As most of you probably know, a tragic oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico following an explosion on a BP oil rig on April 20. I am slightly embarrassed that as a writer of an environmental blog, I have not commented on this extremely disturbing and concerning tragedy earlier. However, perhaps now more than during the first initial shock of the disaster, it is a useful time to reflect on how events over the past few weeks have been unfolding.

À Priori the “Spill”

To start, let’s go back and consider what was happening before the spill occurred. Just days before the spill, The Globe and Mail (G&M) produced an article entitled, “Why no offshore drilling on the U.S. shelf?” (April 19) The article boldly states with regards to Hurricane Katrina that “Although the storm destroyed oil and gas platforms, it produced no significant oil spills and broke no submerged pipelines.”

Viewed in retrospect, the foolishness of this statement is starkly apparent. While the reasons for the spill are still being determined, clearly a massive weather event as associated with Katrina was not required to cause it.

Early Days

In the initial days after the disaster, reporting focused mainly on the facts of the disaster. Thus, for instance, in an article focusing mainly on the environmental fallout of the spill, G&M readers are informed on April 23rd of what could happen to the oil. While some of the light crude oil is expected to evaporate, readers are horrifyingly told much of it will turn “into a pasty mess called a ‘chocolate mousse’ that ultimately breaks apart into ‘tar balls,’ small chunks of oily residue that can wash ashore.”

Is not that lovely? With such talk, one can assume that even the most hardened anti-environmentalists would be bound to reconsider their views.

Tough Talk

Speed forward a week or so following the disaster. To a certain degree, readers are still learning the environmental horrors of the spill. As evidence, consider the headlines, “Disaster looms as worst oil spill in decades reaches shoreline” and “Surface area of oil slick has tripled, experts say”, of articles run on May 1 (the latter article accompanied by a heart-wrenching picture of a bird being rescued).

However, reports on the extent of the disaster start to be replaced with assurances that the situation is being taken seriously and that something will be done to prevent events of a similar nature in the future. Thus, on April 26 and April 29, readers learn that the spill could affect energy regulations in the Canadian Arctic. As though readers have not been reassured enough, a few days later another G&M article states, “Ottawa will take tough stand on offshore drilling” (May 4).

Business as per Usual

Interestingly, soon after that, the tide begins to turn again. By May 6, the same paper informs readers that Environment Minister Jim Prentice says there is no need for a moratorium on future offshore drilling in Canadian waters.

Then, in what could be construed as an attempt not to miss an opportunity to feed on the public’s emotions, readers are greeted with an article on May 7 entitled, “Oil sands less risky than offshore drilling, Prentice says”.

Finally, yesterday, as though to add fuel to the fire, an article is run in the G&M entitled, “Africa: The new crude frontier“, claiming that Africa could be a new source for oil.

Challenging the “Orthodoxy”

With regards to a lack of a moratorium on offshore drilling, yes, undoubtedly the lack of a relief well is partly to blame for the disaster in the Gulf. However, the Chevron well, which just started in the past few weeks to be drilled off the coast of Newfoundland, faces similar problems. One is forced to ask then, why there is no need for a moratorium.

In terms of finding other sources of oil, as the G&M itself reports, the oil sands by no means offer an “environmentally-friendly” alternative. Rather, significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions and water contamination will prove to be the legacy of such activity if we choose that path.

Of course, assuming ideal conditions (i.e. political cooperation) Africa may prove to offer an alternative source of oil. However, this overlooks the fact that the United States and China also have their eye on these reserves. Which means the supply of any oil taken from there will be more quickly depleted. That is not to mention that much of this oil is located offshore, meaning that oil drilling would place the nations and peoples of Africa also at increased risks of oil spills.

In addition to the above mentioned problems, there is still the often overlooked issue of global climate change. I do not wish to go into great detail about this problem here. However, suffice it to say that there is widespread scientific agreement that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major factor that will, if not already has, negatively influence(d) our climate.

At a Crossroads

In considering these matters as a whole, it would seem we are at a crossroads. They are as follows:

  1. Path one involves following down the “same old, same old” pattern of drilling for oil and the associated environmental devastation and assumedly acceptance thereof.
  2. Path two would take the more innovative route of increasingly adopting conservation as well as renewable energy. In this way, we could better avoid having to deal with the problems associated with reliance on oil.

(Although nuclear power could offer a third path, this is not presented here as an option given associated safety issues).

If we were to learn from recent events, ideally we would take the softer and more benign second path. After all, the BP spill occurred only two days prior to the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. And Earth Day was an event which was largely triggered by another oil spill, that one by Union Oil, off the coast of California.

To the superstitious amongst us (of which, I will once again admit with embarrassment, includes myself), I cannot help but viewing recent events as a final wake-up call. Whether we will actually choose to respond appropriately is another story. I myself am hopeful, but know there are many cynics out there. Let’s hope they’re wrong!

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