home > archive > 2004 > this article
Environmentalism's dangerous campaign for "safety"
By Alex Epstein
America's domestic shortage of natural gas is, as Alan Greenspan has observed, "a very serious problem." Fortunately, there is a proven technology that could enable Americans to access plentiful natural gas stores from overseas: Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) -- natural gas cooled and condensed into a portable liquid, 1/600th its original volume. Given these facts, one might expect energy-short state governments to eagerly approve corporations' proposals for new LNG facilities; instead, bowing to pressure from environmentalists, they are repeatedly rejecting them.
Environmentalists level many objections against LNG -- for example, that LNG facilities would displace "plant and animal life" or that LNG tankers may require harbors to be dredged -- but one objection has been more effective than all the rest combined: the claim that LNG is catastrophically unsafe. The Sierra Club calls LNG "extremely volatile," and labels LNG tankers and storage facilities an "enormous risk" that "endanger our health and safety." A documentary popular among opponents of LNG claims that an LNG mishap or a terrorist attack on an LNG facility could incinerate an entire city.
Is LNG a disaster waiting to happen? Consider its history. In the last 60 years in the United States, only one person has died in an LNG-related accident. Countries like Japan use LNG accident-free to get nearly all of their natural gas. In 1995, LNG facilities in Kobe, Japan, went undamaged in an earthquake that registered 6.8 on the Richter Scale! LNG's admirable safety record is the result of two fundamental factors. First, contrary to environmentalist propaganda, LNG is not an especially volatile, hazardous material -- it is far less hazardous than many commonly used substances, such as propane, since it can become explosive and flammable only under rare conditions. Second, LNG producers protect against these conditions by using advanced safety technologies and procedures -- such as double-hull tankers, safety-systems with automatic shutdown, and the use of offshore facilities far removed from population centers.
But what about the claim that the risk of infiltration by terrorists justifies banning LNG -- such as Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's statement, in response to a proposed facility, that there "is simply no way that it makes sense to site an LNG [facility] in this location in the post-9/11 world"? This is no more valid than saying that because terrorists can do massive damage by crashing planes into buildings, planes and buildings should be banned. Would environmentalists accept the argument that since arsonists can do massive damage by burning trees -- witness the California forest fires -- trees should be banned? The fact that something can be misused to harm others is an argument only for forbidding that misuse (where possible) -- not for depriving individuals of the many beneficial uses of trees, planes, or LNG. (And in the case where the danger comes from a foreign aggressor, it is the aggressor, not one of his unlimited potential targets, that must be eliminated.)
The fallacious technique of arguing against the "safety" of a technology by citing some potential misuse is not unique to LNG -- it is used by environmentalists to oppose other life-promoting technologies, such as nuclear power and biotechnology. And this technique itself is just one of the many pseudo-logical, pseudo-scientific methods environmentalists use to condemn technologies as "unsafe." Environmentalists got the pesticide DDT and the apple preservative Alar off the market with claims that each causes cancer -- based on studies using mice fed the equivalent of over 100,000 times normal human consumption. To "prove" that fossil fuels cause cataclysmic climate change -- first, global cooling in the 1970s, now, global warming -- environmentalists cite the predictions of wildly inaccurate computer models that, according to climatologist Dr. Patrick Michaels, perform "worse than a table of random numbers when applied to U.S. temperatures."
The environmentalists' proclamations of danger and doom are not honest errors based on an overzealous concern for human safety and well-being -- they are a dishonest scare-tactic to make their anti-industrial policies appealing to those who do not share the environmentalist belief that nature should be preserved at human expense. Observe that environmentalists are utterly indifferent to the human toll of abandoning "unsafe" technologies -- of natural gas shortages, of the $200 million lost by apple-growers over the Alar scare, of the energy crises created by anti-nuclear, anti-fossil fuel policies, of the millions who continue to die unnecessarily due to the DDT ban.
Safety in the pursuit of technology is a valid concern, but only within the context of a preeminent regard for human well-being and its greatest benefactor: industrial civilization. Given their track record of dishonest arguments and the anti-industrial goals that motivate them, environmentalists' screams about "safety" should be dismissed out-of-hand and not be permitted to further thwart technological progress.
Alex Epstein is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996 - 2005, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.