During his State of the Union Address at the end of this past February, President Barack Obama stated that, "...to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America." That night I posted as my Facebook status update something along the lines of, "Mr. Obama, you could have had me at 'climate bill,' but don't you know that there is no such thing as 'clean' coal, 'safe' nuclear or responsible offshore drilling'?" I posted similar tweets and grumbled for several more weeks about his claims, especially as he gave the green light for licensing one of the first new nuclear plants to be built in approximately three decades (basically, in my lifetime), and reversed bans on offshore drilling in most of the coastal waters of the U.S. this past March.
It seems cruelly ironic that less then two months after reversing this ban, that the fossil fuel industry was beset by two tragic explosions that occurred within weeks of each other, the latter incident of which we are still experiencing the repercussions of, and may for several decades. I am of course, first referring to an underground mine blast that occured in early April in the greater Charleston area of West Virginia that claimed the lives of 29 miners.
The mine in question is owned and operated by Massey Energy, a company partly (and in fact, largely) culpable for destroying vast swaths Appalachian moutain ranges through a practice of coal extraction known as Mountain-Top Removal (MTR), as well as devastating local towns and communities. In the wake of the tragedy, which is now considered the worst underground mine accident in nearly 40 years, news of multiple safety violations and fines incurred by the hundreds on the part of Massey were reported in the national news. This included reports of dangerous methane build-up, which can catalyze explosions, and which is currently thought to have occurred with this particular incident.
But hey, when you are a multi-billion dollar industry, what is a few fines here and there of a few thousand dollars? And what is a few lives? Of course, Massey CEO Doug Blakenship was quoted as saying in the Christian Science Monitor (see last hyperlink), that their company cares more about its workers than "black rock." But actions do speak louder than words, and just a few days later, Massey refused to let other miners on their employee roll have a day off of work to attend the funeral of their dead co-workers, refused to let workers or residents hang wreaths or put candles at the site of the accident, and threatened several workers with termination if they spoke to the press. I often complain about our dirty energy and the risks we have to take to get it, as an argument to start banning or quickly phasing it out. On a smaller scale, though, knowing that my energy is tied to this type of company, which treats human lives like fodder or simply eggs to be broken to make their million dollar omelets, bothers me in a deeply more personal way. It makes me feel like everytime I turn on a light switch, I am staining my hands with blood only I can see.
I think it's important to hold Massey's feet to the fire on this one--contact the company and let them know you don't agree with their blatant disregard for human life and our fragile ecosystems.
At this point, news of the mine blast investigations has all but drifted in obscurity, as an oil rig in the Gulf region, known as the Deepwater Horizon rig, exploded a few weeks later on April 20th. The explosion has presumably claimed the lives of 11 workers who have yet to be found since the incident, and was immediately followed by what is reportedly shaping up to be the worst oil spill in our nation's history, potentially even eclipsing the infamous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. In terms of the quantity of the spill, the figures being reported keep changing. What began as modest estimates of barely a 1,000 barrels a day by British Petroleum quickly escalated as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contended that the spill may be leaking up to 5,000 barrels a day. Another independent group called SkyTruth, which makes estimates based on access to satellite imagery data, has gone on record to report that the spill is more likely leaking in the 20-25,000 per day range, as estimate also relayed recently by the Wall Street Journal.
As with the Massey mine blast, it took a tragedy to spotlight that safety precautions and provisions were overlooked and the danger was vastly underestimated by government officials and the industry. Specifically, the Mineral Management Service (MMS), switched methods to adopt a hands-off approach to monitoring offshore oil rigs under the preceding presidential administration . For instance, in 2003, the MMS reversed an ealier rule which required that offshore oil rigs be equipped with something called an "acoustic switch," which is essentially a remote-controlled back up system that would automatically shut off underwater wells during an emergency. More recently, the MMS filed its Environmental Impact Statement of the site in 2007, declaring that an oil spill was highly "unlikely," and just last year declared that BP was well-equipped to deal effectively and efficiently with a worst-case scenario spill. These are just a few of the shortcomings that led to this disaster, as reported this week in a scathing article by Mother Jones.
Luckily, so far, there have been no reports of mass mortalities of ocean-dependent wildlife species, though it is still too early to tell. Even if we do manage to escape an oil-slicked mass cull of our wildlife along the Gulf Coast, effects on species will be felt for years to come in ways not visible to us yet. The region is already host to one of the hemisphere's largest "dead zones," which stretches about 7,000 square miles, and the recent spill most likely will increase it. Also, the oil spill threatens to contribute to excerbating the acidification of the ocean, a phenomenon instigated by climate change that is guilty of threatening our shell fish and coral reefs, both key species of the ocean ecosystem, with extinction.
Though the incident did spur the Obama Administration to temporarily suspend its plans to expand offshore drilling, it is currently only until supposed safety provisions are reviewed and rectified. Unfortunately, the nature of the system makes it probably that such an incident will occur again. Dealing with innately volatile and incendiary substances such as oil, coal and nuclear waste, deems that it will always be vulnerable (and what if this had been a nuclear explosion?) to such disasters. And yes, though better MMS monitoring and stricter guidelines could have prevented this case, the nature of the business, which bows to financial interests, has proven time and again that safety, human and animal lives and the environment are just some of the casualities that come with making money. This is even in the case of ventures such as offshore drilling, which would only serve to meet our energy need by less than 1%.
But there is good news. As with the first Earth Day, that coincided with the creation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the implementation of the Clean Water and Air Acts, visible calamities often inspire much-needed paradigm shifts. This past Wednesday, National Public Radio's OnPoint welcomed Steve Chu, the Administration's Secretary of Energy. who defended the Administration's position on keeping offshore drilling on the table for a long-term energy plan. The heartening aspect, is that not one caller, or e-mailer into the show agreed with him, and all responders called for a new energy plan and climate bill that was truly radical by emphasizing conservation and renewable energy.
Getting personal here: as the daughter of a drug addict, I understand the language of addicts. I have heard the spiel from an addict who insists s/he can "manage," the addition, using just enough to feed a basic need, and looking for alternatives elsewhere. It never works...and the language used by Chu and Obama smack of old-fashioned addict-denial rhetoric that distracts from seeking genuine rehabilitation.
I think the American people are ready for real change, with real answers. And so, I offer options to engage in that change, instead of just reading the computer screen helplessly. There is work to be done here! First, 350.org has a petition on its website to the Obama Administration to permanently ban offshore drilling. The organization has also created a Facebook page to support a ban on offshore oil drilling expansion, which you can join here if you have an account. If you live near the Gulf Coast, you can register to volunteer with the blockade and clean-up efforts by going to this link. You can also donate to Tri-State Bird Rescue, which will be overseeing bird rescues from the spill, or donate to other wildlife rescuse crews or groups that are part of the effort. Interestingly, human hair and pet fur are used to clean up oil spills, as they are absorbent and gentle on the environment, so if you or your doggy friend are due for a trim, consider packaging up the trimmings and mailing it out. For more information about this, check out this link.
On a larger scale, though, the most important thing you can do, is write, call or visit your Congressional Representatives and State Senators and let them know you support a ban to dirty and dangerous energy ike new coal-fired power plants and offshore oil rigs, and instead support a progressive climate bill that will help propel clean energy into the mainstream, like the cap-and-dividend bill I described in my last post. Go to Congress.org to find the contact info for your elected representatives.
Stay tuned next week when I cover the goings on here in Massachusetts regarding Cape Wind. To stay up to date with the latest postings, please consider joining Writing for Survival's Facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter.