Andrea Harden-Donahue: One year after BP oil spill, lessons still to be learned in Canada

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Today (April 20) is the one-year anniversary of the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

      I can think of no better way to mark this than the UN General Assembly discussion happening today about implementing new international standards that afford rights and legal standing not just to individuals and businesses adversely affected by the exploitation and damage to natural resources, but to nature and ecosystems themselves.

      Tomorrow, Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians and renown water expert, will be joining prominent scholars and experts in New York for a public discussion and launch of a ground-breaking new book, The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

      I can think of no better way to mark the anniversary of the spill because this book outlines the type of thinking and actions we need to prevent similar future catastrophes. True prevention of another disaster does not lie in temporary moratoriums and debates over the acceptability of one safety measure versus another—albeit these can have a legitimate role in stopping immediate threats—but rather in humanity taking a collective step forward, beyond seeing nature as property something to be used, abused, and sold, to a more holistic understanding of the human-ecosystem relationship.

      This isn’t about carrots getting a right not be eaten. Like all rights, there is a need to weigh and balance one right against another, something there is precedent of.

      It does mean that corporations won’t be able to recklessly use the environment and not be held accountable for this, including the costs of returning the ecosystem—if possible at all—to its previous state. It means reflecting the values that many of us share in wanting a clean, healthy environment, into law. For too long has law been focused on protecting corporate and market interests.

      And no, this isn’t pie in the sky thinking.

      Pittsburgh has already recognized the rights of nature in its laws and Ecuador has enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution. Legal expert Cormac Cullinan, one of the authors featured in the book, has also written a book specifically about how to realize nature rights in law.

      While this launch certainly gives me hope, the failure of the Canadian government to realize the magnitude of the risks presented by offshore drilling in the wake of the BP spill, does not. Certainly, since the spill we have seen the launch of a National Energy Board Arctic Offshore Drilling Review but I have two serious reservations about this review.

      First, the scope is defined in a way that marginalizes questions of whether offshore drilling can ever be safe, let alone because of the risks a spill poses, but also because we know that addressing the climate crisis requires leaving fossil fuel reserves we already have access to, in the ground.

      Secondly, there are good reasons to question whether the NEB will come out with a balanced report. Many of the board members are from the energy sector and, as reported in the Globe and Mail, ”There are no environmentalists or northern residents represented on the National Energy Board....Several current NEB members worked in the industry before their appointments, or with Alberta provincial regulators that have green-lighted resource projects.”

      This is not to say that the consultation is not important, statements and research presented by interveners are certainly bringing relevant questions and information to light.

      Marking the 50th day after the BP spill, I sent a letter to the Toronto Star, calling for a moratorium on exploration and drilling in the Arctic. 365 days later, the same reasons ring true.

      Yet instead of this, the federal government issued yet another exploratory licence to Chevron Canada Limited last July to explore around 100 kilometres off the coast of Herschel Island, Yukon. The Gulf oil spill was 66 kilometres off the coast.

      This decision was made despite the request from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation to withdraw the bid Chevron eventually won and for an end to further exploration licences and no drilling until Inuvialuit are assured that a blow-out could be prevented, that a blow-out could be stopped, and that spilled hydrocarbons could be contained quickly.

      It’s simple. Exploration leads to drilling. We are told that drilling could begin as early as 2014. There remains no surefire way to clean up oil in icy waters and the remote nature of future drilling sites pose significant barriers to quickly responding to a spill.

      For all of these reasons, the Council of Canadians feels strongly that offshore drilling must be stopped before it starts. We are committed to working with allies and communities to raise awareness of the risks of offshore drilling, tracking, and challenging the progress of offshore drilling.

      Andrea Harden-Donahue is an energy and climate justice campaigner for the Council of Canadians.