Why We’d Better Learn from the Gulf Oil Spill

Saskatchewan’s economy is second only to Alberta’s in oil and gas export. The fossil fuels mostly go south to the US, which, along with China, is the biggest energy glutton on the planet. This is an inherently unsustainable energy system and the blowback comes in many natural and human-made forms. People in the Gulf of Mexico are just recuperating from Hurricane Katrina, an extreme storm likely linked to the global build-up of greenhouse gases. Hopefully the oil gushing from British Petroleum’s (BP’s) botched deep sea drilling will be a big wake up call for Americans. Facing intense industry and Republican lobbying prior to this catastrophe, Obama lifted the ban on off-shore drilling. California’s Republican Governor has now called for a complete ban on all off-shore drilling.

The Gulf disaster began April 20th with an explosion and fire at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. Two days later, the platform sunk, leaving seventeen crew injured and another eleven missing. By early May it came out that BP greatly underestimated the spill and at least 5,000 barrels were leaking daily. More recent estimates are much higher. By mid-May at least four million gallons had already leaked. After attempts to seal the leaks failed BP lowered a huge structure onto the unstable seabed to try to contain the leak, but this also failed; the gas, crystallizing in such frigid water, plugged the outlet. Then a pipe was inserted into the well to try to pump some leaking oil into tankers. With rough weather, skimmer vessels haven’t been effective and the oil slicks can’t be burned, and it’s uncertain whether the hundreds of miles of inflatable booms will be able to keep oil from reaching the fragile coastline. Even before any oil was visible, coastal people were complaining of sickening fumes wafting across the water.


This is another ecological catastrophe that wasn’t to happen. The AP reported that BP’s 2009 Environmental Impact analysis said the chances of such an accident were “virtually impossible”, adding that because the rig was 48 miles out to sea any spill would be dispersed. BP was wrong on the probability, and their back-up shut-off valve totally failed. The Gulf Restoration Network claims that BP lacked the technology required to deal with drilling at such depths. BP however continues to promote the ecocidal ethic that “the solution to pollution is dilution”.

Corporations, and governments wanting to give them free reign can’t see the world in ecological terms; profitability not sustainability is their bottom line. And it’s in their interest to oversimplify risk and downplay full costs. Though BP says it will pay for clean-up, its lawyers will fight to displace the full ecological costs. Company officials are already trying to shift responsibility onto their rig operator, Transocean. Haliburton, once headed by Dick Cheney, which profited so much from the war on Iraq, is also involved.

The Gulf is a very bad place for such a spill. There is a massive shoreline along the half-circle that forms the Gulf, with some of the richest biodiversity (e.g. the Everglades) in the Americas. Also the “loop” current can take oil around Florida and into the Gulf Stream, which goes towards Canada’s coastline. The thousands of volunteers who frantically try to reduce the damage to their homeland will be exposed to extremely toxic crude oil fumes. By mid-May the spill had already formed a slick 200 by 100 km, threatening birds, dolphins, shrimps, oysters, crabs and fish. The Gulf fishery is the most abundant source of seafood for all of the U.S. so this spill is probably destined to be economically as well as ecologically worse than the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons off Alaska in 1989.


Saskatchewan’s political leaders of both parties have steadily moved our economy to greater dependence on fossil fuels. And we’re among the highest per capita carbon emitters on the planet – 74 tonnes last year. While we are not engaged in offshore drilling, the companies we deal with are. BP could soon be operating in our back yard, with its planned $1.5 billion Sunrise tar sands project in Alberta. And water is not only threatened by offshore drilling; the tar sands are under growing global criticism for their contamination of waterways. To produce one barrel of oil requires 2 to 4 barrels of water, and 90% of the waste water must be contained in toxic tailing ponds.

Federal Environment Minister Prentice has cynically tried to use the Gulf disaster to make the tar sands seem more environmentally sound. And BP claims its proposed steam-assisted tar sand extraction will contaminate less land, and that the use of aquifers will affect fewer waterways. But this too is largely untested technology and some industry proponents are even advocating the use of small nuclear reactors to produce the steam. And do we really want BP “experimenting” with our aquifers? There are signs of a rebellion brewing among some unconvinced stockholders. The lobby group Fair Pensions which is trying to democratize international investment wants disclosure of more information about BP’s Sunrise project. Unfortunately, many shareholders place short-term earnings above sustainability, and have supported a 40% increase in pay for BP’s CEO, to total $4 million annually, as a reward for lowering costs while increasing oil production. Corporate cost-cutting to increase profit-margins often means more risks of catastrophes such as we now see in the Gulf. If Obama succeeds in getting BP to pay costs, beyond the $75 million cap presently on its liability, BP’s profits will shrink, as they should.

BP distracts public attention from ecological risks by exaggerating job opportunities with its megaprojects. But a job on an ocean oil rig or in the tar sands, dangerously exploiting a non-renewable toxic resource, is never equivalent to a job harvesting a renewable resource. All those who make a living off the massive fishery in the Gulf now have their source of income threatened, and the jobs from the oil rig are also gone. Protecting the Gulf ecology and fishery by not allowing inherently dangerous off-shore drilling will ensure far more jobs into the future. The same principle holds when comparing jobs from the tar sands with sustainable jobs provided by protecting ecology. Sustainability requires that we do the jobs’ math accurately.

Executives were celebrating BP’s safety record just prior to the methane bubble coming up from the ocean floor and exploding. This is a wake-up call for us all, whether we live close to a fishery or to a proposed tar sands project. Our response needs to go beyond party politics; sustainability will and should alter the nature of political priorities. Party politics needs to be rejuvenated with participatory politics; corporate-backed governments need to be replaced by citizen-backed ones. And soon, for the planet and all life that depends upon its quality of water depends on this.

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