Health and Safety: Kudos to U.S. Oil and Gas
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By Robert L. Bradley Jr.
You wouldn't know it from media coverage, but America's oil and natural gas industry is one of the safest. These businesses have established smart protocols to minimize the dangers to their personnel and prevent catastrophe.
Of course, there are exceptions. But they're exceedingly rare and not at all indicative of the way average energy projects operate.
Visitors to an offshore drilling rig or production platform receive safety training and are outfitted with steel-toed boots, safety goggles, gloves, hearing protection, and a helmet. Once on the rig, their conduct is carefully monitored. And adherence to safe practices is mandatory.
Accidents do happen. Three incidents -- Santa Barbara (1969), Exxon Valdez (1989), and the Deepwater Horizon (2010) -- illustrate the industry's challenges. Unanticipated, tragic incidents have resulted in very high private and public costs. But the industry has responded by developing new technologies and improved safety systems.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a reluctant friend of oil and gas, recently said as much: "People of industry stood up and said, 'We are going to get it right,' and we are getting it right."
Indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.3 incidents of injury and illness per 100 oil and gas workers in 2011. That's compared with 3.5 incidents per 100 for the entire private sector. The U.S. offshore industry experienced an even lower rate.
Also in 2011, precisely zero pipeline workers experienced injuries or illnesses as a result of their jobs. This accomplishment is all the more impressive given trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of gallons of oil traverse U.S. pipelines every year.
Federal data also show improvements in spill rates. A 2012 Interior Department report examined spill records from 1996 through 2010 (the year of the Deepwater Horizon incident). Researchers found offshore spill frequency was "relatively low," despite the Gulf spill.
Unfortunately, environmental groups ignore this excellent safety and environmental record. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently opined: "We need stronger safeguards and increased oversight to reduce the risk of accidents." She went on to argue that "we need to prioritize safer forms of energy that don't threaten the lives of our workers and foul our waters."
Beinecke is exaggerating and forgetting. The density, scalability, and portability of oil, gas, and coal make them affordable, reliable, and flexible for average consumers. Wind turbines and solar panels are expensive, intermittent, and inflexible -- and have their own set of health and safety issues.
As reported by Paul Chesser of the National Legal and Policy Center, 2,000 pallets of unsold solar panels were recently discovered in Colorado and have been labeled toxic for cadmium. The company that manufactured the panels was Abound Solar, which received $70 million in federal stimulus loan guarantees before going belly-up.
Turns out Abound Solar had been producing 630 pounds of cadmium-compounds waste every month. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, some solar waste products are "end-of-life" level hazards.
And wind turbines don't just kill birds by the thousands. They also present significant safety risks to humans. According to the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, 162 industry accidents were documented worldwide in 2011. Blade failure was more common than structural failure or fire. Since the 1970s, 133 fatalities have occurred on turbines -- a high figure considering the relatively small size of the wind sector.
You might not know it from the media, but based on what we know, "alternative" energies are hardly cleaner, greener, or safer.
Robert L. Bradley Jr. is founder and CEO of the Institute for Energy Research and author of seven books on energy, the most recent being Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies (Scrivener Press and John Wiley & Sons: 2011).