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Risk is often defined as a product of two factors: probability and impact. Yet when it comes to the endless quest for fossil fuel energy, it’s become all too easy to minimize the latter.

An oil spill on the scale of what happened last year in the Gulf of Mexico was considered so unlikely that BP’s drilling operations in the region were exempted from full environmental review. But now there’s enough concern about the lasting impacts of what happened that the National Institutes of Health recently launched a major new study to track how residents who assisted with the clean up are faring.

Building nuclear power plants along the coast in a seismically active part of the world may have seemed like a risk worth taking to satisfy Japan’s energy needs. Now that the plants are nearing meltdown after a major earthquake and tsunami, this calculation is questionable perhaps particularly from the perspective of the 140,000 people ordered not to go outdoors because of radiation and the plant workers whose lives hang in the balance as they try to prevent further disaster.

Then there’s natural gas, widely touted as the latest, greatest way to feed the beast of Americans high energy consumption. Except when you consider the glaring and growing reality of severe health problems, deadly pipeline explosions, drinking water contamination, mounting environmental violations, and more toxic waste than states know what to do with or are prepared to handle in the future. And the probability of such problems occurring is likely to curve upwards in the face of lax regulation and a rush to permit more drilling.

It may be true that nothing in life is risk-free. But this is far easier for those who control the probability of disasters but suffer little impact to say (which may be why gas industry representatives are so fond of saying it). And when the unthinkable consequences of supposedly unlikely events start becoming more commonplace and frequent, it’s time to start reassessing the risky business of dirty energy production.