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CONTRIBUTION · 30th April 2010
MP Nathan Cullen - Skeena
Days after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oilrig blew up off the coast of Lousiana killing 11 workers, British Petroleum assured the public that they would contain the leak quickly. They were wrong. The leak has now quintupled to almost one million litres a day. This is an environmental and economic disaster beyond even that of the Exxon Valdez.

Efforts to shut off a well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface with remote-controlled submarines have failed. Worried that the rig’s operators can’t contain the spill, President Obama is deploying “every single available resource at our disposal” to deal with the growing crisis. Best estimates from the company are now saying it may take up to two months to stop the flow, or a spill into the Gulf of at least 60 million litres of crude oil.

Obviously digging a hole 5,000 feet under the ocean is filled with risk. But the petroleum industry confidently promised that with modern technology nothing could go wrong.

The Deepwater Horizon was a brand new, high tech rig built with all the latest safety and monitoring technology and designed to operate in up to 8,000 ft of water. It failed catastrophically just seven months after drilling its first well.

When companies apply for a permit to drill or carry oil, they boast about the technologies available both to avoid and contain spills. ‘Advances in practices,’ they say, ‘have made previous spills a thing of the past.’ Public fears are softened, politicians want to appear ‘pro-business’ and the company gets the green light.

Despite the industry’s claims that their operations and technology are safe, this – and many other spills – are proof that industry can’t guarantee safety. The truth is that drilling and transporting petroleum is a risky adventure. Even with the latest technology and most sincere promises, we must accept the very real possibility of a spill like the one in the Gulf.

This story is being played out in the south but it has obvious lessons for us in the Northwest. Like the Gulf Coast, we have a sensitive marine environment and rely heavily on our fisheries. Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline would transport 525,000 barrels of oil a day 1,110 km across two mountain ranges and dozens of rivers from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat, BC, where it would be loaded on super-tankers. An estimated 225 tankers would navigate the rugged Douglas Channel and Hecate Strait every year.

In a promotional video, Enbridge says the Douglas channel is “ideally suited to ship traffic”. But the channel is an important spawning area for salmon, halibut, and other fish species in addition to being an important migratory route for whales and dolphins. A fragile environment where more than a million sea birds breed is not by any stretch of the imagination “ideally suited” to ship oil.

Evidence of this was recently manifested when the freighter Petersfield crashed into a rock in the Douglas Channel after losing steering last September, and the tragic sinking of the Queen of North in 2007.We must contemplate the long and devastating impact of a major spill from the pipeline or super tankers in these places.

First Nations, business groups, environmental organizations and ordinary everyday citizens have been raising concerns about Enbridge’s proposal. They were dismissed by pro-oil interests as fear mongering. The National Energy Board is now charged with protecting the public but the process is rigged from the start. With a history of approving virtually every project they’ve ever seen it will be in the court of public opinion and not the NEB that this decision ultimately rests.

The crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is sending the world a clear warning – playing with petroleum is dangerous. We can create jobs without exposing our environment and way of life to such risks. For the sake of our environment and future, let’s hope Canada is listening.