Gulf oil disaster a costly lesson

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

It could never happen here. That was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assurance in the wake of the massive oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which he referred to as “an environmental catastrophe unlike anything we’ve seen in quite a long time.”

The company behind the spill off the US Gulf coast, British Petroleum, has three licences to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea in Canada’s Arctic. BP and other companies have asked our federal government to relax environmental regulations around Arctic drilling. And BC is still pushing to get the federal government to lift a moratorium on drilling off the West Coast. There’s also a plan in the works by Enbridge to build a pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands to the BC coast, where it will be put on oil tankers for ocean shipping. Questions have also been raised about the safety of an offshore well that Chevron has started drilling off the coast of Newfoundland. It will be deeper than the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ve been assured many times that the technology is safe, but the Gulf disaster shows that no technology is foolproof. Can we really afford the risk?

President Barack Obama has halted plans for further oil drilling in the Gulf until an investigation is completed (although, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the US has approved 27 other offshore drilling projects since the spill) and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has implemented a similar moratorium on drilling off that state’s coast. Canada, however, has no plans to halt East Coast or Arctic drilling, and the BC government continues to push for drilling off the West Coast. When a disaster of this magnitude occurs, we should stop to re-examine the state of our own programs that might have similar risks so that we can find ways to avoid harming our oceans and coastal communities.

BC’s coast, which is known worldwide for its rich biodiversity and vibrant tourism industry, is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of an oil spill. A spill would be carried quickly by the nutrient-rich currents, possibly washing up on the mainland, Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii coasts. A spill or leak could threaten orcas, salmon, birds and many other plant and animal species, as well as devastating our fishing and tourism industries.

Is this the price we’re willing to pay for a polluting and diminishing source of energy? Oil may seem inexpensive compared to some forms of energy, but if you factor in the costs of these real and potential disasters, not to mention the everyday pollution, it’s not such a bargain.

One surprising response to the spill comes from proponents of the Alberta tar sands who see the Gulf disaster as a boon. A cartoon in the Edmonton Journal pictured US President Obama standing in the Gulf with oil on his hands, saying, “On second thought, the Alberta oilsands ain’t so bad…” The tar sands have been linked to ecological, social and medical problems, including toxic water pollution and excessive greenhouse gas emissions – and none of that is altered by the Gulf spill. The disastrous consequences of ocean oil spills may be more immediately apparent, but land-based drilling can also cause environmental damage. Leaks, spills, blowouts, fires and explosions are more common than many people realize.

A more thoughtful response to the spill would be to recognize the huge risks associated with the kind of energy we use and the way we get it. Clearly, the negative costs of tar sands and deep ocean resources should point to the need to work toward a carbon-free energy future.

The problems are only going to get worse as we reach peak oil, when the most accessible sources of oil are all but gone and we must rely even more on the dirtier and harder to reach supplies in the deep ocean or tar sands.

We can’t stop using fossil fuels immediately, but we should see this latest disaster as an opportunity to look at the costs of our energy use and where we should go from here. Clearly, we must wean ourselves from oil and gas as we make the transition to cleaner sources of energy. If we were wise, we would go more slowly with the resources we do have – in the tar sands, for example – and use the revenues to fund research and development of clean energy.

Learn more at

Leave a comment