Last month, citizens have witnessed two tragically fatal accidents that could have a major impact on U.S. energy policy going forward.
Against a backdrop of subsidies and support for “clean coal” and expanded oil drilling off America’s coastlines – included in draft legislation being debated in Congress allegedly designed to combat global climate change and to boost energy security – the general public has been horrified by press coverage of the unquantifiable risks associated with extracting these subterranean fossil fuels.
First, there was the coal mining accident in West Virginia. Considered one of the worst coal mine disasters in the U.S. in the last 40 years, Massey Coal, Inc.’s the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion killed 29 workers. Critics are calling upon Congress to strengthen safety regulations in light of a plethora of violations discovered at this and other coal mining facilities. Analysts suggest the pressure to increase regulations on coal will likely cut coal production by 5% in the near-term. Longer-term, these new safety concerns may increase pressure in the U.S. to shift away from coal not only because burning coal is the most polluting of all electricity resource options, but because working in coal mines has proven to be a dangerous occupation, despite new mining technologies and techniques meant to minimize environmental impacts.
Shortly thereafter, one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history occurred off the coast of Louisiana. A deepwater rig leased to British oil giant BP suffered an explosion and sank, spawning a mile-deep gusher which is not yet contained. The surface oil slick is now washing up on the shores of Louisiana and may sully the Gulf coast from New Orleans to Pensacola. The wildlife and ecosystem impacts of this gigantic spill rival the infamous Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska, just as the Obama Administration had signaled a stepped up effort to access offshore oil deposits as part of a comprehensive future energy strategy. Of course, the history of oil spills proves that despite advances, offshore oil drilling is fundamentally a risky, dirty and dangerous job.
In response, President Obama has signaled that regulations will also need to be tightened on this fossil fuel lifeblood of our economy. BP, ironically enough, had touted the rig as new technology that avoided some of the risks of past drilling operations. In fact, the global oil giant never planned on such a catastrophe as a contingency, calling such an event “virtually impossible.” The accident resulted in 11 human fatalities, and scientists worry about long-term impacts on the sensitive Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River ecosystems and habitats.
Both of these accidents highlight how human error is always a factor in dealing with these traditional energy fuels, and that their inherent risks are potentially catastrophic. Beyond the role coal and oil play in worsening climate change, they clearly offer lethal risks to employees and our natural environment, risks not common with alternatives such as solar and wind power.
Even a former Central Intelligence Agency chief has just published a commentary in the Wall Street Journal that calls for a national strategy to wean the U.S. off of its addiction to petroleum as our primary transportation fuel.
Here in California, the good news is that a judge upheld a decision that Chevron’s Environmental Impact Report for an expansion of its aging refinery in Richmond, California — a low-income community suffering from high cancer and asthma rates — was inadequate, and that the company will have to start over again.
In the meantime, we should be thinking and looking elsewhere for answers to our transportation fuel requirements. We should be doing far more in stimulating investment in alternate fuels, like methanol from cellulose and hydrogen for fuel cells, and designing an infrastructure to support vehicles which will run on clean, non-petroleum based fuels. Electric and hybrid cars will also have a big role to play in this transition. The world will never be risk free. But the safest path for our children and theirs is the one which leads to sustainability.