Energy Costs Shifted to Society

It appears Chevron is going to be held accountable for a spill of about 3,000 barrels of oil off the Brazilian coast. A Brazilian judge has banned 17 employees of the American oil firm and drilling-rig operator Transocean from leaving the country “as authorities prepare to file criminal charges in days in connection with an offshore oil spill involving the companies,” according to the New York Times.

Brazil already has filed a civil suit seeking $11.2 billion in damages. Compare that to the $25 billion to $50 billion in play for the 2011 BP spill, which dumped 5 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico and badly damaged the region’s ecosystem and fishing and tourism industries.

It is a paltry sum in comparison, especially when you factor in the favorable treatment the energy industry gets from the federal government.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the industry receives in the neighborhood of $70 billion a year from the federal government, with oil and gas taking in $41 billion, coal $8 billion, nuclear power $9 billion and renewables about $12 billion. The federal spending may help keep gas prices in check – while they are peaking at just above $4 a gallon as we go to press, the US pays the lowest per-gallon price among industrial economies – but it also helps hide the true costs of our addiction to fossil fuels and other energy sources that rely on extracted minerals. So what are the costs? To listen to the politicians, the costs are either economic – high gas prices slowing anemic economic growth – or purely climate-based.

But the damage done to the Gulf and, now, the slowly expanding leak off Brazil once again show the dangers of drilling in deep waters — and the broader dangers that extractive technologies pose as we seek to sate our thirst for cheap energy. Drilling and mining — and not just for oil, but for natural gas, coal and uranium — pose serious threats to our oceans, rivers and farmland, our drinking water and the stability of the ground on which we stand. These are costs that are rarely factored in to the cost of energy and are usually born by the communities in which the spills and contamination occur.

In Ohio, according to Scientific American, multiple earthquakes have occurred tied to hydraulic fracturing of underground shale in the search for natural gas – a fact confirmed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in March. There were no injuries and only minor damage, but the quakes were enough to draw crowds to community meetings.

And still, the Republicans are calling for more drilling and an energy policy that continues the national addiction to extractive energy sources.

It is a plan focused on off-shore drilling and oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska. It includes a continued over-reliance of coal – which should be phased on as quickly as possible – and the expansion of nuclear energy. And fracking.

The discussion is likely to focus on short-term energy prices — even though drilling will have no effect on prices – and will ignore all other issues.

But the BP and Chevron spills, the polluted water near gas drilling sites and the Ohio earthquakes need to be a part of this discussion, as well.

We should be talking about the fallout from Fukishima, the impact of uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal on communities. And we should be talking about energy subsidies and the obscene profits pocketed by the big energy firms.

The cost of energy is far greater than what we pay at the pump. Drill, baby, drill is as inane a solution to our energy woes as it is a simplistic slogan.

Hank Kalet is a poet and regional editor for Central Jersey for Email or see

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2012

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