BP Oil Crisis and Massey Coal Disaster Bring Blame Home

A cyclist commutes to work alongside a car. It's a hard truth that, without our voracious demand for cheap combustible energy, none of this -- the oil spill, the mining disaster -- would have happened.
A cyclist commutes to work alongside a car. It's a hard truth that, without our voracious demand for cheap combustible energy, none of this -- the oil spill, the mining disaster -- would have happened.

Is BP (BP) to blame for the massive oil leak that killed 11 oil workers and now threatens shorelines and estuaries in Louisiana and several states, as well as Gulf of Mexico marine birds, sperm whales, sea turtles and spawning bluefin tuna?

Is Massey Energy (MEE) at fault for safety violations (and possibly a series of bribes to government officials) that facilitated the recent coal mine tragedy in West Virginia, killing 25?

Or should we blame government policies that allow the companies to continue dangerous and environmentally risky work to tap energy resources? Let's shine a light on the financial markets that finance these environmentally dodgy operations just because it's profitable -- isn't that the real root cause?

Our Voracious Demand

While all of these parties surely share a large measure of culpability, we've all got a hand in these terrible events. It's a hard truth that, without our voracious demand for cheap combustible energy, none of this would have happened.

Worldwide production and consumption of oil is about 85.5 million barrels -- 3.6 billion gallons -- each day, or 1.3 trillion gallons a year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S. by itself is responsible for about 22.8% of total world petroleum consumption. Nearly half of the oil used in the U.S. is for personal vehicles, and 71% is for transportation overall, the difference being the jet fuel and diesel fuel that power the trucks and trains that haul our food, clothes, books and big screen TVs around the country.

As for coal, it accounts for 23% of U.S. energy consumption. Most of that is converted to electricity to run everything besides transportation, such us our homes, street lights, traffic lights, shopping malls and other components of modern life. Coal-derived electricity makes up about half of the overall electricity consumption in this country.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

It's no secret that burning coal and petroleum in power plants and vehicles releases most of the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide; in the U.S., 78.4% of carbon dioxide emissions were from those two fuel sources, and the rest from natural gas. It's quite clear that driving cars, flying in airplanes, and powering homes and factories is a problem for greenhouse gas emissions.

It's hard to escape our part in these environmental disasters -- though we certainly do an excellent job of deluding ourselves that we can't restrain our consumption. Just a 14% reduction of driving would mean all U.S.-based oil production could stop immediately. We use 39.9 million barrels of oil a day to drive, and total U.S. oil production is just 5.6 million barrels a day (a shocking 1% of which is currently leaking in the Gulf of Mexico).

Sadly, as U.S. production goes, our global share of disasters isn't even a drop in the bucket of oil-choked fish. While the scale of the BP oil spill is still just a guess (ranging to 15 million gallons so far), we know that the Exxon Valdez spilled about 10 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska -- yet it was only the 34th biggest oil spill ever. The top 10 oil spills of all time all occurred far from our shores, between 1978 and 1991. Collectively they average more than 100 million gallons each -- although the outlier, a purposeful spill in Kuwait as a defensive military strategy, was 520 million gallons alone.

The Blame Game

Just as when Exxon Mobil's (XMO) oil tanker ran aground in 1989, there's now a flurry of finger-pointing. One finger-pointer, President Barack Obama, intoned Sunday, "Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak. BP will be paying the bill." BP would rather blame its equipment (a Transocean (RIG) drilling rig) or bad luck.

The collapse of the West Virginia coal mine has been blamed on lax safety standards. Alternative methods of coal extraction are being discussed, with their relative safety and economy. Still, coal mining isn't going away.

President Obama read on camera a chilling letter from a miner who died: "Take care of my baby. Tell her that daddy loves her, she's beautiful, she's funny." It's not just that the baby girl is left behind; it's that the letter was left behind, because her daddy knew there was a good chance that one day he wouldn't make it home, that he could die underground mining coal to feed our hunger.

The 36 dead in these two disasters didn't significantly bump up the numbers of workplace fatalities for 2010. In 2008, the most recent data available, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 5,071 total deaths in the workplace, making the coal and oil. The biggest source of deaths? "Transportation incidents," 2,053 of them in 2008, just another cost of our oil consumption.

Making the Connections

I remember how I felt watching the TV news reports of the oil-soaked sea birds and marine mammals dotting the shores of the Prince William Sound in 1989. Barely a teenager, I sobbed for the wildlife, the dead sea birds, the people of Alaska. I raged at Exxon. I don't remember making the connection to the fact that I was learning to drive.

Today I have little rage toward oil companies and coal companies. They are, after all, doing a service for billions of us with their gas tanks and electricity meters. We're all to blame. Though I no longer drive, though I live in a city (Portland, Ore.) where I can choose renewable sources of electricity (wind farms and hydroelectric power), the spill weighs heavily on my soul.

How can we stop causing such terrible disasters? It's not easy, surely; it takes a recalibration of our true needs. "But I must drive" -- to work, to the grocery store, to pick up your children from school, to take your mother to the hospital, you may be saying to yourself. I know people who chose a job that paid $20,000 more each year with an 80-mile round-trip, people who need to live in roomy suburbs and commute to the city, people whose needs for consumption and activities and the right schools require driving each day, spending hours on the road in the service of more money, more opportunity, more stuff.

Rearranging Your Life, Making Different Choices

I have three small children and a husband. I picked my home, in a so-so neighborhood, because of its proximity to bus lines and bike lanes. I gave up my car four years ago for a bicycle. I take my boys to school on the bike, I get my groceries on the bike. When I went into labor with my third son, I splurged on the bus.

I work from home, but I go to interviews and meetings and on business trips via bike and public transportation. It's a little hard at times, but it's truly a life-affirming choice that keeps me sane in the face of environmental disasters.

Here's the estimated death toll from the Exxon Valdez spill: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, along with billions of salmon and herring eggs. By all estimates, the BP oil leak will be worse. It will destroy oyster beds and shrimp grounds, threaten pelican nests and the habitat of otters and minks.

Sooner or later, economic forces will, I'm sure, force many more of us to make choices like mine. Our driving won't keep increasing forever. Surely our use of coal power will eventually be limited by common sense and punitive emissions restrictions. But if more of us could face ourselves in the mirror and pin the blame for this disaster on our our own choices and habits, perhaps the next disaster could be averted.

Originally published