The deadly toll of the ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ coal and oil industries

Oil rig explosionThe oil rig that exploded off the Louisiana coast on Wednesday is a tragic reminder of why the movement that mobilized forty years ago for Earth Day is still so necessary, notes Brad Johnson in this WR repost.

It has now sunk below the waves in a fiery grave, potentially spilling thousands of gallons of oil underwater. Hope for the eleven men left missing in the explosion has dropped sharply. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes notes that this comes within weeks of:

– The awful coal-mine explosion that killed 29 men under the criminal safety record of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

– The crash of a coal freighter into the fragile Great Barrier Reef as it tried to take a shortcut from Australian mines to Chinese furnaces.

– The Tesoro oil refinery explosion that killed five workers in Washington state.

– The spillage of 18,000 gallons of crude oil from a Chevron into a canal in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, also in Louisiana.

The cold reality is that fossil fuel production, just like its combustion, is neither clean nor safe, despite the endless propaganda from the mouthpieces of Big Oil and King Coal:

Heritage Foundation: Since gas prices have fallen from record levels in the summer, drilling has taken a backseat to concerns over the economy. Allowing and expanding safe domestic energy production will not only help in keeping prices low but it will also help stimulate the economy.

Consumer Energy Alliance: The federal government must recognize the tremendous economic opportunity that safe and responsible offshore energy exploration presents to the citizens of coastal Atlantic states and the nation at large.

Heritage Foundation: Thanks to technological advances, offshore energy production has become very safe, as is witnessed by the excellent record of recent years.

Dow Energy: Congress should not re-impose the moratoria on offshore drilling, but create a statutory construct under which drilling can go forward in a safe and effective manner.

Energy Tomorrow: The oil and natural gas industry has a proven track record of safe oil and natural gas development and the majority of the American people recognize this by supporting greater development for the benefit of their communities, their states and their nation.

Institute for Energy Research: Offshore energy exploration and production in the United States is safe and environmentally sound. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. oil and gas industry has developed innovative, 21st century technologies and exploration techniques that are efficient, pose little threat to the environment, and ensure worker safety.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA): I am committed to continue working with Secretary Salazar as well as our state and federal partners to ensure the safe and responsible production of American made energy and the creation of much needed jobs in the Commonwealth.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK): Offshore drilling is environmentally safe. Major spills from platforms are nearly non-existent.

These lies cost lives.

19 Responses to The deadly toll of the ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ coal and oil industries

  1. Thanks Joe for laying this out clearly. Both promoting the use and lying about fossil fuel dangers are tantamount to suborning murder.

    The tobacco industry used to do that, now they are substantially quite about it (in the US at least). Next step is for carbon fuel industries to act as tobacco does today. CO2 is essentially second hand smoke on a global scale.

    What’s the delay here?

  2. WEs Rolley says:

    There is, thankfully, one political party in the US the get this message. Unfortunately, there are no Greens in Congress.

  3. Leif says:

    I would vote green in a heart beat if doing so would not be empowering the GOP. The political system is structured to keep any viable third party from even getting their foot in the door. I have long been an advocate of first and second choice voting, or some variation there of, for elections to give third parties access to the soap box.
    The alternative is often two versions of the same dead horse. Both beholden to Capitalism, Corporations and entrenched special interests. The status quo. Humanity locked out to be fed sound bites, again from corporate media and it’s agenda.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    Message: fossil fuels = lethal risks.

    From the mineshaft, the drilling rig, the refinery, local pollution, petrocrats, economic risk, all the way to the risks and threats that our military sees in global warming.

    Fossil fuels create greater risk. Clean energy makes us healthier, wealthier, safer, and more secure.

  5. lgcarey says:

    Somewhat off-topic – did anyone hear or see the NPR news story this morning “Fungal Disease Spreads Through Pacific Northwest” –

    It is normally a tropical disease, but has established itself in the Pacific Northwest and its range is spreading. It attacks the respiratory system and brain, and has resulted in 40 deaths. The article mentioned climate change.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Let’s Talk About People

    One of the things that bugs me most is when the oil industry and its largest companies (e.g., the API, ExxonMobil, etc.) run ads that suggest or imply that they employ many millions of people, that they actually give a hoot about stable or increased employment, that they actually value people more than they value the almighty dividend, and so forth.

    Take ExxonMobil, for example: During the large majority of the last ten years, the number of people that ExxonMobil employs has been decreasing. In most of those years, even as profits have usually increased, the number of employees has steadily decreased. In the most recent year (2009), ExxonMobil actually increased its number of employees, slightly, from slightly less than eighty thousand (worldwide) to slightly more than eighty thousand. But, in most of the years since 2000, ExxonMobil has persistently decreased employment, even as profits skyrocketed. Even given the slight uptick in 2009, ExxonMobil still employs fewer people than they did at the end of 2007 and substantially fewer than earlier in the decade.

    And eighty thousand employees, worldwide, is not at all a large number. The oil and gas industry has no basis for bragging about their employment figures or employment histories. Period.


    The number of public school teachers in the State of California alone is substantially more than the number of employees—worldwide!—of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips added together!!!

    Yes, you read that correctly.

    There are more public school teachers in California alone than the number of employees of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips (the three largest U.S.-headquartered oil companies) combined, worldwide!

    Here’s another one: General Electric alone employs substantially more people, worldwide, than ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips added together.

    And if you like comparisons that really make a statement: The number of people employed by Walmart alone dwarfs the number of people employed by ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, British Petroleum, and ConocoPhillips added together, worldwide.

    And, Walmart alone employs way more people than the fifteen or so oil and gas companies of any significant size, headquartered in the U.S., added together.

    And, how many American troops are sent into harms way to fight in wars that most likely have a great deal to do with protecting “our interests” in overseas oil-producing regions? All in order to preserve our addiction to energy sources that aren’t even good for the environment and that are going to bring about immensely harmful climate change? And all to protect companies that employ fewer people, worldwide, than the State of California alone employs in its public schools?

    Joe and Climate Progress, I think it might be helpful, and eye-opening, to consider this whole “oil thing” again from the standpoint of employment. That API ad that tries to put a “happy employment face” on the oil industry is … well … anyhow … I’ll leave it at that.

    Be Well,


  7. Leif says:

    Interesting numbers, Jeff: By my calculations that works out to about $550,000 profit per person employed. Small wonder they like the status quo. I would remind you all that EXXON got off scott free on U.S. taxes last year. However to be fair they had some expenses influencing politicians and had to drop a few million disseminating their green washing but I am sure that a few legal eagles could figure out how to make even that tax deductible.

    They did receive a few billion dollars in tax supported subsidies that the schools did not need and of course free dumping rights for multi-billions of tons of CO2 is surely helpful.

  8. Leland Palmer says:

    For the first time in a long time, I have to disagree, slightly.

    The threat from global warming outweighs most of the other risks, by thousands of times.

    Coal is very dirty, and the mercury and radioactive elements in coal are a fairly significant health hazard, I think.

    Oh, the threat of global dimming from aerosols is also very, very significant, especially since global dimming seems to be masking the effects of increases in CO2. This masking threat is keeping us from responding to the CO2 increases appropriately, IMO, and this threat is second only to the threat of CO2, IMO.

    All of which is outweighed by the threat of runaway global warming, which is huge both in probability and in consequences. The risk of runaway global heating, as calculated by multiplying the probability of this sequence events by the consequences of this sequence of events, is off the charts, IMO. It is by far the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced, I think – bigger than plagues, emerging viruses, or even nuclear war.

    One of the problems with the left is that we indulge in non-quantitative arguments, IMO.

    To be credible, we have to be both quantitatively and qualitatively right.

    The threat from oil spills is fairly local, and fairly temporary, and fairly small, for example.

    We need to oppose fossil fuels for the right reasons, IMO.

    Only if we operate that way do we have arguments that cannot be overturned.

    [JR: This post is a pushback against lies. It isn’t the reason we need to get off of fossil fuels. People who win debates indulge in both quantitative and non-quantitative arguments. I believe the biggest messaging problem with the left is that we only rarely indulge in non-quantitative (i.e. rhetorical) arguments.]

  9. catman306 says:

    A coal miner was killed in an accident at a mine in Beckley, WV today.

  10. Sam G says:


    I’m surprised that you left off natural gas and the so-called ‘Kleen’ energy gas explosion from your list of horrors:

    I’m really hoping this is an oversight – it’s an unfortunate tendency for greens to give natural gas a pass because they see it as a road to renewable energy – even though it’s incredibly hazardous, especially hydraulic fracking (pumping thousands of tons of acid into drinking water) and potentially a catastrophe waiting to happen (LNG tankers could potentially go up in an explosion equivalent to a small nuclear bomb).

    So – what’s your thoughts on this? Again, the logic that natural gas leads to renewables is blatantly bass-ackwards; the renewables end up greenwashing a bunch of fossil fuel burning, sort of like putting lipstick on a pig – I’m sure that you don’t want that to happen.

    But thanks for calling out the fossil fuel industry for what it is – I just hope that next time you have the courage to take your criticisms all the way.


  11. mike roddy says:

    If Exxon had their way, there would be no employees outside of accounting and executive offices, and everything would be outsourced. A good example of how they feel about people came after the Valdez spill, when their lawyers first reduced the settlement to a small fraction of the original amount, and then stalled paying in court for 15 years.

    Their dream is to sit in their country clubs and mansions and have a funnel deliver cash through the window, while they’re bossing around the servants, drinking single malt with their buddies, ignoring their airhead wives, and watching television. These are neither bright nor interesting people. Trust me, I’ve been in their houses.

    It’s not a coincidence that both workers and now our military are being outsourced, where legal and retirement benefits are deflected, as well as personal responsibility. Gibbon said Rome didn’t really start to decline until the legions became mercenaries, but it was symptomatic of a much deeper spiritual sickness. By then the Romans hung out at the Baths, eating, drinking, and engaging in twisted and predatory sexual acts.

    These are the people who, through their PR firms and bribery of public officials, are calling the shots in our once proud country. The public trails along because they are terrified they won’t be able to put gas in their cars without them. When that changes, and we transition to electric cars and trains, oil and coal company executives and Board members need to be called to account, legally and in public.

  12. Roger says:

    All great comments above. All so true. What are we, who care, to do?

    May I suggest that, failing all else, we all try to cooperate more?

    Why couldn’t each of the ca. one million climate groups send one representitive to rally in front of the White House on one day??

    We could ask Obama to inform misinformed Americans of the threat and opportunity that climate change represents.

    Then, the informed citizens could inform their senators and reps that they really do want a livable planet for their kids, and we could get a strong climate bill. It could work. I think it’s worth a try!

  13. Durango says:

    I’m struggling here… I can’t find the instances where ExxonMobil, for example, has suggested or implied that it employs many millions of people. In any case, it’s a capital-intensive not a labour-intensive business.

    This is not the case with teaching (in California) or with Walmart. Apples and pears….. Add up as many as you like – you just get more apples and more pears.

    This is an irrational trail to pursue

  14. Jeff Huggins says:

    Hi Durango (Comment 13)

    Thanks for your comment, Durango.

    I think this is a very rational — and necessary, and compelling — trail to pursue. Actually, it’s not even a trail, as the numbers and other facts are widely available and, when seen in big-picture fashion, reach to the heart. (Most people know more about “people” and “jobs” and “caring” and “hypocrisy” and stuff than about atmospheric chemistry, of course.)

    One of the main API ads these days emphasizes the broad (and presumably “feel good”) idea that oil and gas are good for jobs, that the industry employs (directly) or substantially supports (somewhat directly or at least substantially) millions and millions and millions of people. The ad paints the picture as if oil and gas are energy sources that are good for large numbers of U.S. jobs and generally better than other energy sources, in terms of jobs. Well, that’s simply not the case. The alternative energy sources would create many, many more jobs. And, the oil and gas industries themselves employ very, very few people, relative to other industries and relative to the number of people — all of us — who will be impacted in one way or another by the climate if we don’t shift energy sources.

    And the ad (and ads by each company) imply that these folks actually CARE about jobs, boosting employment, and human beings in general. As I’ve mentioned, in the vast majority of years recently, as ExxonMobil profits have skyrocketed, they have cut employment. As Mike has pointed out above, their apparent formula would prefer to have sales of $ 1 Trillion, profits of $ 500 Billion, and employment of 5,000 people or less, if they could somehow make that happen. They are meticulous about the joint aims of maximizing sales, maximizing profits, and minimizing the workforce necessary to generate those sales and profits. And they are actually proud of being meticulous about those things, in what I would call a very out-of-balance fashion. In ads and materials, they claim to care about people, about employees, about future generations, and so forth. But their actions show that this is not the case, beyond an ever-smaller group of people necessary to produce the $$$$$.

    The hypocrisy, lack of caring, deception, and manipulation (on ExxonMobil’s part) should make people upset enough to speak out and to boycott ExxonMobil and the other worst offenders.

    Anyhow, that’s all that time allows me to write, presently. But again, I’d encourage Joe and Climate Progress to do a piece that contrasts the “we care about people and employment” claims of these companies with their actual employment figures, employment track records, and other actions. It’s a dismal story. And it’s a story that helps to show — in no small way — that these industries actually employ very few people, relatively speaking, and that we would be much better off with new and growing clean energy industries. Period.

    That said, thanks for raising the point and question.

    Cheers and Be Well,


  15. Dan B says:


    I agree completely. The image that comes to mind is the Wizard of Oz, in reverse. What we see is a wonderful company that is going to bring the new clean green solutions to us all. When we pull back the curtain (or fog of PR) we find the entire fossil fuel sector employs fewer people than any other sector of our economy. We find a group of people who have profited mightily from ruthlessness.

    I’ve been in the homes of timber barons, tech bajillionaires, and Exxon Mobil managers. They seem to swallow the greenwash about their companies. Their response to the most gentle critiques is fierce and instant, like patting a drowsy dog and getting bitten. They know the BS is layered on thick because it has not one iota of substance. It’s part of the culture. As the most current cognitive science has incontrovertibly detailed “group-think” is more powerful than individual rationality.

    However, the general public buys the PR. As long as the people we surround ourselves with and ally ourselves with – our “tribe” – buy into even one piece of the PR fog it’s difficult to see the unvarnished truth. Cutting through the fog is an essential task.

    At the same time we will only grow our allies if we combine a clear and detailed vision of clean green 21st Century energy jobs. Awakening to the painful truth is fleeting if there’s no vision. Fortunately all that’s required is to guide people to sites like Renewable Energy World or to get excited about the rapid growth of myriad alternative energy technologies that are being, or will soon be, deployed.

    I spent a few hours reading about tidal energy systems. They’ve got the potential to provide far more energy to coastal regions than is currently used. GE’s gearless wind turbine makes floating offshore wind power much more feasible – turning oil platform drilling technology into renewable energy: all platform no drill, so we can place windfarms out of sight where the wind is strongest and nearly ceaseless, wow! Those are just a couple examples of hundreds.

  16. James Newberry says:

    Oil and coal are liquid and solid states of matter, therefore material resources. Only a diseased civilization would economically define these as “energy resources.” All physical phenomena on earth are either 1) matter or 2) energy.

    For reference, see the historical $trillions of direct, indirect (tax expensing) and “externalized” subsidies for the four horsemen of the “fuels” apocalypse (uranium, coal, methane, petroleum). The nation-state-determined “market” prices energy, yet it’s the matter that is impoverishing us (through contamination, fiscal debt and poisonous business).

  17. Theodore says:

    There are plenty of good reasons for shutting down the carbon fuel industries. Employee safety isn’t one of them. Workers can be killed or injured in environmentally responsible alternative energy industries too.

  18. David B. Benson says:

    I’ll point out that in the West (excluding Russia), nuclear power has proved rather remarkably safe despite early problems with uranium miner’s health.

    (I’m not claiming cost-effective, as I have no idea how to determine that given the amount of DoE sponsored research and support.)