The Gulf of Mexico disaster is just the latest in a long history of "accidents".
As Canada considers drilling for oil in the Arctic now that ice seems to be less of an impediment, we should remember that in October 1970, a blowout at a natural gas well on King Christian Island in the Arctic Ocean created a massive flame as up to 5.6 million cubic metres of gas a day spewed for more than three months. It was the second blowout in the Arctic since drilling began the year before.
Around the same time, the drilling consortium, Panarctic Oil Ltd., was slapped with a huge fine for dumping junk steel, waste oil, and other garbage into the Arctic Ocean.
The drilling companies found a novel solution to the latter problem: they convinced the federal government of the day to issue ocean dumping permits, making the practice legal and common until 1993, when the Inuit challenged one of the permits.
Oil industry people are fond of claiming that practices and technology are improving, that we don’t have to worry any more—and then, boom, we get another disaster like the one in the Gulf of Mexico or the recent Enbridge pipeline leak in Michigan.
Often, the initial reaction of industry folks is to downplay the incidents. In the Arctic, a small population means that fewer people notice the disasters and pollution. It’s harder to ignore in a heavily populated area like the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and Mexico.
Still, the industry does what it can to keep people in the dark. According to Alabama’s Press-Register newspaper, BP has been trying to buy scientists working on oil and marine issues in the Gulf. As the paper’s Ben Raines reports, “BP PLC attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at one Alabama university”.
The newspaper obtained a copy of the contract the oil company was offering to scientists. “It prohibits the scientists from publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years.” This would prevent these scientists from testifying in any legal action brought against BP for the catastrophe.
If we were to allow stepped-up drilling and exploration in the Arctic, or off the B.C. coast, we could expect more of these kinds of disasters in sensitive ecosystems. And, as I’ve often pointed out, what we do to the oceans, we do to ourselves. We depend on the oceans for our survival—for our food and our oxygen and for so much more.
But we can’t lay all the blame on the fossil fuel companies. They’re just doing their job, fuelling an ever-increasing demand. They may appear to act with the scruples of crack dealers, but we’re all contributing to the global petro-economy.
As demand for energy continues to grow, we can expect governments and industry to seek out fossil fuels from ever more remote, dirty, and dangerous sources.
And yet, how many of us are willing to make changes in our own lives to cut back on our use of fossil fuels? The Gulf of Mexico situation is horrendous, but the amount of oil represents only about one quarter of the world’s daily consumption. That means every day we consume four times more oil than that spilled in the Gulf, spewing the associated crap into the atmosphere, rivers and lakes, and oceans.
But as I look out the window of my office, I see a steady stream of SUVs, trucks, and cars—most of them with just a driver and no passengers and many of them driven for the convenience of avoiding walking or taking a bus.
We must convince governments and industry leaders to invest more in clean-energy solutions and to put certain areas off limits to oil exploration, drilling, and shipping, but we also must all take personal responsibility for the fossil fuel–related disasters, from blow-outs to climate change. We and our world would be healthier if we relied less on our cars and more on transit, bicycles, and our feet. We can also educate ourselves about other ways to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, such as using fewer plastic bags and disposable plastic products and insulating our homes.
We’re all a part of the problem and of the solution.
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