A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation has the provocative title Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit. (introductory page, report accesibel from this page). The report states that the recent BP oil disaster is just one of four large events over the last 33 years that have made major headlines. Behind these big events, other smaller events, monthly and daily disasters that don’t make the headlines, characterise the oil and gas industries. To quote the beginning of the report: ‘These disasters demonstrate a pattern of feeding America’s addiction to oil, leaving in their wake sacrifice zones that affect communities, local economies, and our landscape.’
The report then goes on to chronicle various incidents that have happened in the US related to oil and gas companies activities, although the report admits the list is not exhaustive. The conclusion of the report is worth a relatively long quote:
‘As the preceding litany of disasters makes clear, exploiting oil and gas resources to feed a growing appetite for energy is a dangerous business. Furthermore, petroleum companies repeatedly fail to protect people, nature of the climate. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can and should be a wake-up call to all of us that now is the time to seriously begin reducing our dependence on dangerous fossil fuels …..’ (p.28)
The report finishes with a series of recommendations ranging from the financial such as ending corporate subsidies for fossil fuel energy development to legislature such as removal of exemptions from Clean and Safe Drinking Water Acts and passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation. Mixed in are policies to improve transport and home heating.
The report has a particular viewpoint, that nature of fragile and in such a delicate balance that it needs protection from humanity. The call for a move to a safer, cleaner source of energy is one I tend to agree with, but, and here is my problem, I am also someone who reads such reports and wants to try to understand more than is provided the headline figures, by the media friendly story. The nature that produces us, our lifestyles and resources may be fragile: a slight push and the whole system could collapse. Nature itself is also remarkably resilient, as the mass extinctions throughout geological time have demonstrated. Humanity could disappear and nature would still exist – this is not the sort of resilience I think most commentators opposed to the report might have in mind!
The report itself is more list than an analysis and this is where I would like to know more. The map of incidents, for example, provides no context. What is the population distribution? Does the number of incidents match this distribution. In other words are there more incidents where there are more people? This might be expected as more people mean more pipelines, more supply depots and the like. What about the comparison between the oil and gas industry and other industries? Is their record worse, better or the same as other industries over this period? What spatial context do these incidents take place in? Is the depot located in an industrial area, for example, so the general hazardscape is one of industrial hazard and industrial risk? Do the workers here know about the risk and accept it or assess it differently from those who wrote the report?
There are the economic and social contexts to consider as well. Is the economy of the area of the incidents dependent on oil and gas? Are the communities dependent on this industry? What are the displacement costs of the suggested policies? A healthy environment is essential for humanity but people have to work. Transition takes time during which people still need to eat. Suggesting some policies that will protect and enhance the environment are essential but alongside these there should be suggestions for smoothing the transition particularly where there is a spatial concentration of the ‘problem’ industries as this is also likely to result in a concentration of a dependent population. In other words policies need to be spatially sensitive as well as environmentally sensitive. There is also the question of the perception of the hazard. The report catalogues the incidents and by sheer weight of repetition you feel the burden of responsibility of the industry. Btu is this how the industry and, importantly, working in the industry is viewed on the ground. How people perceive hazards and how they react to that perception are crucial in understanding the risks individuals are prepared to tolerate. An environmentalist, viewing nature as fragile, may view any oil plant as an unacceptable risk. An oil worker may understand the argument of the environmentalist but may believe the risk has been overestimated or that the risk is less than the risk of their family starving if they are laid off because of environmental lobbying.
The magnitude/frequency relationship could looked at as well. The four big incidents – are they all the same magnitude (however that is being defined) and what is the gap between them? Do the smaller events follow a known distribution (linear, geometric, logarithmic or another distribution?) and if so what is the cause of this? Going back to a pervious blog about the Swiss cheese model of hazards – did the industry learn from the small events or big events? In other words is there a continual process of safety checking based on what the smaller incidents tell the industry about the holes in its protocols and practices or is it the large, headline grabbing events that produce such change (if indeed these changes happen). The hope is that the small events have value in focusing thinking about the holes, but the fear is that it is only the larger events that prompt such thinking.