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April 26: Carnegie Mellon Engineering Students Weigh Costs of Energy Supply Accidents; Class Finds Lack of Data Underestimates Risks In U.S. Energy Supply Chain

Contact: Chriss Swaney / 412-268-5776 / Swaney@andrew.cmu.edu

Carnegie Mellon Engineering Students Weigh Costs of Energy Supply Accidents;
Class Finds Lack of Data Underestimates Risks In U.S. Energy Supply Chain

Researchers Urge U.S. Energy Information Administration To Publish Accident Data To Improve Energy Decision-Making


PITTSBURGH—The national cost of energy supply accidents over the past decade are estimated to exceed $50 billion, mostly from oil spills and electric power outages. But a lack of critical data on the full scope of energy supply accidents make it impossible to quantify all the costs.

A class of 24 engineering students in Carnegie Mellon University's departments of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) and Social and Decision Sciences (SDS) recently completed a comprehensive analysis of accidents in the production and delivery of energy in the U.S. in the wake of the massive BP Gulf oil spill and gas pipeline explosions in Pennsylvania, California and Texas. 

The newly released report "Learning from Energy Supply Catastrophes" found that the U.S. lacks a clear and complete picture of the human, environmental and economic risks of producing and delivering oil, natural gas, coal, electricity and other forms of energy. The study also strongly recommends that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a branch of the Energy Department, compile and publish factual information on the consequences of accidents in each energy supply industry. Key data would include the annual number of fatalities, injuries, barrels of oil spilled and various other measures relevant to each industry.

"Our goal was to assess the full cost of accidents in the U.S. energy supply chain in terms of their human, environmental and economic impacts and to see whether some forms of energy are safer than others," said Kyle Siler-Evans, a Ph.D. student in EPP and one of three student project managers in the semester-long project course.

Nathan Leonard, a senior in mechanical engineering and EPP, reported that the research team also wanted to see what the trends were for different energy industry sectors, and whether there's any correlation between accident rates and the level of government oversight.

"This was a very ambitious effort to pull together and analyze all available data on the frequency and impacts of U.S. accidents in the production and delivery of energy," said Edward S. Rubin, the study's principal faculty adviser and the Alumni Chair Professor of Environmental Engineering and Science and a professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Rubin shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, alongside Vice President Al Gore.

The study provides important new insights into the risk and impacts of U.S. energy supply accidents. Some of the study's key findings include:

  • Accidents occur in the production, transport and delivery of all major energy supplies, including renewable energy such as hydroelectric power, as well as nuclear power and fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas. While some are minor incidents, many have major impacts.
  • There has been a significant decline in the number of accidents in all major energy industries over the past several decades, with the exception of the U.S. electrical grid, where the frequency of power outages has been rising.
  • The coal industry has seen the most dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities per year from accidents, which is now similar to fatalities in the oil and gas supply sector. However, coal production is still the riskiest in terms of fatalities per unit of energy delivered. Coal companies also pay far less in fines and civil penalties than other energy industries.
  • The environmental impacts of accidents vary widely by industry. The most severe impacts have resulted from recent oil spills. Documentation of environmental and economic damages, however, is poor for many sectors of the U.S. energy system.
  • Available data on accidents in the production, transport and delivery of energy are incomplete, inconsistent or unavailable. While a variety of government agencies collect some types of accident-related information, there is no place where an interested citizen can find full and reliable information on risks and impacts of energy supply accidents in the U.S.

"We found that safety is the single most important factor affecting the public's preference for different types of energy," said Margaret Hamlin, an SDS senior and one of the student researchers who conducted a survey of public attitudes. "So investments and regulations to further improve safety and reduce the number of accidents are essential as we look ahead to future energy choices."

"And having the EIA add accident data to its current annual report of energy supply statistics makes a lot of sense. It would provide the public with important new information that is currently missing in most discussions of energy policy," according to Rubin, who frequently advises state and federal governments about energy and environmental issues.

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