Do Fossil Fuel Disasters Help Renewable Energy?

Twenty-five miners are dead and four more missing following Monday’s explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Besides being the deadliest mining accident since at least 1984 (maybe earlier), the blast brings a new wave of bad PR to the mining industry, and the company that owns the mine, Massey Energy.

The blast also came just days after an explosion at a Washington oil refinery killed five people, and while a coal-laden cargo ship threatens to destroy Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

All of which poses a delicate question: do such disasters help the cause of renewable energy, by giving fossil fuel a reputation in the public’s mind as a dirty, dangerous and out-of-date industry run by uncaring slave masters?

America’s biggest environmental disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, happened before the current renewable energy era. If such a disaster happened today would it give clean energy a bump the same way high gas prices do? Would Americans be more willing to pay for cap-and-trade?

Soft target

Clean energy and climate blogs have leapt on the W. Virginia disaster (here, here, and here), but mainly to report the facts, the implied message being: this sort of thing doesn’t happen at solar power plants (although..). For instance, Climateprogress.org, a leading liberal climate blog, has taken a break from its perpetual battle against global-warming deniers to slam mine operator Massey for ignoring safety concerns.

Ellen Smith, owner of Mine Safety and Health News, said “from an environmental standpoint, these mine disasters certainly bring into question the cost of coal. They cause people to look at the industry in ways they haven’t before.”

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.