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“Stupid is as stupid does.” – Forrest Gump
The first episode of the seventh season of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is deeply moving. In the show, Bourdain visits Manila, the capital of the Philippines, for his usual mix of interesting food, drink, culture, and context. As Bourdain describes, domestic scarcity forces many Filipinos to leave their country and families behind in search of work overseas, and the money they send back home is critical to the Filipino economy. It is clear from the show that such decisions are gut-wrenching for those involved – the ultimate expression of love and loyalty – but the hard work and sacrifice for the chance to lift loved ones out of abject poverty are accepted as part of life.
One former overseas Filipino worker (OFW) profiled by Bourdain is Aurora Medina, a buoyant matriarch of a large, close-knit family who had recently returned home to Manila after 35 years abroad. In the final segment, Bourdain dines with Medina and her family in her humble dwelling – the money she made overseas having long-ago been distributed to educate at least a dozen close relatives. The audience learns that Medina was once the full-time nanny of one of the show’s directors for over 20 years, literally raising him and his sister from the time they were babies. The indirect reunion that follows is a profoundly emotional one.
For as much as Medina sacrificed, she is among the lucky former and current OFWs, having split her time overseas between Hong Kong and the US. Many others must take work in countries that treat migrant workers like property, forcing them to labor under deplorable conditions. Among the more controversial locations is the small Middle Eastern country of Qatar, where it is estimated that a quarter million OFWs are working as the nation prepares to host one of the greatest sporting spectacles on Earth – FIFA’s 2022 World Cup – adding to the scandal surrounding the organization’s selection process.
If you open Google in search of the population of Qatar, you’ll find various estimates in the range of about three million, but that number obscures an inconvenient truth about the country. There are only roughly 330,000 Qatari citizens – the remaining inhabitants are comprised of migrant workers from countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the aforementioned OFWs from the Philippines. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), with nine foreign laborers for every citizen, Qatar operates a system of oppression on par with apartheid where workers are “treated like animals.”
Amnesty International has been vocal in their criticism of Qatar’s kafala system, which gives private Qatari citizens and companies complete control over the employment and immigration status of migrant workers. In a recent status update, the group claims that despite pledges of reform on the part of the government, migrant workers still routinely face wage theft, barriers to switching jobs, confiscated passports, and dangerously unsafe working conditions. They further claim that the situation has deteriorated as the World Cup approaches. International human rights organizations are not the only ones sounding the alarm on Qatar. In a document published by the US State Department called 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Qatar, a key paragraph in the executive summary reads as follows:
“Significant human rights issues included: restrictions on free expression, including criminalization of libel; restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including prohibitions on political parties and labor unions; restrictions on migrant workers’ freedom of movement; limits on the ability of citizens to choose their government in free and fair elections; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and reports of forced labor.”
Each migrant worker suffering in Qatar is somebody’s family member. A parent. A sibling. A cousin. A child. Every worker is somebody’s Aurora Medina, which makes the scene that unfolded in Washington, D.C. last week so bewildering. Reeling from the fallout of failed energy policies at home and in Europe, US President Biden hosted the Emir of Qatar at the White House, hoping to cut a deal to redirect future flotillas of liquified natural gas (LNG) from Asia to Europe, ostensibly as a hedge against Russia cutting off Europe’s supply in the event of a conflict over Ukraine. Here’s how an article published in World Politics Review describes what happened:
“Just before U.S. President Joe Biden met with Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in the Oval Office on Tuesday, the White House shared a post on Twitter listing the visit’s agenda, which included ‘security and prosperity in the Middle East, global energy supplies, Afghanistan and more.’ It was clear Sheikh Tamim’s visit was not just symbolic.
Sheikh Tamim is the first regional leader to meet with Biden since he became president, a sign that Washington views Doha as an important element in confronting urgent U.S. priorities. And as if to underscore that point, Biden announced this week that he had designated Qatar a Non-NATO ally, a status that paves the way for greater cooperation on defense trade and security.”
We can only assume that Qatar’s scandalous treatment of migrant workers and its longstanding tradition of funding terrorist organizations will soon be flushed down the memory hole. Left unsaid by the White House is where our allies Japan and South Korea can expect to source their future supply of LNG, or at what clearing price they will have to secure it.
Now for the crazy part.
Just days before the event at the White House, US domestic natural gas producers were dealt yet another senseless gut punch when a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit revoked two federally approved permits to complete the critically important Mountain Valley Pipeline project, which is already 94% constructed. Here’s how RBN Energy reported on the developments:
“For those holding onto a glimmer of hope that the long-delayed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) — a big and important greenfield Appalachia natural gas takeaway project — would finally come to fruition this year, it’s safe to say those dreams were shattered last week. On January 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated federal permits from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that were needed to complete a 3.5-mile stretch of the mainline through the Jefferson National Forest along the West Virginia-Virginia border. The ruling said the permit approvals were premature — issued before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) environmental assessment — and failed to comply with the Forest Service’s 2012 Planning rule. The decision effectively sends the project back into the review process for the second time since construction began in 2018.”
The immediate consequences of the ruling are as follows. First, incremental natural gas produced in Appalachia will be stranded there, driving down prices in that region while increasing prices for the rest of the US market, which was counting on ready access to Appalachian production to meet their future needs. Second, the decision will limit the ability of US LNG export terminals to meet global natural gas demand, further eroding our geopolitical power and emboldening our adversaries – forcing us to make unseemly alliances with despots like the Emir of Qatar. Finally, the decision will make it even harder to attract much-needed capital for future domestic energy development projects. The Mountain Valley Pipeline project received its Certificate of Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on October 13, 2017 and construction began months thereafter. That it is still in political limbo more than five years later sends a loud and clear message to energy investors: look elsewhere to deploy capital. Here’s another quote from an earlier piece by RBN Energy which foreshadowed the consequences of the latest events:
“It’s no secret to anybody paying attention to U.S. natural gas markets that Appalachia has long been bedeviled by midstream constraints, often leading to deep gas price discounts. There have been brief respites when new capacity has come online, allowing more gas to flow out, but if you've been reading our blogs and natural gas reports lately, you know we've been sounding the alarm about the growing specter of constraints reemerging. Across the country, the boom in pipeline reversals, greenfield projects, and pipeline expansions that characterized much of the 2010s is pretty much over, with just a couple of approved expansions left, and it’s gotten much harder for projects offering additional capacity to gain traction, especially in the Northeast.”
We wish we could close this piece on an uplifting note but are instead exhausted from unfurling the contortions of our political establishment. What’s clear is that we are an unserious people in a do loop of unproductive contradictions rapidly hurling towards parts unknown.
We like Bourdain’s version much better.
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