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General · 17th May 2010
Ray Grigg
The explosion on British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon occurred at 9:45 pm on April 20th, 2010. Oil immediately began leaking from the drilled well, 1,500 metres below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later – on Earth Day – after intense fires aboard the drilling rig, it sank. And the flow of oil, now an unstoppable 800,000 litres per day, began to expand its stain on the sea and threaten the rich ecology of America's Gulf Coast states. By May 2nd, the blowout had already exceeded the spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska 20 years ago. Unless the oil flow is contained or stopped within the three months needed to drill an adjacent relief well, the oil spill could escalate to 10 times the size of Alaska's, conceivably spreading around the tip of Florida and up America's Atlantic Coast.

No one is yet certain exactly what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon but knowledgeable sources have a fairly good idea. An inadequately cemented well-head allowed high-pressure gas, oil and drilling mud to blow upward to the drilling deck of the rig. The gas, perhaps ignited by a carbon exhaust spark from a nearby diesel generator, then exploded, killing 11 workers and initiating the fire. Although the cause of this particular event may not yet be perfectly clear, the general cause is known.

Rigs started drilling for oil on the relative safety of land. When land-based oil sources became scarce, the rigs moved to estuaries, then to shallow offshore sites. As the oil got scarcer, the water got deeper. A few metres became 100 and then 1,000 and even 2,000 metres. Rigs proliferated in the desperate search for needed gas and oil. As the depth increased and the offshore wells proliferated, the risks rose and the chances of a disaster escalated – in the first five months of 2009, 39 fires and explosions were recorded on approximately 500 rigs drilling in the Gulf alone. The Deepwater Horizon just happened to be the rig that discovered the limits of its capabilities to function within the bounds of environmental safety.

But this discovery of limits is not unusual. It's happening all the time. Everywhere. We don't have to look as far away as the Gulf of Mexico to find examples. Consider Quinsam Coal, the company near Campbell River that wants to expand its mining operation. It contends that its present mining operation is environmentally safe, despite documented increases in sulphate and arsenic pollution attributed to its presence in the Quinsam River watershed. Even though it can't control the leaching emanating from its existing mine site, it wants to expand its operation to a higher sulphur coal, thereby exposing the local ecology to greater acidification and more arsenic. Coal mining at this location has already discovered the limits of its ability to function within the bounds of environmental safety.

Or consider the open net-pen salmon farming industry on BC's West Coast. It initially tried a few farms of native coho salmon. The operations seemed safe and profitable. So it tried more. And more. Then it decided to introduce Atlantic salmon to the Pacific, an exotic species that was easier and faster to grow. The farms got bigger and more numerous. A few net-pens became 25 and then 50 and then more than 100, many located along the crucial migration routes of wild smolts. Disease and parasites proliferate in the pens. Young and vulnerable native salmon are infected and entire runs were threatened. Orcas, seal, sea lions and other indigenous animals, either scared away or killed, are noticeably absent from fish farm areas. Yet, even under these circumstances, the industry wants to expand, risking even more parasites and diseases. The arrival of Infectious Salmon Anemia, a viral infection that has followed the industry throughout its global spread, would have a catastrophic ecologic impact on the West Coast's entire ecology. The open net-pen salmon farming industry has already discovered the limits of its ability to function within the bounds of environmental safety.

This obsession for perpetual expansion seems to be the fixation of corporate thinking, an inclination sanctioned and abetted by the complicity of economic culture and governments. If some growth is good, then more must be better. Investors in the Alberta tar sands can't be satisfied with the greatest, single, human-made environmental disturbance in North America. With an area the size of Florida being churned into open pits of oily sand, with toxic settling ponds the expanse of substantial lakes, and with the mighty Athabasca River and its estuary in the Arctic threatened with contamination, now corporations want to build a pipeline to Kitimat so they can transport oil by supertankers along one of the most ecologically rich coasts on the planet.

The list of limits keeps getting longer: garbage overflowing landfills, plastics inundating oceans, fertilizer runoff creating marine dead-zones, industrial overfishing of oceans, excessive greenhouse gas emissions, habitat loss and species extinction.... These are unfolding disasters that are uncomfortable to contemplate. But our only realistic option is be honest and brave enough to acknowledge and address them. The cause, unhappily, is in ourselves.

Our individual and collective human effort seems to have a momentum, a predictable trajectory that tracks a compulsive course from less to more and from little to bigger. In the progression from deep to deeper and from some to many, our technology increases in sophistication, our problems rise in complexity and our risks multiply in tandem. So far we have been able to race just ahead of catastrophe. But this basic strategy is an invitation to eventual calamity, as the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico attests, as our mining pollution proves and as our fish farm problems confirm.

In the great scheme of things – should anyone feel confused about all that's happening these days – we are presently engaged in the search for a fundamental sense of proportion and balance. This arduous process begins with global awareness. But it's really about our inner growth and maturation, about our discovery of limits.