Saturday, May 3, 2008

Safer Energy Choices for the US: Worker Fatality Comparison of Traditional and Renewable Energy Sources

We have heard so much in this class and in the media about the effects of our energy choices on the environment and I have to wonder why we don’t hear at least a little more about the direct effects petroleum and coal use have on our health and life. My project – a podcast – addressed the fatalities in the coal and petroleum industry and compared them to what we currently know and can project for solar and wind energy generation. I now sort of wish I had written a paper because there is so much to cover on this topic that I am very passionate about. I learned a lot about my topic that I wasn’t able to cover in the podcast but I also learned a lot about the technology involved in making a podcast (which I was completely ignorant of beforehand).

I first became concerned with these energy related fatalities when my boyfriend began working at a consulting firm about three years ago. In short, the firm does risk consulting for major companies like BP, Total, Shell, the government, etc and I now know there are many explosions (and reasons for them) the public never hears about. And there are many, many risks the general public would never think of. You can see some of this for yourself if you do a little searching online. The site even provides some video of the depositions given by BP industry execs pertaining to the Texas City explosion. I obtained permission to use this in my podcast, but I didn’t use it because of time constraints. I didn’t know it was okay to significantly exceed the eight minute limit.

I chose my topic because I don’t understand how we can ignore the people in the world who suffer for the choices we make. This is a very complex problem; coal and petroleum do a lot of for us because of their energy density. And until recently most people didn’t think we had any other choices with which to fuel our lives. Much of the energy we use has been for developing medications, powering our hospitals, etc. In short, we need a lot of energy. But we also use a lot of energy that we do not need. And now, with all of the controversy surrounding the environmental and supply (“peak oil”) arguments for the development of renewable energy and all of the complexities involved in national security, I think we should focus more than we have thus far on the indisputable, direct impact of our energy choices. People die in significant numbers in mine collapses and in petroleum refineries. The numbers may not seem high when one considers how much energy we get from the coal that is mined and the petroleum that is refined. But I have to wonder: why should these people die when there are other options?

In the podcast I covered fatality statistics for the coal and petroleum (energy, not chemical) industries and gave the current and some projected statistics for solar and wind energy. I felt I didn’t have time to cover the fatalities that result from the air/water/soil pollution from coal and petroleum use. This is a documented and very real problem, though our government does not think our health warrants a greater change in industry standards (

I found that the coal industry provides concise, easy to understand and accessible data on mining fatalities. They are updated daily. Also, the petroleum industry is nowhere near as transparent. I did what I could with what the Bureau of Labor Statistics provided, though you may be surprised at how inaccurate these are if not accessed by an experienced statistician who specializes in this. The stats do not directly reflect the number of contract workers who die in a refinery (or any) accident. Apparently, all 15 people who died in the BP Texas City Refinery disaster were contract workers.

My data for the solar and wind industry were mostly based on information I got from the BLS representative. The best statistics for solar and wind energy fatalities are not published on the BLS website and fall under a category that has only been around for four years. I also made conclusions based on how large scale production of PV panels and wind turbines could affect industry fatalities.

You can see more details on my conclusions on all of this by watching my podcast.

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