‘Spill! Baby, Spill!’

Remember the US Republican Convention in 2008? Ecstatic delegates chanted ‘Drill! Baby, Drill!’, led by a euphoric Sarah Palin; she of Alaska who yearns to destroy the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herds of the coastal plain, within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They chanted to open up the coastal zones of the eastern seaboard and California. Their constant pressure led US President Barack Obama to yield, opening some of those off-shore areas, in hopes of a leaky Congressional deal to reduce greenhouse gases.

As the oil gushes from 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, will those who were so reckless have the decency to experience shame? Don’t hold your breath.

Drilling enthusiasm was not confined to the US Republicans. Here at home, the drillers have been pushing hard for exemptions and new drilling in Atlantic Canada’s off-limits fishing grounds in Georges’ Bank, the coast of British Columbia and the increasingly ice-free Beaufort Sea. The irony, entirely lost on the drillers, is that what makes drilling possible is the Arctic ice’s dangerous disappearance, due to fossil-fuel burning around the world.

The Harper government’s 2010 Speech from the Throne and Budget Speech spoke of the great wealth and prosperity that awaits from Canada’s oil and gas resources. Opening up the fragile Arctic environment to oil and gas, expanding the tar sands export opportunities to Asia with pipelines through British Columbia and oil tankers on our coast are all part of the vision of Canada as ‘energy super- power.’ All this development simply awaited the recent government moves to reduce the barriers to development by ‘modernizing the regulatory system.’ Energy projects were virtually exempted from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

And now, along comes the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Even now, some in the oil patch look for silver linings. Only the National Post could dream up this frontpage headline: ‘Gulf’s pain oil sands’ gain, agree experts.’ (May 5, 2010.)

What do we learn from the Gulf of Mexico disaster? In many ways, it is too soon to tell. As I write this on May 5, the situation is in flux. The weather has temporarily improved. Heroic efforts of local fishermen to protect their livelihoods are underway, to lay booms and curtains that may or may not work. Efforts to stop the flow of oil may or may not succeed, and it may take up to three months to arrest it. The head of BP admitted, in the May 5 New York Times, that the daily flow might not be 5,000 barrels of oil, but could reach ten times as much.

One lesson is the sad fate of an oil company that tried, briefly, to divest itself and become an energy company. Former BP CEO, Lord John Brown, actually meant it when he moved to ‘Beyond Petroleum.’ Sadly, he was undermined by his board. His replacement, Tony Hayward, knew where his bread was buttered. BP dropped its green sheen and now lives with a destroyed reputation.

Still, a few lessons are clear. Technology cannot be perfected. Off-shore oil imposes huge risks. Governor Schwarzenegger has announced that plans to open up California’s coasts are cancelled, stating: ‘The money is simply not worth the risk.’

BP, among other oil giants, has insisted catastrophic failures in the off-shore do not justify precautionary planning. BP’s Deepwater Horizon well, the one currently emitting oil into the Gulf, lobbied for, and received on April 9, 2009, an exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act. Termed a ‘categorical exclusion’ it was granted by the Minerals Management Service. Eleven days before the disaster at Deepwater Horizon, BP was pushing for more exemptions. Rather than think through ‘worst case’ scenarios, the US and global industry have treated out-of-control blow- outs off-shore as too unlikely to merit preventative measures—and too far off-shore to threaten coastal damage. (As though dumping oil into the open waters outside territorial limits has no consequence worth consideration.) Both assumptions are now proven wrong.

But we always knew they were wrong. There have been blow-outs in off-shore wells in Nova Scotia, one of which, the Uniake G-72, took nine days to be brought under control. The Santa Barbara California disaster in 1969, due to a Union Oil well blow-out in only 190 feet of water, leaked for 100 days. Then there are the routine spills. It has been estimated that 75% of all the oil spillage along all US coasts was from the Gulf of Mexico rigs, in non-accident conditions. And then there’s the tanker traffic: the 1970 Arrow spill in Nova Scotia (9,000 tonnes), the 1989 Exxon Valdez (38,800 tonnes), the 1996 UK Sea Empress (72,000 tonnes), and on and on.

This litany of despoiled ocean and coast-line share two features: hubris and short memories. We are always told the technology is ‘state of the art.’ Regulations are new and improved. The old days are just that, dead and gone. And we forget.

‘I’m of the opinion that boosterism breeds complacency and complacency breeds disaster,’ said Representative Edward J Markey (D-Mass). ‘That, in my opinion, is what happened.’

In recent days, the Conservative Government, through both the Prime Minister and the Environment minister, has been practicing its own boosterism, proclaiming that we have the toughest regulations in the world. Nonsense. The recently revised regulations are of a new type. They move away from ‘prescriptive regulations’ to a ‘goal- oriented approach.’ The difference is that the companies are able to propose what they want to do to reach a goal of, for instance, environmental protection, without having the kind of technology dictated by regulation.

As explained in the regulations for oil and gas in the Canada Gazette: ‘Modernizing the Regulations improves the existing regulatory framework to support the frontier and offshore oil and gas industry’s continued growth and contribution to Canada’s economy and competitiveness while maintaining the highest standards for safety, environmental protection and management of resources.’

The goal of the regulatory change was to increase development and remove regulation, just as the goal of exempting energy projects from the Environmental Assessment Act was to speed up approvals.

The overall lesson from all of this is clear; we must ensure there is no offshore drilling in Canada’s remote and fragile Arctic environment. No drilling along BC’s coast. And no oil tanker traffic along BC’s coast. The short-term rewards go to those who don’t live here. Any accident devastates our fishery, our tourism, our way of life and the existence of a complex web of life.

Elizabeth May, O.C. is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and writes this missive from Farley Mowat’s desk in Port Hope, Ontario.