Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The True Cost of Fossil Fuels

With the recent BP drilling rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 and continues to spill oil into the ocean which has spread to the shore, many of us are once again questioning whether the price we are paying for oil in the form of human lives and environmental damage is worth it.

But the more we find out about this accident, the more resemblance this has to the
Preventable Tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine killing 29 mine workers where the already dangerous occupation of coal mining was made worse by a history of safety violations by the mine’s owner, Massey Energy.

Now we learn that
BP has a History of Spills and Safety Lapses.

The oil industry is inherently more dangerous than many other industries, and oil companies, including BP, strive to reduce accidents and improve safety.

Yet some government officials say that they are troubled by the continuation of hazardous practices at BP’s refineries and Alaskan oil operations despite warnings from regulators.

For example, last year the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found more than 700 violations at the Texas City refinery — many concerning faulty valves, which are critical for safety given the high temperatures and pressures. The agency fined BP a record $87.4 million, which was more than four times the previous record fine, also to BP, for the 2005 explosion.

Another refinery, in Toledo, Ohio, was fined $3 million two months ago for “willful” safety violations, including the use of valves similar to those that contributed to the Texas City blast.

“BP has systemic safety and health problems,” said Jordan Barab, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “They need to take their intentions and apply them much more effectively on the ground, where the hazards actually lie.”

So really we have two questions here. Can the oil industry be made safer with better regulatory enforcement and a desire of the companies to clean up their act? Interestingly enough, the article cites ExxonMobil whose reputation took a hit after the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska as now setting the industry standard for safety. So it certainly can and should be done.

Secondly, is it in our long term interest to be so dependent on oil and other fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas? For so many reasons the answer is no. While the apparent cost of the actual fossil fuel materials is still relatively low compared to alternatives, there are so many hidden costs that are ignored by too many. In addition to the many environmental concerns, the ever decreasing supply of readily obtainable oil and coal not only drives up the price but becomes more dangerous to extract out of the earth. And do we really want to continue the funding of bad actors on the world stage with our petrodollars?

To address these issues, that leaves nuclear and renewable fuels as the only real alternatives. Nuclear now produces about 11% of the world’s energy so it is a proven technology. But the waste it produces must then be safely stored for long periods of time to protect us from its radiation. And as the saga of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada shows, nobody seems to want nuclear waste in their backyard (or anywhere remotely near it!). For a more complete but not overly technical overview of nuclear and other forms of energy, check out this link.

I wrote in a previous 2008 posting that
Renewable Energy May Be the Answer. With the passage of time since then, I now believe it is the answer, especially for the long term. Right now, there are only two things working against it. One is that the industries who already make large profits from fossil fuels such as oil and coal don’t want those profits to go away.

But this is a natural byproduct of technological progress as history has shown. For example, when Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse demonstrated that alternating current (AC) electricity was superior to direct current (DC) for large scale distribution, Thomas Edison whose company was behind the existing DC systems mounted a
publicity campaign full of misinformation about the supposed dangers of AC including public electrocutions of animals to try and prove his point. Today there is the same kind of misinformation campaign on climate change largely supported by fossil fuel companies.

The other thing working against renewable energy is that it in many instances it's not quite cost-effective compared to fossil fuels. While we cannot immediately wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, we can help close the cost gap as they did in Brazil which relies on
more efficient sugar cane produced ethanol compared to the corn based ethanol produced in the US.

But to make a true comparison between the two, we must also factor in the environmental, human and political costs of the US maintaining an addiction to fossil fuels. Over the long run, this true cost of fossil fuels is one that we cannot afford!

No comments: