Have you noticed a trend in the news recently? In April a methane explosion in a West Virginia coal mine killed 25 miners. Later that month an explosion sank the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon, and the oil is still leaking. Eleven workers died, and the enormous environmental damage to animals, plant life, and the economy in the region is only beginning to be estimated. Then on Monday a natural-gas line in Texas erupted, sending a fireball into the air and killing one worker.
Yes, accidents will always happen in every human endeavor. And, yes, the energy companies may have neglected safety precautions that could have prevented these tragic events. But there's a more important common thread between these incidents than corporate malfeasance.
We are paying a terrible price for our profligate energy use. We use considerably more energy than countries with comparable climates and development levels such as Australia, Japan, France, and Germany. We use more than twice as much per capita as the U.K. The only countries that use more than we do on a per capita basis are little, oil-rich, overheated desert hamlets like Qatar and Bahrain. Immediately above us sits Canada, which is considerably colder, less densely populated, and also has such a high footprint in part because it has a lot of energy-intensive extraction industries.
For all the debate about whether offshore oil drilling in particular is too risky, the larger truth is simple: we are digging deeper oil wells and deeper mines because we have used almost all the readily available fossil fuels. Going after this harder-to-reach energy is riskier, for the environment and for the workers.
American policy, from the various subsidies for homeownership to the Interstate Highway System and massive imbalance between funding for roads and mass transit, has been based on the assumption that owning a detached house in the suburbs and driving everywhere is a good thing. There are plenty of reasons—from climate change to the epidemic of obesity to the Jim Crow levels of school segregation wrought by suburbanization—to disagree with that premise. Now you can add the accidental deaths of American energy company workers to that side of the ledger. If that is not enough to change the political calculus in favor of adopting comprehensive energy reform, nothing is.