At what cost?

Posted: Jul 30, 2002 12:00 AM

Now that we have all breathed a sigh of relief at the rescue of the miners trapped underground in Somerset, Pa., perhaps we might reconsider some of the things that send men down into such hazardous places to get us the fuel to power our economy.

The cost of coal is more than dollars and cents. It is also danger and lives. So are the costs of other ways of producing power for our homes and industries. Hydroelectric dams can burst and wipe out whole communities. Oil can spill over vast areas of land or sea, or catch fire and pollute the air. Nuclear power has its dangers as well, as Chernobyl demonstrated.

Too often, individuals, organizations and movements seize upon one particular kind of cost or danger and try to block it by all means possible. But how many miners' lives are we prepared to risk, in order to spare any inconvenience to Caribou near the Alaskan oil reserves? Or to spare the delicate feelings of nature cultists who will wring their hands over oil drilling that neither they nor 99 percent of the American people will ever see?

Children can set their hearts on one thing and throw tantrums when they can't get it, or can't get it right now. But the mark of maturity is weighing one thing against another in an imperfect world.

An adult weighing trade-offs cannot demand that nuclear power be "safe" because nothing on the face of this earth is 100 percent safe. The only meaningful question is: Compared to what? Compared to digging for coal or burning oil? Compared to hydroelectric dams? Compared to running out of electricity and having blackouts?

Demanding "clean" air and water is like demanding "safe" sources of power. There are no such things. There is air and water containing greater and lesser amounts of other elements and compounds, some of which represent varying amounts of danger that can be removed at varying costs.

Some of these elements and compounds are dangerous pollutants, which can be removed to a great extent at relatively modest costs. But to remove that last infinitesimal fraction of pollutants means skyrocketing costs to avoid ever more remote, or even questionable, dangers.

Some things that might be lethal in high concentrations may be easily handled by the body's natural defenses when there are only minute traces in the air or water. Unfortunately, such complications do not lend themselves to political slogans or to ideological crusades that can energize zealots in environmental cults or Chicken Littles who demand absolute "safety."

Politicians pander to such people, especially during election years, as California's Governor Gray Davis has done by approving more stringent "clean air" standards for automobiles sold in that state. Since there is no way to burn fuel without producing emissions, the mantra of "lower emission standards" is a blank check for never-ending escalations of costs for removing ever more remote dangers.

The most fraudulent of these lower emissions efforts are those directed toward producing electric cars, which will have no emissions at all, because the pollutants are emitted where the electricity is produced, rather than in the cars where it is used. But the emissions are still produced.

True zealots say that "if it saves just one human life," any measure for the sake of safety is worth whatever it costs. But what if its costs can include other human lives?

Wealth saves lives. The miners who were trapped underground in Pennsylvania would have been dead in many Third World countries, because the costly technology and the highly trained specialists who rescued them would simply not have been there, and could not have been gotten there in time over dirt roads or through jungles.

An earthquake that kills a dozen people in California will kill hundreds of people in a less affluent nation and thousands in a truly poor country. Not only does wealth enable buildings and other structures to be built to more earthquake resistant standards, wealth also provides more advanced rescue equipment and more elaborately equipped hospitals with more highly trained personnel to treat the injured.

They say talk is cheap. But some kinds of political rhetoric can end up costing lives as well as money.