The Daily 750

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What's In A Name: Sandia Laboratories

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."
Romeo: "I take thee at thy word."
Romeo and Juliet

So romantic. Such a load of bull from a cute girl. And he fell for it! And look what happened!

Anyone who has ever grown roses know that some smell sweet and some smell not at all. You can't just drive over to the nursery, buy the bush with the prettiest flower on the label, plant it in your backyard and expect it to come up smelling sweet next spring. You've got to do a little homework to find out which roses smell, and whether they smell sweet or citrusy or like cloves or vanilla or tobacco. And if you want Teleflora to send a sweet-smelling bouquet to your Sugarplum, you’d better send Oriental lilies because the long-stemmed roses florists sell have been bred for their long stems and tight buds, which seems to have wiped out any ability for the plants to produce any smell at all. Take a deep whiff of a florist’s rose and you’ll smell the truck they were delivered in.

Oh well. Juliet was only 14 and Romeo was, by all accounts, the Sexiest Man Alive in 1594. And a rose might in fact have been a rose back then.

Out here on the farthest reaches of the Upper Left Edge, a corporation and its citizen supporters have in mind to plant a liquefied natural gas facility, a general picture of which you can find here, on land that is currently home to blue herons, wild Chinook and Coho salmon, and passing sea lions. The first and most oft-repeated objection to this facility is that it could be subject to terrorist attack or accident that would blow up the facility up and atomize or at least singe half the Upper Left Edge. Not the best argument because it is about as likely as your dying from the next aspirin you take.

Not to bore you with too many facts, but let’s have just a few. LNG facilities (currently about 60 terminals and 150 ships) have been in operation for 40 years. In that time there have been over 80,000 carrier voyages, resulting in a total of 15 marine incidents, seven of them resulting in rather small spillage of LNG. There have been five facility accidents, none of them causing damage beyond the facility itself. And do ya think Osama bin Laden even knows where the Upper Left Edge is? I’m not worried. My complaints are limited to lighting, zoning, financial capabilities, future operations and other mundane details.

But here’s my beef for today. Supporters of the facility wave off this concern by this constant phrase: “I don’t know much about it but the very excellent” – adopt a deeper, magisterial tone now – “SANDIA LABORATORY study” – return to normal voice – “states that the risks are very minimal and could be reduced even further.”

Oooo, San-dee-ahhh. Feel the power in the very word itself.

Alright then, what is Sandia Laboratory. Anybody?

Actually, there are two Sandias, one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and one in Livermore, California. The labs are what is known in Washington, DC as a GOCO: a government-owned, contractor-operated company. The contractor is Lockheed-Martin, an advanced technologies corporation providing products and services in aeronautics, space systems, and information technology (including energy services). The government agency is the Department of Energy, whose last two secretaries, Spencer Abraham and (currently) Samuel Bodman, have put out a worldwide call to action to “get new terminals up and running, to develop new fields around the globe, and to come together in partnership on mutually beneficial, long-term agreements.”

Is it possible that Sandia is not a completely independent source of information? And anyway, the facility didn’t write the report. The report was written by individual employees and is only as reliable as the people who wrote it. (Not to mention: the group studied the impact of LNG spills over water, saying little or nothing about on-land facilities. But that's another essay.) If you’ve ever held a job in a large company you know that your company employees some smart people and some not-so-smart people, and that the most dangerous of them all are the people who are very smart and have a very definite agenda.

How often have you heard someone say “The New York Times said” blah-blah-blah, as if it must be right if it was written in those hallowed pages. Once again, the building didn’t write the story. A reporter wrote the story. Anything the Times’ foreign correspondent John Burns writes from the Middle East or Europe I believe, because I worked foreign policy for those areas for over two decades, I’ve been reading his reports for about that long, and I have found him to have nearly impeccable integrity.

Not so everyone else. On a subject on which I have in-depth, behind-the-scenes knowledge, I’ve found that most reporters have the story about 60 percent right – enough for me to take an ideological and somewhat emotional stand on the issue but not enough for a principled, informed decision.

It's easy to define worst-case scenarios, easier to fund studies about them, even easier to scare people with them, and easier still to invoke the study as a means of calming the masses. (It may be no coincidence that the local voice of the LNG company is a former preacher.) The devil is in the details, and for those we have yet to see anything.

I have no more ability to judge the reliability of the information provided in the Sandia report than I do to judge the reliability of the latest newspaper article on stem cell research or the politics of Zambia. I hope first that explosions will not consume the time and energy we need for the more mundane concerns I listed earlier. And that when safety and security are considered, we will all remember that there is much in a name.