Oil and coal worker fatalities aren't worth limited energy savings

offshore drilling and new coal drilling not worth the lives lostExactly one month ago, President Obama announced that he will proceed with offshore oil exploration as part of his broader energy plan. In addition to funding the development of alternative energy sources like wind, solar and biofuels, the plan will open up a chunk of the Atlantic coast of the United States, from Virginia to Florida, along with much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, for new oil and natural gas exploration.

However, drilling here and drilling now, as the phrase goes, can't literally happen "now." And it won't by any means put a dent in the expected hike in our gasoline prices this summer, or next winter's home heating prices, or the following summer's gas prices for that matter.

Additionally, even when it's discovered and drilling begins in all of the areas detailed in the president's plan, the Interior Department estimates that there's only a 3-year supply of oil and a 2-year supply of natural gas in those areas. My question is obviously: what then? This frenzy of offshore drilling fever doesn't seem to match the relatively limited supply. And it seems like an awfully big risk for a very short-term boost in resources.

Regarding "risk," the president said something a few days after his announcement that I'm sure he regrets today.

On April 2 at a town hall event in Charlotte, N.C., the president said, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."


The only thing that could have made that quote less fortunate was if the president had delivered it while standing in front of a "Safe Oil Drilling" banner on the deck of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig -- the rig that would later explode, killing 11 workers and spilling a 28,600-square-mile sea of oil in the Gulf.

A far cry from "oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." You can probably expect to hear this quote played over and over again over video of the oil slick on fire, or over video of oil covered birds, or over television headlines announcing that the oil spill has exceeded the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 (11 million gallons spilled). I'm sure you'll hear this quote aired in the vicinity of the funeral for the workers who were killed when the rig exploded and sunk into the ocean.

You might recall, too, during the 2008 campaign, Senator McCain was scheduled to visit an oil rig to discuss his "drill, baby, drill" proposals when, nearby, a barge collided with a tanker spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Mississippi River.

There weren't any fatalities in that incident. But offshore oil drilling is certainly a risky occupation. Since 2001, 69 oil workers have been killed on the job, with more than 1,300 injuries and around 800 fires, according to the Minerals Management Service.

But the number of oil drilling fatalities doesn't even come close to the number of coal mining fatalities in America. Since 2001, there have been more than 60 deaths per year in coal mines, with annual injuries in the tens of thousands.

That brings up another prong of the president's energy plan: clean coal. In brief, clean coal has been a part of his platform since he first decided to run for president, and he hopes to develop new ways of sequestering the carbon emissions from the burning of coal as a means of decreasing the fuel's impact on climate change. This would ostensibly allow us to use our vast "Saudi Arabia"-sized reserves of coal as a domestic source of energy.

Yet there isn't a workable clean coal solution on the table, with energy companies resisting the development of the prohibitively expensive technology. And since the president last mentioned his clean coal plan back in February, there have been two coal mine disasters. The first and, in fact, largest coal mining disaster in 25 years occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 workers were killed when the poorly ventilated facility exploded due to a build-up of deadly gasses.

And today, one worker was killed and another is missing when a shaft collapsed at a coal mine in Kentucky.

Two coal mining disasters and one major oil spill in the span of a single month. It's really no wonder why the president has subsequently shifted from climate and energy to immigration and financial reform.

It's politically feasible to work your way around a minor spill. I barely remember the spill that forced Senator McCain to cancel his "drill, baby, drill" event. But there's no getting around the death toll.

These are dangerous, deadly sources of energy. When it comes to oil, the domestic fatalities are relatively minor when compared with the deaths that have accompanied the acquisition of foreign oil -- too many of those deaths being American soldiers. And coal mining doesn't appear to be getting any safer, at least with increasingly loud Republican opposition to strengthening regulations on corporations, be they financial institutions or energy companies.

With clean coal energy and offshore reserves years away, it seems as though a Manhattan Project for clean, safe, affordable domestic energy is in order. If we were able to come up with an entire military industrial complex and two atomic weapons in a span of less than four years, there's no reason why we can't achieve similarly big goals with energy. It might not reduce your price at the pump tomorrow or next month, but neither will dirty, deadly, old-school energy sources.

By the way, speaking of the Manhattan Project, I'm just glad the president didn't make a big push for more nuclear power plants -- oh wait. He did. Uh-oh.
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