Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coal and Oil

As I write this, an oil slick is spreading in the Gulf of Mexico, following the April 20 explosion on an offshore oil rig that left 11 workers missing and presumed dead.  The rig sank, and oil is now leaking from the well at rate - reported just this morning - of 5,000 barrels a day.

On April 5, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia resulted in the deaths of 29 workers.

Both accidents involved the extraction of resources that make modern life possible.  The computer on which I type this is powered mainly by coal-fired generators, with a bit of hydroelectric and nuclear rounding things out, and I rode to work on a train likewise powered by largely by coal-based electricity.  To get to the train, I rode on a bus powered by diesel fuel and, later, I'll need to fuel up my car for a possible weekend road trip.  Those are only the most obvious connections between my daily life and the risks involved in resource extraction.

Both accidents are drawing scrutiny to the practices of corporations involved in resource extraction, and both are drawing scrutiny to government energy and worker safety policies.

But there the similarities between the two accidents end, or so I gather from media accounts. To be honest, I have not followed either story in close detail, but I've come away with an impression that the two accidents are being invested with very different sets of meanings.

What follows is more of a hunch than anything else. It raises questions that may be worth asking, even if I never get around to following this line of inquiry myself.

The story at the Upper Big Branch mine very quickly came to focus on the community. It was a Human Interest story about the travails of mining communities in rural places, communities that send their sons and brothers and husbands and friends down into the earth, to labor in darkness and heat, always facing risks of suffocation (now, by way of toxic gas, or later, by way of lung disease), explosion, collapse.

Just this week, news reports focused on President Obama's eulogy at a memorial service for the lost miners.  According to the New York Times:
In his eulogy, Mr. Obama emphasized the human stories of the men who died, “this band of 29 roughneck angels,” as Mr. Biden called them. The president read each of their names, a roster of pain and emptiness for a small community. He paid tribute to their risky trade and honored their contribution to the nation.

“Day after day,” Mr. Obama said, “they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor what so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up a convention center; that lights up our church or our home, our school, our office; the energy that powers our country; the energy that powers the world.”

Mr. Obama, who represented a coal-producing state as a senator from Illinois, invoked the dangers of their work. “They understood there were risks,” he said, “and their families did, too. They knew their kids would say a prayer at night before they left. They knew their wives would wait for a call when their shift ended saying everything was O.K.”

But he said they had gone down into the tunnels far beneath the surface to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and to provide for their families. “It was all,” he said, “in the hopes of something better.”
The coal mine disaster has also been a story of Corporate Malfeasance, how the pencil-pushers at Massey Energy exposed those "roughneck angels" to unnecessary risk, also drawing attention to the possibility of Policy Failure and Regulatory Laxity on the part of the federal government.  The broader environmental consequences of our current reliance on coal to produce electricity recede to the background.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to belittle the losses of the community around the Upper Big Branch mine. What strikes me, though, is how coal mining has a very different feel to it than does oil drilling: there seems to be a romanticized image of coal miners and their communities. "Roughneck angels," indeed.

For a day or two after the oil rig explosion in the Gulf, some attention was given to the search for the missing workers, but I haven't heard much follow up. If there have been Human Interest stories about those workers and their families, I haven't heard or read them: they were just roustabouts on an oil rig, after all, anonymous industrial laborers without context or connections.

I don't really foresee a presidential visit to a memorial service, or even a single memorial service for all eleven at once. The whole thing just doesn't seem to rise to the level of profound human tragedy. There's no hyperbolic talk of "roughneck angels", or images of young children praying for daddy's safe return.

There's no quaint town in which to park a fleet of satellite trucks, no ongoing drama of search and rescue.

There's no human drama, no hook.

Instead, the media story about the oil rig disaster has very quickly turned to one of Environmental Disaster and its attendant Policy Failure, perhaps with a dash of Corporate Incompetence. The policy angle is especially prominent, as the events come on the heels of a controversial announcement out of the White House that more offshore drilling would be permitted in the Gulf and elsewhere.

The tragedy now being played up in the media is that fragile ecosystems and appealing or useful wild animals will be harmed. We're still waiting for pictures and video of oil-slicked seabirds struggling for life.

It's more Exxon Valdez than "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to belittle the terrible effects of a major oil slick heading toward the Gulf Coast, and I do understand that the oil rig explosion, by its nature, has much wider consequences than the coal mine explosion.

It's just that it might be worth focusing more on what the two stories have in common.

People like me have come to expect to have lots of energy at our disposal. I breathe in, I get the oxygen I need; I flip a switch, I get the light I need.

What both stories reveal, with only slightly different emphasis, really, is that meeting the expectations of people like me requires the work of corporations the business of which is to extract energy from our common environment. Whatever form those energy resources take - coal, oil, natural gas, ethanol, hydroelectric power, and so on - the process of extraction itself poses risks to workers, to communities, to other species, and to the ecological systems on which our lives and projects ultimately depend.

The risks involved in extraction are distinct from the risks that follow from actually using those resources, but we would do well to take all these risks into account as we make our choices, both in public and in private.

ADDENDUM, 9:55pm on 4/29/10

Reading further in today's New York Times, following up on this morning's ruminations, I came across nothing less than a Human Interest story about oil rig workers in a small Louisiana town.  Still, I have the impression this take on the oil rig accident is less prominent than it was in the case of the Upper Big Branch mine accident.

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