhoods on the southeast side of Chicago. Only it wasn’t really dust; it was a fine black residue that clung to everything it touched, including noses and throats. Residents eventually learned that it was an oil byproduct called petroleum coke — petcoke for short — and it was being stored in massive uncovered piles at facilities owned by the Koch brothers. VICE News’s Danny Gold traveled to Chicago to see what happens when clouds of toxic oil dust blow through the Windy City.
Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Should America Double Its Exports of Coal, the World’s Dirtiest Fossil Fuel?
Somewhere outside Ferndale, Washington—after following a series of backcountry roads through rolling pastures and fertile farmland dotted with goats and llamas—I reached a sign warning: “No Trespassing, Violators Will Be Prosecuted,” that marks the presumed far outer edge of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.
If approved and built, the massive, $600 million facility will ship at least 59.5 million tons of coal per year to Asia, doubling US exports of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel. To effectively feed the beast, nine trains per day, each one-and-a-half miles long, would travel from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, over the continental divide, to this small stretch of coastline just 17 miles south of the Canadian border. Then those same trains would turn around and head back to the mines, to fill up once again—all part of an never-ending loop cutting through small towns, remote wilderness, and even big cities like Tacoma, Spokane, and Seattle, spreading coal dust all along their route. Up to 3 percent of each load escapes from the trains’s open-air tops on every westbound leg of the journey.
That’s the plan, anyway.
What lies beyond the No Trespassing sign at this particular moment, however, really depends on who you ask. Before venturing to Ferndale, I started my inquiries earlier in the week with a visit to the Washington State Department of Ecology in the state’s capital, Olympia. The DOE is currently tasked (along with the small County of Whatcom and the US Army Corps of Engineers) with producing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Gateway Pacific proposal. Plans for the terminal were first submitted in 2011 by SSA Marine, which owns the land upon which the export terminal would sit, and the DOE have been racing to produce their study.
The first half of episode nine is about Chicago. Chicago has become a war zone. Well, not all of Chicago—half the city is doing great. From the Loop up the Magnificent Mile and into the Gold Coast, you’d hardly think you were in a town with an annual body count higher than Afganistan’s. South of State Street is another story.
This winter, we went to Chicago’s South Side to see how gangs, gun sales, and greed have turned neighborhoods like Englewood and Auburn Gresham into free-fire zones the locals call “Chiraq.” And where more than a Sandy Hook’s worth of kids die every month.
For the second segment we went to Africa’s Niger Delta, where high unemployment, political corruption, and the unequal sharing of oil resources have turned the area into a hell on earth. Oil theft has become big business in Nigeria, costing oil companies more than $7 billion per year while polluting coastal farmlands and fisheries—and wrecking the lives and livelihoods of local residents. We traveled to Nigeria to meet with oil thieves who refine and sell oil in West Africa, and to follow one farmer’s attempt to sue an oil company for poisoning his family’s land.
Forty percent of Canada’s petrochemical industry is packed into a 15-square-mile area in Sarnia, Ontario, called the Chemical Valley. More than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries operate there 24/7. As a result of the Chemical Valley’s emissions, in 2011 the World Health Organization gave Sarnia the title of the “worst air” in all of Canada.
It began with an intriguing comment on a Weediquette article. A kid from Denver said, “Dude, you should be dabbing errl.” There was very little available information on this phrase at the time, so I ventured to friend this kid on Facebook in hopes of getting some answers. Having smoked for as long as I have, I didn’t expect to learn anything new about weed, but the kid from Denver humbled me quick.
He was describing Butane Hash Oil, or BHO, a marijuana extract that is pretty much pure THC. People have been making marijuana extracts for millennia, pounding, churning, and milling green plant matter to separate its natural resins, yielding a more concentrated product. For ages, we called this stuff hash, but a new method of extraction came about that was so much more effective that the product itself looked different, had a different texture, and most importantly, got you waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay fucking higher.
Simply put, BHO is made by blasting marijuana with butane, a solvent that takes all the THC with it and nothing else. Evaporating away the butane leaves only the resin, a viscous, amber-colored, waxy substance. BHO is vaporized, either in a pan or using a dabbing pipe, which is where the phrase “Dabbing Errl” comes from—you blowtorch the titanium bowl piece until it’s red hot, then you use a pointy tool to press the oil onto the metal and it bursts into a vapor cloud that you inhale rapidly.
The most notable thing about the high from BHO is that it makes you feel the way you did when you smoked the first time. It’s a high that envelopes you and renders you pretty much useless, but the bliss that comes with it is unmatched. After that first hit, I was obsessed and took to the internet to explore this wonder substance further.
Alas, every rose has its thorn, and I soon discovered that the thorny side of BHO arose from the process of making it, a precarious procedure that can literally blow up in your face. Over the past couple of years, there have been an increasing number of instances of people fucking up the BHO-extraction process and severely injuring and even killing themselves. Naturally, this made me want to see the process in person. So we found a lunatic who makes BHO, and the rest is in the episode.