Yesterday, a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Virginia, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the James River. It is the latest in a long series of catastrophic oil transportation accidents from Mayflower, Arkansas, to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, to the Yellowstone River in Wyoming, to Lac Megantic, Quebec.
These accidents have involved both rail tankers and pipelines, putting lie to the argument that simply switching from one mode of transportation to another will enable us to move vast quantities of toxic, flammable fuel from one place to another without threat to the environment or public safety.
The Lynchburg accident came on the same day that the American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air report, which found that more than 147 million Americans still live in places where the air is unhealthy to breathe. Combustion of fossil fuels remains a major source of air pollution, even after decades of work to limit air pollution through the use of emission controls.
It is unlikely that the last time you or I filled up our gas tanks, we gave the slightest bit of thought to the possibility that our use of oil might contribute to the destruction of a waterway thousands of miles away or make live less livable for a child with asthma or an elderly person with respiratory issues. And the costs of those effects certainly did not show up in the price we paid at the pump.
As we have discovered in our recent work to identify and quantify the costs of “fracking,” fossil fuel extraction, transportation and use pose an almost incomprehensible variety of threats and risks at every step of the supply chain. Efforts to include these “externalities” in the price of fossil fuels – such as through the use of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes – are certainly beneficial. But as the rapid emergence of fracking has shown, the risks can change rapidly in type, location and magnitude, and those shifts often happen well before the public policy apparatus can adapt. With the hunt for fossil fuels requiring the use of ever more exotic and disruptive techniques in ever more places, one can expect that dynamic to continue and intensify in the years to come.
All of which is to say that accidents like the one in Lynchburg – and the harm they cause to the environment and the public – are inevitable as long as our economy remains dependent on fossil fuels. The bill for those mishaps will continue to be paid by individuals, communities and ecosystems and not by those who benefit from the use or sale of those fuels. Safer rail cars and taxes on pollution can certainly help mitigate the impacts, but the public and decision-makers need to keep their eyes on what should be the overriding goal: reducing the production, transportation and use of fossil fuels wherever possible, both by improving the energy efficiency of our economy and by increasing our use of renewable sources of energy.
The cost of fossil fuels is high and rising. That is a fact we all need to remember in the critical debates facing our nation over transportation and energy policy.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.