Riding the train in to work Tuesday, I caught sight of a plume of smoke rising from the horizon. A large fire, I later learned, was underway at a major Chevron oil refinery just northeast of San Francisco. No one was seriously hurt, but upwards of 500 people went to the hospital with respiratory complaints, while several thousand were told to stay in their homes.
Following the news of the fire, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the relationship between health and energy. It’s not an issue that gets much airtime in energy debates. But when we start to look into the health problems our current system is creating and how far existing clean energy technology could go in saving lives, the implications are huge.
To begin with, if it seems like this sort of thing is always happening, that’s because it is. Fossil fuel extraction and processing has become a lot safer in recent years, but it is still inherently dangerous. In the U.S. alone, 3,827 coal miners have died in accidents since 1968, according to the Center for American Progress. Natural gas and oil production have resulted in 892 and 77 deaths, respectively, in those years, as well as almost 14,000 injuries.
The infographic below, from Scientific American, lays out the “human costs” of accidents related to different energy sources.