Monday, February 19 , 2018, 12:47 pm | Fair 56º


Joe Armendariz: Refugio Oil Spill a Tragic Accident, But the Risks Are Still Worth the Rewards

As the cadre of professional environmentalists continue commandeering local TV news cameras to announce the end of the world as we know it, due to an accidental leak of 21,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline along the Gaviota Coast, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind.

Joe Armendariz

However, let me be clear from the outset, one gallon of oil spilling onto our local beaches and into the Pacific Ocean is one gallon too many. So needless to say, 21,000 gallons finding its way to our beach and local marine environment is a fiasco — although, in my view, it is more of a political fiasco than an environmental one.

Eventually, the oil in the water and on the beach will be cleaned up with no traces to be seen or found. And this will likely happen within a matter of a few months, if not several weeks. The political impact, however, will likely last for a decade or more, as local environmental agitators work tirelessly to keep despair alive.

But as reasonable people know and understand, there are advantages and disadvantages with every human enterprise. There are some negative impacts from oil production, and this is and has always been true. Obviously the occasional, albeit rare, oil spill is one such negative. Perhaps greenhouse gas emissions is another. But there are positives also associated with America’s use of oil and gas as our primary energy source. And this is and has always been true as well.

Let’s consider some of these positive changes to our world as a result of fossil fuels courtesy of our friends at the Center for Industrial Progress.

Three hundred years ago, before the industrial revolution, families living in America breathed in smoke all day from the fires they had to burn in their furnaces and stoves. And because families in pre-industrial America didn’t have electricity to harness and transport clean water to homes, families were forced to drink water from local brooks they shared with animals. As a result, kids and the elderly were constantly getting sick and in far too many cases would even die. And consider also weather in the pre-industrial era. While weather in America hasn’t changed much over the past three centuries, how we live with it certainly has. Today we can simply turn a knob to make it cooler when it’s hot, or warmer when it’s cold. And what about disease? Children 300 years ago often died of diseases, such as malaria, which were spread by insects.

If someone from pre-industrial America were to travel in time to today and ask how it is we no longer get sick from our drinking water, or die from diseases spread by insects, or freeze to death in the winter, or die from heat exhaustion in the summer, or breathe in polluted air from indoor fires, the answer would be simple: energy. Particularly fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas.

Because of fossil fuels, we can use machinery to efficiently transport resources, which then transforms lives. Abundant energy sources such as oil and gas allow us to power the technology that makes it possible to drain swamps, reclaim land, clear forests, build roads, and even construct steel and glass skyscrapers. Thanks to cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels, we’ve irrigated deserts, developed fertilizers and pesticides, and we’ve even linked oceans all for the purpose of creating a safer, cleaner and more habitable world for mankind. And we did all, or most of it, using machinery running on cheap, plentiful and reliable energy from fossil fuels.

Has using that energy to accomplish these life-saving, world-improving changes carried with it some risks and other negative impacts? Absolutely. However, because of technology, which is constantly improving, we’ve gotten better and better at neutralizing those risks. The reality is if you want to live in an environment that is safe, healthy and clean, a highly industrialized nation is where you want to be.

Whereas pre-industrial Americans died from drinking water that was contaminated, we have clean water today thanks to manmade reservoirs, treatment plants, underground pipes and indoor plumbing. Whereas pre-industrial Americans had to walk in places that were contaminated with large quantities of human and animal waste, today we easily dispose of it thanks to sewer systems and the waste management industry. Whereas pre-industrial Americans had to endure large-scale death due to a severe freeze and/or extreme heat wave, today we enjoy comfortable climates year-round thanks to insulated homes, and modern high-energy heating and air conditioning.

Thanks to industrial agriculture and transportation, we have grocery stores that are stocked and full of clean, healthy food year-round. Thanks to modern transportation, we have unprecedented access to the rich cultural experiences and natural beauty the world has to offer. In addition to all of these wonderful benefits made possible by energy from fossil fuels, other benefits that today’s environment has to offer is reflected in life expectancy and population statistics. Today, the average person lives longer and in better health than before.

The facts are clear: Human ingenuity has resulted in a world with an abundant source of reliable energy that has made our lives better by an order of magnitude compared to previous generations. And yet, there’s no shortage of people who would rather blame us for our success, and guilt-trip us into feeling like we’ve somehow managed to do all of this by paying an unacceptable environmental price, or somehow caused irreversible damage to our globe. And that simply is not the case.

Armendariz chart

What happened on Tuesday on the Gaviota Coast is unfortunate. Indeed, it is always unfortunate when these sorts of accidents happen. But the emergency response process, which is a strategic partnership among the public, private and volunteer community, once again showed itself to be the envy of the world.

And again, no human-designed system will ever be perfect. Accidents happen, and this will always be so. When tragic accidents happen in other industries, there’s not this same rush to judgment. There are no calls to ban that industry from existence. In fact, let us consider some of the statistics that plague certain industries in America as measured by the number of annual fatal injuries per 100,000 workers. This data is for the year 2013 as provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. See chart above.

As shown, tragic accidents are an unfortunate everyday part of life in many industries, and again, these fatalities occur on an annual basis. But who would suggest we ban logging, or fishing, or farming, or roofing, or trash collecting, or flying? These are simply the risks associated with bringing to market, and ultimately to the homes of America, essential products and services, not to mention life-changing opportunities that can dramatically improve the quality of our lives.

— Joe Armendariz is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, and served eight years on the Carpinteria City Council and six years for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments.

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