Explosions in the Gulf are a Symptom, Not an Anomaly

I’m a bit late getting to this story, but as of yet, the 11 missing personnel from the big explosion aboard an off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico are still unaccounted for. I send my hope to those families, most of whom live constantly with the threat of fatality hanging over their lives and livelihood. Much in the same way families described their existence in the wake of the coal mine disaster a few weeks ago, the roughnecks and assorted other workers on the rig know that they risk their lives to do their jobs. One former rig worker, Rusty Galloway put it this way:

“They come from small towns where the oil field is their life. The fears that these people have, it’s life and death out there. You risk your life for a lot of money.”

It’s absolutely true. A huge portion of the energy economy, predicated as it is on dangerous and dirty extraction, depends on workers who are willing to defy death each day in order to make sure our homes are heated, our cars run, and our lights come on at night. In both instances, the accident was a rarity, at least in the United States. In other countries where Big Energy has its hands (China, for example), it’s not quite the same story. But the fact remains that the profession is a risky one no matter where the site is and the workers know that.

To me, however, the story is not so much the tragedy of losing personnel in a dangerous profession. The problem is that the risk is tied to the promise of big pay; workers would not be doing it if it weren’t worth it. That so many people are willing to forego the risk speaks to the power and influence that Big Oil and Big Coal have. We are addicted to these things, in a way that makes more deaths like these assured. Now, I’m not suggesting that alternative forms of energy are some walk in the park. Pictures of workers atop giant wind turbines makes clear just how dangerous green energy can be. The difference is that the risk involved with oil, coal, and natural gas is not borne solely by the workers who extract and refine these resources. We all shoulder the burden. The CSM article adds, almost as an afterthought, that the environmental impact of the explosion and fire on the still burning rig is not expected to be that great. I suppose that it’s relatively less of an impact than, say, Exxon-Valdez or Centralia, where an underground coal mine fire is still burning 47 years later.

Unfortunately, these things are not isolated unto themselves. It’s a cumulative effect. Every gallon of oil spilled, every cubic ton of smoke and fumes released, every inch of mountain-top removed adds up and in the long run, we all pay for it. Not just with higher heating bills or tanks of gas, but with the slowly creeping threat of an unlivable world. I can practically hear the scoffs from the opposition to clean energy. “We puny humans can’t possibly have an impact like that!” Please tell that to the whale washed up on the shore with nothing but garbage in its stomach, the divers who have watched the coral reefs decimated by increasingly acidic oceans, or the natives in Alaska still dealing the ramifications of oil and sludge in their waterways. Alone, the smoke from this one oil rig may not be dire, but looking at the list of deaths in the link above, some of which were surely accompanied by explosions and fire, and the fumes begin to add up.

The money offered to energy workers, may of whom don’t have any other economic options, doesn’t make up for the cost we all share from the use of dwindling dirty resources. These same under-educated folks who see an oil rig or gas field or coal mine as a means to escape poverty could easily be moved into tending bio-fuel farms, servicing turbines and solar panels, and building a new power grid. People go where the money is, plain and simple. This most recent disaster likely won’t dampen the screams of “drill, baby, drill” but we can hold out hope that it might give a few people pause. Death is an inevitability with fossil fuel; health risks and environmental hazard are intrinsically linked to their very existence. Accidents like this one and the loss of 25 miners in WV don’t happen often but they happen often enough that we should at least start looking elsewhere for our sources of power.


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