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10/02/13 at 08:40 AM

You wouldn’t know it from the major media coverage, but the American oil and natural gas industry is one of the safest sectors in operation. These businesses have established smart protocols to minimize the dangers to their personnel and prevent catastrophe.

Of course, there are exceptions to the industry’s sterling track record. But they’re exceedingly rare and not at all indicative of the way the average energy project operates.

Visitors to an offshore drilling rig or production platform receive safety training and are outfitted with steel-toed boots, safety goggles, gloves, hearing protection, and a helmet. Once on the rig, their conduct is carefully monitored. Adherence to safe practices is mandatory, greatly reducing risk to life, property, and the environment.

Accidents do happen. Three incidents — Santa Barbara (1969), Exxon Valdez (1989), and the Deepwater Horizon (2010) — illustrate the oil and natural gas business is not risk-free. Unanticipated, tragic incidents have resulted in very high private and public costs. But the industry has responded to these failures by developing new technologies and improved safety systems.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a most reluctant friend of oil and gas, said as much at a recent Gulf of Mexico lease sale: “People of industry stood up and said, ‘We are going to get it right,’ and we are getting it right.”

The industry does not have to hang its head. In 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.3 incidents of injury and illness per 100 oil and gas workers. That’s compared with 3.5 incidents per 100 for the entire private sector. The U.S. offshore industry experienced an even lower rate of 0.8 incidents per 100 full-time workers.

In oil refining, the injury and illness rate was 1.1 per 100 full-time workers versus 4.4 per 100 for the U.S. manufacturing sector overall.

A comparison of U.S. pipeline transportation data versus the U.S. transportation and warehousing sector shows that precisely zero pipeline workers experienced injuries and illnesses in 2011. This accomplishment is all the more impressive given that trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of gallons of oil traverse United States pipelines every year

Meanwhile, the rest of the transportation sector clocked in a rate of 5.0 safety incidents per 100 full-time employees.

Federal data also show improvements in spill rates. A 2012 Interior Department report examined spill records from 1996 through 2010 (the year of the Deepwater Horizon incident). Researchers found that offshore spill frequency was actually “relatively low” despite the fact that Gulf of Mexico deepwater oil production had risen sharply over that time.

Spills from oil tankers continued their precipitous decline due in part to the double-hull requirement instituted after the Valdez spill.

Unfortunately, environmental groups refuse to acknowledge the oil and gas industry’s excellent safety and environmental record. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently opined: “We need stronger safeguards and increased oversight to reduce the risk of accidents.” She went on to argue that “we need to prioritize safer forms of energy that don’t threaten the lives of our workers and foul our waters. Until then, we’ll remain stuck on this collision course with disaster.”

Beinecke is exaggerating and forgetting. The density, scalability, and portability of oil, gas, and coal make them affordable, reliable, and flexible for average consumers. Wind turbines and solar panels, contrarily, are expensive, intermittent, and inflexible—and have their own set of health and safety issues.

As reported by Paul Chesser of the National Legal and Policy Center, 2,000 pallets of unsold solar panels were recently discovered in Colorado and have been labeled toxic for cadmium. The company that manufactured the panels was Abound Solar — a company that had received $70 million in federal stimulus loan guarantees before going belly-up.

Turns out that Abound Solar had been producing 630 pounds of cadmium-compounds waste every month. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, some solar waste products are “end-of-life” level hazards.

And wind turbines don’t just kill birds by the thousands. They also present significant safety risks to humans. According to the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, 162 industry accidents were documented worldwide in 2011. Blade failure was more common than structural failure or fire.

Of these accidents, 12 involved human injury. An additional 15 accidents with injuries occurred in 2012. Caithness predicts “as more turbines are built, more accidents occur.” Since the 1970s, 133 fatalities have occurred on turbines — that’s a high figure considering the relatively small size of the wind sector.

Records of wind and solar-related injuries are conveniently shoddy. It is hard to accurately compare their health and safety data to the government’s oil and gas statistics. But based on what we do know now, “alternative” energies are hardly cleaner, greener, and safer.

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