Study Examines Accidents in the Energy Supply Chain

Disasters such as the massive BP Gulf oil spill and the gas pipeline explosions in Pennsylvania, California and Texas have shown that accidents related to energy supply can be enormously costly in terms of human lives, environmental degradation and the economy.

In fact, analysts estimate that the national cost of energy supply accidents over the past decade exceeds $50 billion, mostly from oil spills and electric power outages.

But no research has thoroughly examined the full scope of costs from US energy supply accidents . . . until now.

This spring, 24 students from the departments of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) and Social and Decision Sciences (SDS) at Carnegie Mellon University completed a comprehensive analysis of accidents in the production and delivery of energy across the country, and the results may surprise you.

For example, the study found that:

No energy supply is accident-free. Accidents occur in the production, transport and delivery of all major energy supplies, including renewable energy such as hydroelectric power, as well as nuclear power and fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas. While some are minor incidents, many have major impacts.

But accidents, in general, are on the decline. There has been a significant decline in the number of accidents in all major energy industries over the past several decades, with the exception of the US electrical grid, where the frequency of power outages has been rising.

Coal production is riskiest. The coal industry has seen the most dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities per year from accidents, which is now similar to fatalities in the oil and gas supply sector. However, coal production is still the riskiest in terms of fatalities per unit of energy delivered. Coal companies also pay far less in fines and civil penalties than other energy industries.

Environmental impacts vary widely by industry. The most severe impacts have resulted from recent oil spills. Documentation of environmental and economic damages, however, is poor for many sectors of the US energy system.

Transparency and visibility are lacking. Available data on accidents in the production, transport and delivery of energy are incomplete, inconsistent or unavailable. While a variety of government agencies collect some types of accident-related information, there is no place where an interested citizen can find full and reliable information on risks and impacts of energy supply accidents in the US.

The newly released report, Learning from Energy Supply Catastrophes, concludes with a recommendation that the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), a branch of the Energy Department, compile and publish factual information on the consequences of accidents in each energy supply industry. Key data would include the annual number of fatalities, injuries, barrels of oil spilled and various other measures relevant to each industry.

"We found that safety is the single most important factor affecting the public's preference for different types of energy," Margaret Hamlin, one of the student researchers who conducted a survey of public attitudes, said. "So investments and regulations to further improve safety and reduce the number of accidents are essential as we look ahead to future energy choices."

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