Fossil Fuel Source: Oil and Gas

Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is “one of the most dangerous acids known.” HF can immediately damage lungs, leading to chronic lung disease; contact on skin penetrates to deep tissue, including bone, where it alters cellular structure. HF can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through skin.

The senior laboratory safety coordinator at the University of Tennessee said, “Hydrofluoric Acid is an acid like no other. It is so potent that contact with it may not even be noticed until long after serious damage has been done.”

Hydrofluoric Acid is a common ingredient used in oil and gas extraction.

Numerous studies, including recent ones conducted by both The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the United Steelworkers Union (USU) cite the oil industry’s abysmal safety record as a high risk factor for a major HF accident; over the past decade, more than 7,600 accidental chemical releases from refineries have been reported by the industry. In the past three years alone, a total of 131 “minor” accidents involved HF.

One major refinery’s experience speaks volumes about the fossil fuel industry‘s disregard for safety and public health: the BP Texas City refinery. This single refinery has accumulated more than 600 safety violations, which, inevitably, led to tragedy: in 2005, a series of explosions at the refinery killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.

This tragedy, however, was not entirely unforeseen by BP. Internal BP memos subsequently revealed that, in the days before the explosion, refinery managers in Texas lamented that “safety is not viewed as the #1 priority” (by company executives in London). Indeed, the memos discussed the likelihood that the refinery “would kill someone.” (This is the same BP which federal investigators found responsible for numerous safety failures leading to the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill.)

And it isn’t only the workers who are at risk. Public health officials have long warned that HF accidents at oil refineries have a high likelihood of causing “mass casualties.” within the civilian population at large.

50 U.S. refineries use HF, many in close proximity to highly populated urban areas such as Houston, Memphis and Philadelphia. THE CPI study estimates some 16 million people are within dangerous range of an accidental HF release—HF travels easily in the air, at great distance.

And there’s more: the Center for American Progress listed HF as the nation’s second most dangerous industrial chemical vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The fossil fuel industry is subject to little regulatory oversight. Federal rules for the use of HF in oil and gas refining are almost non-existant; there is no mention of the topic in the Bureau of Land Management’s recent draft rule for well stimulation methods with HF use (including fracking).

The oil and gas industry spends considerably on lobbying and political campaign contributions to ensure the rules remain lax. In 2013, so far, it has spent more than $100 million in federal lobbying, ranking third among all U.S. industries in federal lobbying. In the past 15 years, the oil and gas industry has spent approximately $1.4 billion in federal lobbying. The energy exercises further influence through additional massive contributions to the political campaigns of friendly U.S. congresspersons. It has contributed millions of dollars to the campaigns of Sen. Inhoffe, Sen. McConnel (R-KY), Sen. Vitter, Sen. Boehner (R-OH), Sen. Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Blunt (R-MO) and others, all of whom have proven loyal to the industry by consistently voting against proposed new safety and public health oversight and regulations.

The lack of regard to the enormous risks to the public posed by HF in fossil fuel production was summarized by a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, one of the largest oil industry lobby groups in the nation, who, when asked to respond to questions about HF safety, simply said: “We use HF acid because it’s effective.”