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Column / Harder Line

Energy: the essential and unappreciated risk we all take

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Natural-gas explosions in Massachusetts and Hurricane Florence’s threat of energy infrastructure remind us that energy can pose enormous, sometimes deadly, risks.

Why it matters: Energy is the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s gone, expensive or going awry. Energy facilities — particularly nuclear plants — appear to be withstanding Florence well. We saw a tragically different outcome in Massachusetts Thursday, with one death and roughly two dozen injuries. They both inject a consciousness into our energy dependence we usually overlook.

Think about it:

  • We drive gasoline-powered cars.
  • We use plastics made from petroleum.
  • We fly in jet fueled-planes.
  • We live in homes with electricity. What kind? Most of us don’t know or care.
  • Our homes in America are increasingly powered by natural gas — particularly Massachusetts.
  • We live in homes heated by natural gas.
  • Some of us cook with natural-gas stoves.

But we don’t actually think about this. We aren’t thankful when the lights come on. Reporters don’t bother writing stories about how nuclear power plants stood up well to hurricanes. As someone on Twitter told me last week, “Dog doesn't bite man is rarely newsworthy.”

Honestly, I should have written this story when, in that not too-distant past, I accidentally left my gas-powered stove on just a touch and unknowingly filled my home with natural gas all day. Four fire trucks came. My neighbor darkly joked about the irony of an energy reporter dying of a natural gas explosion (I was not amused).

I didn’t write a story, because I didn’t explode and I carried on with my life like nothing happened. The moral of that story: I am just as bad as you, and I cover this most days of my life!

This lack of consciousness of energy makes the job of those who work in it unforgiving and unrelenting. You get no positive reinforcement for doing a job perfectly that we all rely on. Yet, in the rare times something goes wrong, you’re suddenly the devil and the world should get rid of you yesterday.

Embedded in all of this is risk: how much we’re willing to take and what tradeoffs we’re willing to accept in order to minimize risk.

Some risk we’re aware of and can choose: driving a car or flying in a plane. Then there’s risk we may be unaware of or have no choice to avoid: natural gas exploding in our homes, or a nuclear plant 30 miles away at risk of melting down.

The risks of these are infinitesimal, but the fear is real. And, in rare moments they happen: Massachusetts gas explosions, Fukushima nuclear meltdown, BP oil spill.

For some context, in America:

Some folks might be thinking right about now, "Hey, you’re forgetting renewables, they’re the answer." Yes, they are part of it. Renewables aren’t explosive (big plus), and their share of the world’s electricity mix is growing fast.

But the world is still deeply dependent upon fossil fuels (81% to be exact), and tradeoffs exist with wind and solar (they need heck of a lot of land, for example, to match fossil fuels and nuclear).

So even while a transition is underway to safer forms of energy, it's critical to make sure the risk of our current dominant sources is as close to zero as possible. Lawmakers are already calling for hearings in response to the Massachusetts explosions.

A 2010 gas pipeline blast in San Bruno, Calif., which killed eight people, led to the inclusion of new safeguards, like automatic pipeline shutoff valves, in a 2011 pipeline safety reauthorization bill. But its implementation remains incomplete.

“When energy hurts somebody outside its immediate value chain, there’s usually a policy response.”
— Kevin Book, managing director, analysis firm ClearView Energy Partners

What’s next: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the longest term, trickiest type of risks: Those posed by a warmer planet, which is occurring largely due to our dependence on fossil fuels.

Sea level rise, more extreme storms and more flooding all increase risks for average homeowners, businesses and energy infrastructure, wrote Edward Rust Jr., former longtime State Farm chief executive, in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month. He endorsed a carbon tax as one good way to reduce risk.