Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

No More Toxic Spills...
May 18, 2010

No more toxic spills...

It’s been an ugly spring for fossil fuels. 

When the BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, resulting in the deaths of 11 oil-rig operators and a spreading and a worsening oil spill, the recent coal-mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners had not yet faded from public view.. 

As the extent of the oil-spill became clearer, a recurring analogy began spreading through the media coverage of the disaster: comparison to the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. At first, there was some question whether the new disaster would top the old one, but with oil still spilling into the ocean after several failed attempts to stem the flow, it became clear that the BP disaster would become the new “Exxon Valdez.”

Somewhat less well known, however, is the fact that the coal industry has endured its own share of “Exxon Valdez” moments over the past decade.  The burning of coal produces vast amounts of “coal ash” (containing arsenic and other toxins) which is stored in vast containment pools.  When these pools spill, they contaminate the soil, kill aquatic life, and contaminate the water supplies of local communities.  

For example, hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in Kentucky were contaminated in 2000 by a spill that tainted the water supply for 27,000 people.  And in 2008, an even larger spill in Tennessee dumped out more than 500 million gallons of coal waste, contaminating 400 acres of land.  Each of these coal-ash spills, like the current Gulf Coast spill, released an exponentially larger volume of toxic waste into the environment than the Exxon Valdez spill – and for that reason each deserves to become just as memorable and notorious.

Moreover, each deserves, like Exxon Valdez, to serve as a cultural touchstone and catalyst for change.

What can be done?  Plenty.  We can start with stronger regulation of the fossil-fuel companies that are causing so much damage.  In the last decade, regulation of fossil fuels and the enforcement of existing regulations took a real hit.  And just like in the banking industry, lack of regulation leads to disaster.  The new administration is starting to reverse that trend.

In the case of coal companies, for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering regulating coal ash.  Two competing regulations, one defining coal ash as what it is (hazardous waste), and a weaker one, supported by the industry, are up for public comment right now.  Anyone drinking the water near a coal plant in Appalachia can tell you:  we need the stronger one. .

In the case of oil companies, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, a simple remote control shut-off device – mandated by law in other countries practicing off-shore drilling – could have prevented the Gulf Coast disaster.  The US doesn’t require these devices.  We should, as a stepping-stone toward ending offshore drilling.

These are just two examples of smart ways to use federal regulation to protect us all from the worst impacts of fossil-fuel companies.   That’s the first step.

But beyond regulation, it’s time to end the massive subsidies currently enriching the fossil-fuel industries in this country and making their disasters possible.  Again, the Obama administration has taken some of the right steps, calling for cuts of $2.3 billion from coal subsidies and nearly $36 billion from oil-and-gas subsidies in 2011.  Unfortunately, this proposal isn’t new.  The Obama administration proposed similar cuts for 2010, and Congress failed to act.

With revenues of $2.3 billion in 2009, US-based Massey Energy reported profits of $104 million – twice its 2008 profits.   Even larger than Massey, multi-national corporation BP posts reported jaw-dropping profits of around $93 million a day.  These are not companies that need any more help from the American taxpayer.

Instead, it’s time to redirect those federal investments toward renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies that don’t endanger our rivers and streams, that can’t wipe out the livelihoods of entire coastal communities, and that don’t daily threaten the lives of the men and women who work to produce energy for America.

It’s time to level the playing field for energy. The US is tenth in the world in investing in clean energy as a share of the national economy.  We should be first.

As long as government subsidies hide the true cost of fossil fuels, it’s harder to see fossil fuels’ true cost until the results appear on the evening news – oil-choked seas in Alaska or Louisiana, and grieving families in Appalachia or the Gulf Coast.

--Andrew Korfhage



Please contact Todd Larsen by email
or by phone at 202-872-5307.


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