America has experienced two energy-related disasters in the past month, and though they involved different technologies and occurred in different parts of the country, they had one thing in common: fossil fuels.
On April 5, a massive accident at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 people and injured 2 others.
On April 20, the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and continues to send 20,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf every day.
The mine collapse and oil explosion follow on the heels of the third catastrophe, the massive coal ash spill when a dam near a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee burst in December, 2008, spreading coal waste ash and sludge into nearby homes and farmlands.
These tragic incidents illustrate in vivid detail the tremendous, usually hidden cost of our addiction to dirty carbon energy sources and why Congress must adopt comprehensive climate and energy legislation. Such legislation will unleash clean energy, encourage energy efficiency and reduce our dependence on coal and oil.
Cleaner technologies already exist that can free us from the hazards of America’s energy policy. Because the most alarming thing about April’s fossil fuel disasters is that they are not unique. There is a pattern here.
The Santa Barbara and Exxon Valdez oil spills are well known, but there are plenty of recent incidents as well. In the fall of 2009, a massive oil spill occurred off the coast of Australia at a supposedly state-of-the-art facility. The spill ultimately dumped tens of thousands of gallons of oil, covering over 20,000 square miles of sea, and taking 10 weeks to bring under control.
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike destroyed oil platforms, tanks, and pipelines throughout the Gulf of Mexico, releasing at least a half million gallons of crude oil. Previously, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused 125 spills from platforms, rigs, and pipelines in the OCS, releasing almost 685,000 gallons of petroleum products.
The impacts of such spills are long-term. According to the National Academy of Sciences, current cleanup methods can only remove a small fraction of the oil spilled into the ocean, leaving the remaining oil to continue affecting ocean ecosystems over time.
Coal mining casts a similarly long shadow over Appalachia. While mining fatalities have declined to a yearly average of 30 deaths, the culture of lax safety regulation and environmental enforcement has put miners’ lives and mining communities at risk.
Mining companies are clear cutting thousands of acres of some of the world's most biologically diverse forests. They're filling local rivers and streams with blasted debris, polluting drinking water with toxic waste. MTR coal mining sites, which can exceed 10 square miles, have already leveled more than 470 summits so far.
And these are just the visible hazards of fossil fuel extraction. As Paul Krugman recently pointed out in the New York Times, the one we can’t see may be the most dangerous: the global warming pollution released when we burn oil and coal. This pollution will lead not only to extreme and costly weather events, but also greater civil unrest and forced migration around the globe, according to the Pentagon and CIA.
We don’t have to sacrifice the Gulf of Mexico, the mountains of Appalachia, or the well-being of fellow human beings in order to power our economy.
More fuel-efficient cars and plug-in hybrids, better rail and public transit can slash our need for oil, while more energy efficient buildings and renewable power can reduce our need for coal plants.
These are the technologies that will put Americans to work, protect our coastal fishing and tourism industries, and preserve marine life and mountains from fossil fuel extraction.