On Earth Day, Contemplating the Human Cost of Energy

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April 20, the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf oil spill, has no shortage of news events. Environmentalists and fishermen along the Gulf coast offered tours of the shoreline, to show the spots where the oil still remained. BP—with its impeccable sense of timing—lodged a $40 billion lawsuit against Transocean, the Swiss drilling company that operated the Deepwater Horizon, and separate suits against other contractors. Republicans in Congress marked the anniversary of the biggest oil spill in U.S. history with a call to renew and expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. “Safety reforms have been implemented, new technology has been deployed and the Gulf is ready to get back to work to help create jobs and lower gasoline prices,” said Doc Hastings, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a statement.

But there were other, smaller events on April 20, memorials that recalled the 11 crew members killed in the Deepwater Horizon blowout. They were forgotten quickly, those men, as the rig sank and the oil spread and the fears focused on the vulnerable Gulf coastline, on the fate of the fish and the bird and the wetlands. But they should be remembered, men like Roy Wyatt Kemp, husband to Courtney and father to 3-year-old Kaylee and 14-month-old Madison. “Their daddy and my husband is never coming home,” Courtney Kemp told the Advertiser in Louisiana a few days ago.

It’s Earth Day today—the 41st one—and it comes at a time when we’ve all been made aware of the environmental cost of the energy we use.  The BP oil spill caused ecological damage that scientists will study for years, and the partial nuclear meltdown at Fukushima may render large parts of the surrounding area uninhabitable. Coal and other fossil fuels continue to blacken the sky and warm the climate, and even natural gas—seen as a greener bridge fuel—has experienced recent accidents, with a major well blowout occurring this week in Pennsylvania. Alternatives like solar and wind are growing, but there are even environmental and quality of life complaints about renewable power as well.

Still, the fate of Roy Wyatt Kemp and the rest of the Deepwater Horizon 11 is a reminder that there is a terrible human cost to our energy system, as well as an environmental one. The BP oil spill wasn’t the only deadly energy industry accident over the past year—though it was one of the few that received headlines. There was a natural gas explosion in California that killed five people; a gas explosion in China that killed 21 people; an oil pipeline explosion in Mexico that killed 27. We justly celebrated the near-miraculous rescue of the 33 Chilean coal miners last year, yet just two days apart in November 29 coal miners in New Zealand were killed after a gas explosion, and 87 Chinese workers were killed in a terribly coal mining accident. It isn’t just oil or electrons that flows in our pipelines and transmission wires. It’s blood.

In fact, the blood cost is another way to calculate the energy equation: blood per kilowatt. Mark Fulton, the managing director and global head of Climate Change Investment Research at DB Climate Change Advisors, introduced me to the concept at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference earlier this month. When we evaluate different forms of energy, we shouldn’t only take into account the financial price or even just the environmental cost, but the damage to human health and well-being as well.

And the results are a bit surprising, as Seth Godin made clear in this illuminating post from a month ago. Coal is by far the deadliest source of energy per unit of power—both because of the risk to miners (especially in developing nations like China) and to all of us through air and water pollution. Oil comes in next, while natural gas remains perhaps surprisingly low. Lower still is wind and rooftop solar, which is dangerous mostly because installers might fall off a roof while putting in panels. (It happens.) And at the bottom is nuclear power, which causes 0.04 deaths per terrawatt/hour of electrical power, although the full toll from Fukushima still remains to be seen.

All of those numbers are too high, and they can be reduced through better workplace regulation and pollution controls—and maybe even switching in less dangerous sources. But the best way to cut the human toll of our energy system is to simply use less energy, which means we’d need to mine less coal and drill for less oil. Americans are doing a better job of that then we often think—on a per-capita basis, we don’t use much more energy now than we did a few decades ago. But we can do much, much more, whether through fuel efficiency requirements for automobiles or less wasteful appliances or simple conservation. We often talk about cutting our dependence on foreign oil, or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But this Earth Day, we should think about people like Roy Wyatt Kemp, and the other casualties of our energy system—and stop trading so much blood for power.