Fossil Fuels are Dangerous

I thought of writing this piece a number of times, but always decided against it. It always did, and still does, seem like an interesting idea that would never get much traction. But, I rather like sharing outlandish ideas (see last Thursday), so I’ve decided to give this one a go.


I think the claim can be made that fossil fuels are killing people. And no, this isn’t about global warming. This is about the lives of coal miners. This summer, few Americans missed the nine deaths that came at a Utah coal mine. The first collapse trapped and killed six Utah coal miners. The second collapse killed three more in a fatal rescue attempt.

And even if those nine are the only casualties of American coal mines this year, that’s a pretty dangerous line of work. Certainly more dangerous than most of the things better-paid Americans do daily.

We should also notice that America’s coal mines, which sadly seem to always claim at least a few workers a year, are a great deal safer than others around the globe. The most visible example of this is China, where mining deaths are regularly above 4000 annually. This is a testament to both the fact that China has more coal mines, and that they worry less about workplace safety.

Coal Miner

In 2004, a particularly bad year for China, there were 6,027 deaths in their coal mines. The United States only lost 28 miners. And though this country could spend time rejoicing at that disparity, we can’t overlook the tragedy of 28 Americans dying so that the rest of us could watch television, use our iPods, and read late into the night.

Surely these deaths aren’t a great problem for the coal companies. They continue to operate questionably safe underground mines, hoping that they’ll continue to be profitable in what they hope is a growing market for coal. Indeed, in both America and the world, demand for the cheap and plentiful energy provided by coal seems not to have subsided.

And surely there are safer ways to get coal. Open pit mines, where the earth is removed from the top of the coal seams, are safer for workers. That does, however, ignore the significant eyesore that such mines can become.

It should also be noted that coal is the most dangerous of fossil fuels. Many fewer die harvesting oil or natural gas than coal. But we also can’t overlook the fact, in light of these figures, that even nuclear–the ugly stepchild of the energy sector–is a rather safe technology.

As The Economist recently pointed out, “the UN figure of around 4,000 eventual deaths as a result of the Chernobyl accident is lower than the official annual death-rate in Chinese coal mines.” A grim comparison no doubt, but one that can’t easily be ignored.

Is concern for the safety of coal miners going to drive the world away from using the sometimes-dangerous fossil fuel? History points toward no. But, there is a real possibility that safety concerns can serve as another argument in favor of renewable energies or even nuclear power.

The public at large seems turned off by constant appeals about global warming. The conversions are becoming fewer and fewer as the willing have joined up and the doubtful have become more obstinate.

Safety of American citizens will not push hundreds or even the needed millions to ask for more renewable or lower-carbon energy sources. But there is a possibility that it can make people think a little harder about how they’re using energy and where that energy is coming from.

6 responses to “Fossil Fuels are Dangerous”

  1. Sadly, Americans have about a 5 minute attention span when it comes to things like Global Warming.
    Our necks are quickly turned by trite nonsense as Britney Spears & the VMA.
    Good post; here’s hoping we grow up & become activists to what is happening around & to us.

  2. Really good article, David. As bad as things are with our coal mines here in Appalachia, I can only imagine what is going on in China’s coal mines. I have to wonder if they are still using child labor over there.

    Thanks for your visit. I’m taking it easy this week due to other entanglements, but will be hopefully back at it full steam next week.

  3. While one might say that they choose to enter those mines themselves, it is clear that it really is the public’s demand for coal that is sending them down. Of course nearly any excuses to switch to durable energy sources is a good one.

  4. I don’t know that the ‘they choose it’ argument really holds any weight unless you’ve been brought up in the coalfields, like most of these miners were, and have a living understanding of how mining is so thoroughly infused in the culture and the blood there. TomKR may very well HAVE BEEN. I don’t know.

    Of course I understand the philosophy that says ‘you can’t change it unless you realise it’s a choice to being with’ but I also understand my grandfather’s ‘I was 26 years old before I even knew there WAS any job other than the mines.’

  5. i am from west virginia, and the coal miners here dont do it because they have to, they do it because it is a way of life. it is in there blood and they are proud to be coal miners. they risk their lives everyday but dont want anyone to feel sorry for them. they dont look at it as a threat, they are proud of their heritage and proud to be coal miners!

  6. we should focus more on global warming please, this is jst losing coal miners, global warming is more than tht A WHOLE WORLD is at stake here! write about tht!!!