The new movie “Deepwater Horizon” chronicles the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a story worth telling, but the Deepwater disaster should not indict the entire energy industry.
Oil and natural gas firms actually have an exceptional safety record. Thanks to improved technology and safety standards, incidents like Deepwater are extremely rare. Historically, only two accidents occurred besides Deepwater: the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the 1989 Valdez Oil Spill.
That’s still too many from the industry viewpoint, but energy development involves unique risks. Workers handle heavy equipment and toxic material. That’s why developers have created new technologies that reduce danger. Automated machinery reduces the chance of human error. New water pipelines reduce waste. And improved drilling cuts the amount of time workers spend underground.
Moreover, energy firms have worked closely with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop new safety standards for equipment posing the highest risks.
As a result, a new OSHA study shows that the average injury rate on new oil rigs is a third less than that of older rigs.
Meanwhile, the overall fatality rate for the oil and gas industry has dropped 60 percent since 2003. And the rate of work-related injury and illness has fallen 40 percent since 2005.
These are substantial gains. As of 2014, the private sector suffered 3.2 job-related, non-fatal injuries per 100 full-time workers. The energy industry, by comparison, had a rate of only 2.1. And offshore drilling is even safer, with an injury rate of just .5 per 100 workers.
Transportation is also incredibly safe -- especially pipelines.
Consider liquid pipelines. Since 1999, accidents are down 50 percent. Now, in 99.999 percent of cases, oil and petroleum arrive safely at their destinations.
For natural gas, 99.999997 percent of cases experience no spills. Since 1984, pipeline leaks have decreased 94 percent.
Industry officials spend billions on rigorous inspections and maintenance. Recently, they’ve increased inspections, used new devices to detect weaknesses in infrastructure and required operators to craft unique inspection protocols.
Ironically, it’s green extremists that make pipelines unsafe. Misguided environmentalists frequently vandalize pipeline construction sites. In Iowa, extremists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline set fire to construction sites, causing $1 million in damage. In North Dakota, four security guards were injured and over two dozen people pepper sprayed after a violent pipeline protest.
Extrapolating larger danger from the Deepwater tragedy and installing punishing regulations beyond newly updated best practices has real economic costs.
Today, the oil and natural gas sector supports over nine million jobs and generates substantial economic activity.
Take Colorado, where the industry now supports over 213,000 jobs and represents over nine percent of state GDP. Additionally, state tax revenue from energy firms has jumped by 50 percent since 2010. That’s money that can be invested in schools, roads, and other public infrastructure.
This is the American energy economy in action. But regulations prevent it from reaching its full potential. Under President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency has finalized nearly 150 new rules. Overall, EPA regulations cost $386 billion annually -- over 2 percent of GDP.
Indeed, the anti-energy constraints could cost the oil and natural gas industry 830,000 jobs.
The Deepwater Horizon spill was a tragedy. But it was also an isolated incident. The energy industry has driven substantial safety and environmental improvements and is well on their way to zero accidents and zero spills.
Robert L. Bradley Jr. is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Energy Research.