Editor’s Notebook: Facing The Danger

April 2011 Vol. 238 No. 4

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: energy is a dangerous business.

Whether laying pipeline in the hinterlands of America or the streets of Philadelphia, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, coal mining beneath the state of West Virginia or staring at the controls of a Japanese nuclear reactor frantically trying to stem a radioactive breach after Mother Nature’s apocalyptic double-header, the energy business is fraught with unexpected danger. No one can anticipate every possible problem.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the energy industry, even from a distance. But it still seems to surprise a lot of naysayers who think spending countless sums of money on research for alternatives will create products overnight that will turn on our electricity with the flick of a switch or enable our cars, trucks and jets to move us to and fro.

I am flooded with news releases from a group called the National Resources Defense Council that seems bitterly opposed to anything using fossil fuels. When I politely ask for THEIR solution, I don’t hear a thing. Comments like “when a community has the bad luck to be along a pipeline path, they bear the direct consequences of spills and explosions,” tells me all I need to know about what we’re dealing with.

Now the onus is on nuclear power, which generates 20% of the country’s electricity. Yes, we do have an aging nuclear reactor system because we’ve not allowed a new generator to be built in more than 30 years. To do so today will require that patience of a saint, the investment ability of Warren Buffet and the courage of Winston Churchill – along with billions in federal loan guarantees. That’s just to maintain the production level we already have.

Maybe the sudden abundance of natural gas will make the nuclear power question moot. A society needs as much energy as possible to maintain a healthy standard of living. Today is not the time to put the brakes on energy development of any sort.

This means we need to restore offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico while beginning to drill in other places now off-limits.

This means the natural gas industry must prove conclusively that it can exploit its product safely without contaminating local water supplies or overburdening local water treatment plants.

This means major oil companies, which have always led the energy industry, need to convince the public, the media and lawmakers that the search for oil and gas is expensive, time-consuming and technologically challenging in any scenario.

This means that instead of hiding or relying on the strident win-at-all-costs attitude of the API, individual CEOs have to speak out for themselves to tout their accomplishments as well as insisting their companies not just meet but exceed any and all safety standards.

This means that after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Rex Tillerson and his peers would visit the White House to explain why this sort of accident would not have happened on their watch, how they planned to respond, why a lengthy moratorium was neither necessary nor a good idea.

This means carefully considering what tax incentives are truly needed to remain viable. We’re talking about some of the richest companies in the world at a time tax-bereft schools throughout America may have to lay off teachers. Oil companies say losing tax breaks will cost jobs, meaning they’ll lay off more employees and/or send more jobs overseas.

This means that instead of weakening government enforcement programs, they must be strengthened so that we have enough qualified, independent inspectors capable of monitoring oil and gas development, nuclear power, coal mining, pipeline construction, and hydropower to ensure that these facilities operate as safely as possible – without excuses.

This means the government must prioritize repair and replacement of aging infrastructure in an orderly process.

This means the pipeline industry must acknowledge that it’s not just third-party incidents that can lead to system failure while explaining more clearly how highly it values worker and customer safety.

This means the President must finally remove politics from the equation and establish a blue-ribbon panel of our best and brightest to develop a policy that studies every type of energy and decides how it is to be funded. Perhaps a Fed-type board as John Hofmeister advocates.

This might mean a chance at a real energy policy.

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