"Other than the human tragedy, this is a non-event for the energy markets,” said an energy risk manager quoted by The Wall Street Journal (3/25/04), referring to the deadly explosion at the Texas BP oil refinery that took the lives of at least 15 people, injured more than 100 others and turned the plant site into a small war zone. Perhaps because we will never stop consuming energy generated by oil, gas and coal (and their allied chemical industry), and little political capital can be spun from accidents involving them, these markets can remain untouched by the loss of human life.
Who can remember the most lethal of “non-events” in industrial history, the leak of methyl isocyanate from Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India, in December 1984? Fatality reports ranged from 3,000 to 7,000 in the first hours after the toxic cloud infiltrated the slumbering town, followed by thousands more deaths later, and the chronic suffering of 100,000 current survivors. Only two weeks earlier, over 500 shanty town dwellers in Mexico City had been killed in an explosion of boiling liquid and expanding vapor. Human deaths in these and many other industrial accidents are successfully dissociated from industry and markets.
The recent Texas “non-event for the energy markets” triggered an intense flood of memories from my earlier life. As a chemical process engineer and oil refinery executive for Royal-Dutch Shell two decades ago, before I became a Jesuit, one of the many hard hats I wore was that of an authorized gas safety inspector. No, I didn’t go around checking for the presence of explosive gas. But I was tasked with stipulating the necessary conditions and certifying their fulfillment before any kind of work in the refinery complex could proceed without risking injury to workers, damage to the environment and property and the loss of human life. Any oil refinery complex has high potential for fatal accidents, but it can be rendered a very safe workplace (even safer than our city streets) by rigorous safety practices. Then again, a mere signature can render real and actual what is otherwise a mere possibility.
Being a safety inspector demanded an intimate knowledge of equipment and processes, but even more necessary was sensitivity to the proclivities of the human mind and psyche in the workplace. Will a worker suffering from depression keep his full safety apparatus on while handling pyrophoric platinum catalyst from a reactor blanketed with nitrogen gas? Can the best welder, who is also a known drunk, keep his balance climbing up the distillation tower? Could the rookie chemist be trusted to determine explosivity and toxicity levels accurately? Since I couldn’t possibly know, much less anticipate everything about everything and everyone, I consciously needed to call upon God to cover me. To whom else could I turn?
I could not then, and still cannot explain to my own satisfaction the mysterious mechanism of divine intervention in human affairs. Is it by an octane boost to natural intelligence or by way of super- attentiveness to details? Is it in a celestially designed, built-in early warning device against danger? Does God switch on a current that makes us detect and resist whatever threatens the human or send impulses to activate a protectiveness of life beyond some capacity we dare attribute to our human nature?
However divine grace may infiltrate human affairs, I vividly recall that what my daily prayer lacked in sophistication it made up for in urgency and sincerity. As soon as I tumbled out of bed with the sun every morning, I was on my knees begging God to send his angels to protect, guide and guard me, those near me and those under my care and charge. Then came my one original mantra of a prayer: “Dear God, let there be no death under my signature.”
And there was none. Neither was there any injury or damage that I can remember in the five years during which I affixed my signature to hundreds of safety certifications and work permits. Oil spills? Yes, there were a few. Damage to the environment? Yes, there was some. Equipment malfunction does happen, although, I freely admit, never too distant from human negligence, carelessness or stupidity. But as for the real possibility of my own negligence, carelessness and stupidity being the agency for the loss of life, there was no death under my signature. God had faithfully answered my daily plea.
There was no death under my signature! Why do I find myself repeating that? Because shortly after I moved to The Netherlands to design oil refining plants, there was a fatal accident back home, under a more capable and experienced signatory. Nothing will ever convince me God was not covering me, and covering for me, then.
Why does this still matter to me? Because another Good Friday has come and my Lord’s death still falls under the signature of our human race. Because we still authorize injury and death to the least of our sisters and brothers. Day after day I see laborers jack-hammering away on our roadways without protective gear, or mixing asphalt without any breathing apparatus, or clambering up heights without a safety harness. And because a just recompense has yet to be visited upon the living and the dead of Bhopal and Mexico City.
Why so much ado over a signature? Because jury after jury and judge after judge continue to affix signatures to the death of both guilty and innocent in capital punishment cases. Because court after court put its stamp to the time and manner of Terri Schiavo’s death. And because God, ever since he became enfleshed in our world to be unalterably associated with the human family by a bond that can never be broken, desires to be implicated in every signature that governs human affairs. Never mind that energy markets do not.