Last month’s rail tanker accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, led me to ponder rarely mentioned outcomes owing to our nation’s energy supply choices. In the accident, a train hauling North Dakota crude oil derailed and several tank cars exploded, causing multiple casualties. These real consequences immediately impacted people in the present day. They stand in stark contrast to computer-modeled consequences of climate change projecting adverse impacts from global warming perhaps to occur in the distant future. The virtual predictions, proving ever more inaccurate with time, continue to unduly influence our course.
Drilling technologies have advanced and produced welcome increases in domestic oil and gas reserves — demolishing the peak supply predictions of bygone days. Years ago, when reserves were thought more limited, a wise oil man shared his opinion that it was a shame to “waste” these resources on electricity generation when coal was well-suited for the task and much less versatile (coal is more difficult to cook or heat with, to use as transportation fuel or to manufacture fertilizer or derive hydrogen from.)
Many argue environmental advantages accrue when gas is burned instead of more carbon-intensive coal — never minding that plants thrive as atmospheric carbon increases. Regulatory agencies and legislatures encouraged by the Obama administration and favored-industry lobbyists nod in agreement and do their parts to bolster the undeclared war on coal — in effect, a war on plant food.
As battles in this war are waged, coal-fired power stations prematurely are shuttered. In Colorado, HB10-1365 produced exactly this outcome. Renewables, no matter how vigorously subsidized nor favored as by SB13-252, are simply not up to filling the resulting electricity demand vacuum. Shrewd capitalists exploit the mandated renewables niche and profit, but the public is left underserved by these duplicitous bargains. The electricity supply void created in their wake gets filled with gas. And voids filled with gas are dangerous.
We are witnessing increasing numbers of accidents in strong correlation with increasing domestic oil and gas utilization. An oil field service truck in Craig exploded recently when exposed to an ignition source blowing the roof off a garage near a residential neighborhood. In Westminster last March, an apartment blew up in a gas leak explosion closely followed by a similar event in Grand Junction that leveled two homes and injured three people. Gas leaking in another Westminster home detonated in June. These events reflect but one aspect of the oil and gas safety toll being exacted. From the production and transportation perspectives, the pictures are even grimmer, both domestically as at an oil well site near Craig where a fatality occurred last winter during an attempt to thaw a frozen valve, and internationally as in Lac-Mégantic or the disaster in the Gulf. The rising trend of oil- and gas-related accidents and fatalities should give everyone pause, but what to do?
The Mine Safety and Health Administration is charged with overseeing the safety and health of some 92,000 coal miners with approximately 735 inspectors, roughly one for every 125 miners. According to OSHA, there were more than 450,000 workers employed in the oil and gas extractive industries in 2011. From 2003 to 2010, 823 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job. During the same period, coal miners suffered 259 fatalities. OSHA’s annual budget funds approximately 2,200 inspectors who bear responsibility for the health and safety of 130 million workers. Compared to MSHA, that’s about one inspector per every 59,000 workers; or in equivalent terms a whopping 7.6 inspectors for the oil and gas extractive industry nationwide. Simply put, increased regulatory oversight would save lives. MO&GSHA anyone? Inquiring miners want to know.