As another year draws to a close, news outlets the world
over are running down their lists of best and worst (fill in the blank) and
biggest news stories of 2010. In the latter category, recent issues still fresh
in our minds like WikiLeaks, the European debt crisis, the Heathrow fiasco, and
the Chilean miners are likely to figure prominently. But make no mistake, 2010
was unquestionably the “Year of the Oil Spill.”
I wasn’t alive in 1962 at the time of the Cuban
Missile Crisis, so I can’t begin to imagine what people felt during those 13
days of Cold War terror. But in my lifetime, the blow-out of BP’s Deepwater
Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is the single scariest event we’ve
experienced. If you think that's overstating things, let me explain.
Some would point to the financial crash of 2008, or 9/11, for
that matter, as the most traumatic events in our recent history. But in neither
case did we face such a fundamental threat to the planet itself, and thus our collective
survival upon it. The BP tragedy saw us staring both literally and figuratively
into the abyss.
It is thus a testament to our 24-hour news cycle,
tabloid-saturated, overworked, short attention spanned society that we have largely
already forgotten the sense of sheer powerlessness and intense fear that gripped
the world in the months of the Gulf crisis. It is with good cause that Gore
Vidal uses the term “the United States of Amnesia.”
I certainly have not forgotten what it was like to hear the
daily reports tracing the dramatic upward arc in the scale of the disaster –
from 1,000 barrels a day to 100,000 billowing into the Gulf; not ten days but
over 3 months to stem the flow (of course there is no real end to the damage, much of it hidden
beneath the surface by way of illegal, toxic chemical dispersants)…The
exasperation of seeing, for a time at least, no way out of the whole sordid
mess. Various increasingly far-fetched solutions – such as the much-parodied golf
ball “junk shot” – left us wondering, “Is this really the best they can come up
We steadily came to realize that we could not trust one iota
of what the mainstream media, the US government, and, most of all, BP, were
telling us. We found ourselves sifting through youtube videos and purported
“experts” on the fringes of the blogosphere, just to cobble together our own
sense of what was really happening. Your yoga instructor or coworker were as
likely to know the truth as was Katie Couric. Maybe this thing could never be
stopped…Would it flow into the Gulf Stream, spreading its deathly red-black
ooze all the way to Europe’s shores, destroying the whole Atlantic Ocean in the
All the while, a slew of breathtaking images poured forth –
the oil-soaked sea birds, the multi-coloured slicks, captured from helicopters
by the likes of National Geographic, that spread for hundreds of miles over the
horizon. And the live web-cam producing
the single most iconic image of the year: that spewing underwater geyser - a
constant, undeniable visual reminder of the havoc being wrought before our very
On it gushed, as ecosystems and livelihoods were lain waste.
Economic damages ranged from $20 Billion and way up from there. The world's best experts, one of its largest corporations, and its mightiest
government all seemed powerless to stop it (while the CEO of BP produced a
string of appalling soundbites that would have been comical if they didn’t
highlight such a tragic disconnect with the widespread suffering his company was causing).
These gut-punching images brought us face to face – in a way we hadn’t perhaps
experienced since the Exxon Valdez, 21 years earlier – with the dirty business upon
which we’ve all become so dependant.
But it wasn’t just the BP catastrophe that made 2010 the
year of the oil spill. Far from it.
Enbridge - the pipeline company currently proposing to pump over half a
million barrels a day of Tar Sands bitumen across the heartland of BC, into
supertankers on our North and Central Coast – had three major spills of its own,
and New York State.
The massive explosion of a tanker terminal in Dailan, China, produced some of
the most graphic images – of any nature - ever recorded. The Boston Globe's
website carried a jarring reel snapped by a Greenpeace photographer
that made the Gulf shots seem like Bob Ross canvases by comparison.
The Gulf itself played host to a second rig explosion
– lost in the shuffle of the BP fiasco. A collision between an oil tanker and
heavy bulk carrier in the Malacca Straight, off the coast of Singapore, caused
a leak of 15,000 barrels of crude oil.
In September, disaster was narrowly averted when a tanker carrying 9 million
litres of diesel fuel ran aground in the Canadian arctic.
Incidents in Mexico, the Middle East, and elsewhere exposed other
vulnerabilities for fossil fuel supply lines – namely, crime and terrorism. Thieves
attempting to siphon off oil were blamed for the explosion of a Mexican pipeline that took 28 lives,
while a Kurdish separatist group claimed responsibility for the bombing of two
pipelines in Turkey – one carrying natural gas,
the other oil.
Meanwhile, various authorities and citizens in Tennessee were still dealing this year with the clean-up and lingering environmental effects of the disastrous bursting of
a toxic coal ash tailing pond in Tennessee – a catastrophe 50 times bigger than the Exxon
Valdez oil spill – that occurred at the tail end of 2008. In October, 2010, Hungary experienced a similar tragedy when a sludge reservoir at a metals plant burst, spilling some 35 million cubic metres of toxic waste on the town of Akja…And
we end this year with a fresh round of alarms rung over leaking tailing ponds
and the impacts of the Tar Sands on water, human and ecological health, and
And those are just the big ones. A cursory study of the
business of oil, gas, and coal exploitation and use reveals a litany of small-scale –
but nevertheless environmentally significant – pipeline leaks, tailing pond
malfunctions, and myriad problems with the extraction, refining, transportation,
and burning of fossil fuels. They’re all just standard externalities - part of the cost
of doing business, born by the planet, while corporations reap record profits.
Many people – and pretty much every mainstream media outlet
in the world – have failed to connect the dots, thus missing the lesson to be
learned from these very visible disasters in 2010. They see them as isolated
incidents, rather than part of a larger systemic problem.
The truth is, none of these disasters is an “accident” –
rather they are manifestations of an until now largely theoretical concept
known as “Peak Oil.”
They bring us face-to-face with the real-world implications of this phenomenon.
This is what happens when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for fossil
fuel energy, which Barack Obama himself aptly referred to as “dirty, dwindling,
Offshore wells like the Deepwater Horizon are being drilled at
greater depths today, as easier sources dry up, presenting far greater operational
and environmental risks.
The Alberta Tar Sands and their Venezuelan Orinoco
counterpart are among the dirtiest and most capital and resource-intensive oil (or
bitumen, rather) sources in the world.
Natural gas fracking is a relatively new
and enormously damaging process, with severe impacts on our aquifers we’ve
barely begun to grasp while we plough forward with new projects.
So long as we remain dependent on fossil fuels (which looks
at this point to be a long time – as long as we can, that is), there will be ever-increasing
BP blow-outs, pipeline leaks, and tanker crashes. Despite the assurances of the likes of
Enrbridge that we have nothing to worry about with their new proposed projects,
we have now seen irrefutable evidence, in gory, high-definition detail, of the
inability of human beings to eliminate the risks that attend these operations.
My wish for the New Year is that these powerful images
remain indelibly burned in our consciousness. I, for one, will continue to draw
upon them in my work - not to score cheap emotional points, but to ensure they
serve their purpose, namely, helping us to make better decisions regarding our exploitation
and use (and hopefully lack thereof) of fossil fuels going forward.
One of the highlights of my 2010 was spending several weeks amid BC's Great Bear Rainforest, traveling the very coastline Enbridge wishes to see plied by the world's largest oil tankers. Having witnessed and
documented firsthand the rugged terrain, navigational hazards, and extreme weather along that stretch of coast – one of the most perilous on the planet - the mere
contention that the company could guarantee the safety of these shipments, or
their ability to clean them up should they occur is, simply put, so
preposterous as to be insulting.
So it is heartening to see the lessons of the
Exxon Valdez, BP blow-out, and pipeline leaks being deployed in the battle to
stop Enrbridge in BC. With the recent passing of a federal motion (albeit non-binding, at this
stage) for a North Coast tanker ban that would effectively kill that project
were it made into legislation, and a growing coalition of First Nations,
conservationists, and citizens standing together against the project, it
appears we may be learning something after all.
So here’s hoping that 2011 is the year of conservation,
clean energy solutions, and beginning to seriously confront our dangerous
addiction to fossil fuels. Clearly, that’s naively idealistic - but we'll always have February
through December to be cynical about the future.