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Hurricane Florence, Massachusetts Natural-Gas Explosions Underscore Energy Risks

by Axios | Updated on 9.18.18

Countable asks: Should regulators revise energy policy to address risks associated with extreme weather events, combustible/radioactive fuel sources, and aging infrastructure? Why or why not? Hit Take Action to tell your reps, then share your thoughts below. (Via: Axios)


Natural-gas explosions in Massachusetts and Hurricane Florence’s threat to 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.

--Amy Harder

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Axios

Written by Axios

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(3)
  • John
    09/18/2018
    ···

    We should be quickly weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and switching over to renewables and advancing battery/storage technology. We should also conserve. We keep our homes and offices colder in the summer than we allow in the winter and hotter in the winter than we allow in the summer. Let’s stop and think about that sort of waste.

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  • Azrael
    09/19/2018
    ···

    Gee climate change and deregulation Did anyone see this coming? Hell yes

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  • Jeffrey
    09/23/2018
    ···

    How in the world can we claim to be even slightly concerned about carbon based fuels when the U.S. is set to become the world's largest exporter by 2019? We have a bunch of flat earthers ( trump supporters ) that still don't believe in climate change, even more that believe the climate is changing but not because of human activity. If mankind was half as smart as we believe ourselves to be we would have started to address this issue back in the 70s. Instead here we are in the 21st century with a flat earther non climate change believer ( dispite all the proof and advisers he has trying to explain the science ) as president making policy that pulls us out of the Paris accord, will see asbestos make a comeback due to less regulation, as well as countless other assaults on what is already weak to non existent measures to move away from carbon emitting fuels. As is evident by the frequency and ferocity of major weather events, our choice of ignoring the truth because it's to inconvenient is coming home to roost. How much worse does it have to get before " rebuilding "becomes to inconvienient for us. Americans as well as the rest of the world need to realize the longer we put this off the more costly it will be in the end. But then " that could never happen to us " right. Get out and vote for our lives.

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