WHERE HAS COMMON SENSE GONE? No. 16, Thomas Paine – February 2011
I have continued to wonder about the Federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling. The courts have found the moratorium to be illegal. This has been viewed by the present Administration as a setback and accordingly emphasis has shifted to dramatically extend the Permit to Drill process, in effect negating the findings of the court. Now it appears the Minerals Management Branch will issue an occasional permit so to avoid the appearance of total non-compliance with the court finding. Is this bureaucratic chicanery or merely bureaucratic bungling and ineptitude? Sometimes it is pretty hard to tell the difference since the various levels of Government have such a poor track record in responding to major events in a timely and appropriate manner. One need only look back as far as Hurricane Katrina to find an example of even more death, damage and disruption than was caused by the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Government’s response to Katrina was subjected to justified criticism at the time. Even though the cause of the Katrina disaster was quickly diminished the significant after effects remain to this day.
We should not gloss-over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It was the largest oil spill in history in U.S. coastal waters. It did a very large amount of environmental damage and it killed eleven people in the process. It also took the Washington bureaucrats several days to even recognize it was going on and a further several weeks to mount any sort of coordinated action in the way of a response. Even then various Federal Agencies continued to pursue independently from one another oil spill related actions that were often detrimental to oil containment efforts. In short there was a complete lack of strong and effective leadership at any level in the Federal Government.
Where Has Common Sense Gone?
Hold on one might say! It is not really possible to accurately relate a natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) to a man-made disaster (Deepwater Horizon). I am not at all sure this view is correct since both disasters required a pivotal action by Government and Government mostly failed to respond in an effective and timely manner.
However, to avoid comparing apples to oranges, we should stick to relating like kind occurrences. We could try to examine Government actions and motives in a more normalized arena. The energy extraction industry would make a good model, for example. Let’s do a little analytical comparison between hydrocarbons and coal, the two largest energy supplying resources in the United States and utilize that comparison to assess whether or not we believe the Government is hypocritical, biased, and possibly inept as opposed to being acute and actively engaged for the best interests of ALL the people.
Comparing some of the basic characteristics of the coal extraction industry to the hydrocarbon extraction industry, we find the following.
|Coal||Hydrocarbons (Gas and OIL Combined)|
Labor force unionized and shrinking.
Labor force non-union and growing.
|Creates the most atmospheric pollution.||Creates a moderate amount of atmospheric.
|Including mercury and leaves a substantial amount of harmful residue.
|pollution but leaves little residue.|
|The number one energy source for electric electric power production in the U.S.||The third largest energy source for electric power production in the U.S.(nuclear is #2).
|Used by many people every day in the U.S. as an energy source for electricity and heat.||Used by all people in the U.S. every day as an energy source for electricity and heat or as a raw material source for thousands of other products derived from hydrocarbons and as an energy source for transportation needs.
|Many harmful health effects to those persons involved in the extraction process.||Few to no harmful health effects to those persons involved in the extraction process.|
Now we should examine some of the historical details of coal and hydrocarbon extraction in the U.S. in order to further put the two activities into perspective.
Of the ten largest oil spills in U.S. history number one was the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The fourth largest spill was actually multiple spills over a very large area resulting from Hurricane Katrina. Most of these spills did not result from the extraction process but rather from the transportation, storage and refining processes. However, for simplicity sake, we will treat them all collectively since they did occur over a very close time interval and it is not always possible to distinguish the actual hydrocarbon source even though the cause of the spill is clear.
The remaining eight of ten largest U.S. oil spills had nothing to do with the extraction process but rather with the shipping industry, which within the US is a closed shop by virtue of government decree and restrictive government competency licensing.
What about worker deaths? In this regard we should be very very clear. Death of a worker resulting from anything other than natural causes is a tragedy and must be recognized as such since all accidents are preventable if sufficient care is exercised.
I did however undertake to provide a short comparison between the coal and hydrocarbon extraction industries and therefore it is appropriate to look at worker deaths resulting from on the job events.
Since 2001 there have been 69 oil workers killed on the job in the US. Of these 69, thirteen were killed in offshore rig accidents, of which the Deepwater Horizon disaster accounted for eleven deaths. The remainder were killed in other activities incumbent on the hydrocarbon industry but not drilling related and in most of the cases not even while offshore.
Since 2001 there has been an average of over 60 deaths per year resulting from U S coal mine accidents inside the mines. The very same month of the Deepwater Horizon disaster 29 miners were killed in a single accident in West Virginia.
Now let’s look at some of the effects resulting from coal and hydrocarbon extraction activity. As of this date there are no known continuing offshore leaks from previously drilled or currently drilling oil or gas wells in US waters. At the same time there are estimated to be more than 200 underground fires burning in active or abandoned U S coal mines. Let’s look at some examples of these fires and their resulting effects.
The Red Ash Mine Fire
This fire started on the property of the Red Ash Coal Company in Laurel Run, PA. The fire was discovered around 1915. The coal company took measures to put it out, such as sealing openings and flushing tunnels. They thought it was out, until in 1922 when it was in fact found that the fire had spread to additional underground coal seams. It the 1960’s people along the border of Wilkes-Barre Township and Laurel Run had to leave homes, schools, shops, and churches because of the fire. Smoke and stream vent from pipes along several holes that connect to the mines. The fire is still burning today. Steam and smoke can be seen from the valley below in several spots.
The West Side Mine Fire
This fire has been burning in the vicinity of Dundaff Street in Carbondale, PA. since before the 1960’s. In the 60’s people got sick from the carbon monoxide gas and one person died. Close to 600 families had to move out of the neighborhood over the years because of this fire. It is still burning.
There are other places in Pennsylvania where underground coal fires burn. Pennsylvania has over 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands and has more than one-third of the nations mine problems. There are 45 mine fires burning across Pennsylvania. There are five underground fires in Allegheny County, five in Percy County, one in Westmoreland, and others in more isolated areas. There are also fires in Findlay Trap, West Elizabeth, Plum, and Clinton. “In all, the Department of Environmental Protection estimates about 1,300 acres across the state are on fire underground.” One particular town, Youngstown, is strongly affected by the Percy fire that has been burning for over 30 years. There are about 60 homes resting on top of this fire now. Youngstown is reaching the critical decision point that Centralia reached in 1983, either extinguish the fire or relocate the whole town. Estimates conclude that extinguishing the Percy fire will cost $30 to $40 million, and over $650 million to put out all coal fires nationwide . (How can the Government extract 20 billion dollars from B.P. for their large oil spill yet take no effective action with respect to coal mine fires?)
Where Has Common Sense Gone?
Does the Government believe it is too difficult to extinguish an underground coal fire? The deeper underground a coal fire is located the harder it becomes to extinguish. However, the Government has also done very little to help extinguish near surface coal fires either.
The Government was quick to state (and rightfully so) deep water oil spills are hard to control. This true statement has been utilized to craft the Government’s contention that deep water drilling must not continue until all Government concerns, reasonable or unreasonable, have been satisfied. Does this not leave the Government in a hopelessly hypocritical position?
If underground coal fires are so hard to stop, then why has mining been allowed to continue before sufficient effort is made to find a solution to the fire problem?
If underground coal fires are not so hard to stop, then why has Government not helped remediate the problem? The sheer number of fires burning is proof enough there is a serious problem.
You may have already heard the story of Centralia, PA, a coal mining town that had some 1,000 inhabitants at its peak. Now, that population is down to 9. It has become a ghost town for one of the most inept reasons imaginable–a fire, started in 1962, was largely ignored, and subsequently spread to a coal seam underground and has simply never stopped burning. All initial efforts failed to control the fire as government officials delayed taking any real action to save the village. By the early 1980s the fire had affected approximately 200 acres and homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide levels reached life threatening levels. An engineering study concluded in 1983 that “the fire could burn for another century or even more and could conceivably spread over an area of approximately 3,700 acres.”
Why after so many years has the Government never ordered the coal mining industry to develop the equipment and technology that will effectively extinguish an underground coal fire? This approach of complete control is the present approach used to curtail offshore drilling. Today, the administration is actively preventing offshore drilling, displacing thousands of workers and helping to diminish the supply of oil while driving up the cost of hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon related products. All this during a time of national financial stress and high unemployment. The Government even seems immune to any recognition that current strife in the Mid-East is helping raise the price of a barrel of oil to nearly $100. No mention has been made of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the millions of barrels of oil that have been bought with taxpayer money and sequestered for emergency use.
Does the Government recognize an emergency when it sees one? Safety for workers and safety for the environment is the stated reason for suspending all drilling offshore in deep water. These concerns are said to outweigh any other National consideration. If true, should not this same standard be applied to the coal mining industry which has a safety record not nearly so good as the drilling industry? With the exception of the Deepwater Horizon disaster the US offshore drilling industry has enjoyed a very remarkable record of safety. As shameful and harmful as the Deepwater Horizon event was, it was a single event, and it is beyond me why reaction to this event should be applied cart blanche to an entire industry while literally ignoring multiple serious events in an alternate industry .
Is this chicanery designed to help promote a flawed national green agenda? Is it Government pandering to a voter base composed mainly of liberals and union supporters? Is it complete ineptitude, or is it a result of genuine concern for the offshore workers? You choose!
In my case I believe it is all of the above are concerns and I have ranked them in descending order in accord with what I perceive the Government’s priorities to be.
Even though it is not part of our analysis, it is worth mentioning there are many other underground coal fires in other countries. Underground coal fires in China are estimated to contribute 3% of the annual carbon dioxide entering the earth’s atmosphere. This is more carbon dioxide than is produced by every automobile in the U.S in one year. I hope the EPA takes note of this.
So now I leave you to form your own conclusions. Does the Government really have an interest in all Americans on an unbiased basis or does the Government, especially the present Administration, practice hypocrisy of the highest order? Is an environmental catastrophe on land any less important than an environmental catastrophe offshore? The US Department of the Interior has jurisdiction over both areas. Should we not recall that Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, has a long and demonstrable record of particular animosity towards the drilling industry? Are these people really good for America?
Where has Common Sense Gone!?