David Suzuki: What the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster tells us

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 U.S. 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 B.C. 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 B.C. 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 U.S. 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 B.C. 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.

B.C.’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 boon. A cartoon in the Edmonton Journal pictured U.S. 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 www.davidsuzuki.org.



TransLink is to blame

May 11, 2010 at 8:08pm

David, what the Gulf Coast disaster tells me is that if more of us lived and worked in our community, more people could cycle or walk to get around or at least drive less or take transit less. If more people cycled or walked, TransLink wouldn't be buying as much diesel fuel for its crappy B-Lines and BP wouldn't be drilling deep ocean wells to supply TransLink with diesel fuel.

So, in other words, blame the disaster on companies like TransLink which are encouraging us to live far from home to make long commutes on regional transit like the B-Line rather have us take short trips on trolley buses. TransLink one way or another with its Everscam Line, 99 B-Line or RAV Line is to blame for all our problems because the TransLink stooges want to hook us on regional transit to justify their existences. Simple, eh?


May 11, 2010 at 9:17pm

What is Gordon Campbell's position on offshore drilling?


May 11, 2010 at 11:15pm

Oil is a natural substance and Nature contains the mechanisms to effectively remove it from the open environment better than any human. Nature has left no trace of the the Exxon Valdez "disaster". Accidents happen...drill, baby drill!

Eric Chris

May 12, 2010 at 12:31am

Translink is not to blame. The people that use diesel buses to commute long distances are to blame. If they choose to live closer to their destination then the diesel buses would not be required. It costs me a lot more to live close to work, but my quality of life is greatly improved. I can spend more time with my family without the commute. And I look forward to the day when my kids are old enough to understand that I did my best so that they can inherit a cleaner world.

nice try TransLink

May 12, 2010 at 12:31pm

@Eric Chris (aka TransLink), I know Eric Chris and he would never make comment like that.

Really? Translink?

May 12, 2010 at 2:19pm

You've got to be joking. I'm sitting in a cafe looking out onto the well trafficked Hastings St. and 97% of the cars and trucks have one person in them. Super imposing a beef with trans link onto a discussion about over consumption skips a number of steps. Abottsford just narrowly allowed a highrise apt. to be built there amidst strong opposition. The UBC campus is being filled with new 2 million dollar condos but no new student housing; and charging market value for the student housing it does have.
The GVRD is designed with an epicenter and until the business and culture of the region decentralizes commutes are unavoidable. Maybe you should ask your city planners, or the throngs of weekend warriors that flock to the downtown party districts instead of partying where they live why the commute to work or play is the norm in this self proclaimed green city.

Why do I still get surprised?

May 12, 2010 at 3:21pm

Wow! public transportation is to blame? How sh*t you are effing dumb.

yes really

May 12, 2010 at 7:15pm

@Really, TransLink?, yes really. We aren't talking about people coming into Vancouver once every blue moon. We are talking about operating transit every 1.5 minutes to 5 minutes so that half the buses are empty.

Obviously, providing transit every 1.5 minutes is convenient. It also makes you broke and results in serious pollution on bus routes. I read today that ScamLink just got another $130 million: "Dale Parker thanked the Mayors' Council for approving $130 million ..."

ScamLink will need it after spending between $5 million to $10 million to figure out how to spend $3 billion, which it doesn’t have but will tax us to obtain, to extend rapid transit to UBC. Uh, since the Pacific Ocean is right there, couldn’t we run a ferry service to and from UBC for about $0.3 billion or next to nothing, instead?

Dale, enjoy the caviar and $300K/yr, courtesy of your Mayor Council friends. While you are at it, buy some BP and Suncor stock. With all the diesel fuel that TransLink uses on trolley bus routes, you can’t go wrong.

Margaret L Smithe

May 12, 2010 at 10:35pm

I think its just plain stupid that anybody would poo-poo translink for using deisel. Yes, Diesel is harmful to the environment. But the reality is that diesel should be replaced with biodeisel, which is cheap to make (ie from leftover cooking oils, or from Algae oil) and has better emissions than "regular" deisel.

Translinks plans to extend the millenium line to ubc is a good idea - especially if you hate diesel-run buses - because the skytrain system is as clean as transportation can get! I'll pay more on a bus fare, sure, but its going to help fuel cleaner transportation. If Vancouver wants to boast being the "greenest" city, then we need to get more skytrain lines out there at whatever costs!

As for empty buses... Yes, running a bus every 1.5 minutes is wasteful in theory when all the buses are empty. But the way to get people to stop driving cars (and most of the people who do drive do it single-occupancy style) is to offer transportation that is reliable and frequent. If we had buses running every 20 minutes or every hour (which is very common in most areas, even busy Hastings St) people are going to opt to drive instead. Waiting for the bus is something that not a lot of people want to do - most people have little patience, and cars exasperate this human flaw.

If we want to change the world, and be more energy efficient we need to change the way we THINK. Looking down on public transportation is not the way to think - instead, think of ways to improve it (like, biodiesel and more skytrains). We shouldn't just think about our immediate well being, but our future and the future of our children's children. If we're only pointing out the flaws we're missing the point - we need to be pointing out possible solutions to these problems. We need to participate as citizens in the future of our region by inspiring hope and change - and this starts here.

David Suzuki should be an inspiration to us all. And a lot of us are missing the point. Pointing fingers is easy. But actually changing bad habits, that is something to be proud of.


May 13, 2010 at 9:30am

The Gulf Disaster is just the beginning of the final war to seize luxuries we cannot afford from Mother Earth. The only real solution for such a war is fuel rationing. I'm sick of doing my utmost to conserve fossil fuels while others in this town drive around all day long in stupid planet-killing Bloatmobiles with big engines and an even bigger sense of entitlement. That cultural pattern and attitude is really one of slow-motion mass suicide, and the perpetrators of the NASCAR mindset really need to take a long swim in the Gulf of Mexico.