A worker from Folz Welding repairs an oil pipeline in Patoka, Illinois in 2016.

A worker from Folz Welding repairs an oil pipeline in Patoka, Illinois in 2016.

Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times

How is that oil supposed to get places?

Why do we panic when hackers shut down oil pipelines, but cheer when protesters do?

“People are the worst,” said my older son, a phrase I kept in my back pocket for frequent reference, as a sort of half explanation, half benediction. He put a little oomph on the last word, “People are the worst!”

Although, in their defense, people can be very indulgent about learning new words. For my entire career, I’ve trotted out five-dollar locutions in this column, sometimes because they’re the most precise term for conveying a particular thought, sometimes just to show off. Either way, readers invariably take the bother of looking them up, occasionally even writing in, grateful to learn a new word.

Words like “juxtaposition.” Setting one thing next to another, for comparison and contrast. To clarify a point that otherwise might be elusive.

Opinion bug


For instance. Remember in early May, when cybercriminals shut down the east coast’s Colonial Pipeline? Suddenly everyone was panicked about gas shortages and price spikes. That video of some idiot (people ... are ... the ... WORST!) filling a garbage bag with gasoline. Nobody greeted the Colonial crisis with “Hooray for hackers! I hope the pipeline never reopens.”

Now draw a line from that to this week, and the Keystone XL crude pipeline being finally scuttled after years of fighting environmentalists and Native American protesters. Good news, right? Boo global warming! Three cheers for tribal activism!

Let me ask you this: How is oil supposed to be transported across our enormous country? Because if it doesn’t go by pipeline, it has to move in trucks or train cars, which are even more expensive, more dangerous and worse for the environment. Sure, like everybody else, I’m looking forward to the day when a sleek vehicle that looks like a pale blue bean and runs on a pack of Mentos glides noiselessly up in front of my house and stops; my phone softly pings, and I pad over to the curb as a previously invisible door slides open with a faint pneumatic sigh. I climb in, settle back and addictively scroll through shuffle dance videos on Instagram while the vehicle automatically ferries me where I’m going. Maybe making gasoline more expensive is part of nudging that long-anticipated future toward us. But to jump ahead and stop building pipelines now is premature, like ripping up airport runways in the hope that people will sprout wings and fly — both cheaper and more environmentally sound, if only we could do it.

Unlike you, I’ve been down to the Patoka Oil Tank Farm, about 250 miles south of Chicago, where a dozen major pipelines converge and 50 giant white tanks each hold nine minutes’ worth of our nation’s oil thirst. Infrastructure we seldom think about, and when we do we insist it both work flawlessly and also go away. People hate pipelines but love cars. See why that phrase is so handy? People ARE the worst.

Correction, etc.:

Print readers had enormous fun with “Wildwife,” the neologism (newly coined word) that somehow appeared in my column Wednesday instead of “Wildfire,” the actual name of the restaurant chain started by Rich Melman. Corrected immediately online, but nothing to do about the newsprint version. So much fun, I could almost take pride in inventing the term. Heck, I should probably quit my job and use it as the title of a novel. “Wildwife: A Natasha Stroganoff Romance,” about a man who weds a Russian woman he met on Hinge, only to discover that ...

Maybe not. The Sun-Times regrets the error.

While on the topic of mistakes. One astute reader took issue with my saying Rich Melman brought the salad bar over from Hawaii when he opened R.J. Grunts in 1971, pointing out that a Wisconsin supper club claims to have started the practice in the early 1950s. A genesis laid out in an article called “The Evolution of the American Salad Bar” that Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises boldly posts on its website.

Of course both could be true. The existence of a predecessor in the hinterlands of Wisconsin doesn’t negate Melman deserving credit for reviving the culinary feature and starting a trend decades later. Alexander Graham Bell isn’t the man who invented the telephone — dozens of others developed various versions — so much as the guy who made it finally work and then grabbed all the credit for himself. People are the worst.

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