Stephen Hume on Risks of an Oil Spill


Read this editorial from Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun on the debate over the risks posed by increased oil tanker traffic on BC’s coast (May 16, 2012)

Listen to the rhetoric generated by questions about the risk from supertankers carrying an additional million barrels a day of heavy oil through B.C. waters and one might be persuaded that a conspiracy of Luddite dunces advocates a return to mud huts and riding donkeys to work.

Huh? How does asking for an unbiased evaluation of risk mutate into an assumed automatic veto of the use of oil?

The point is not whether we should or should not use oil – it’s whether the risks of using a particular oil resource in a particular way under particular circumstances may or may not out-weigh the claimed benefits.

Proponents of these pipelines naturally minimize the risks. And why wouldn’t they present the best possible case for their projects since they want them to proceed? But that doesn’t mean that B.C.’s public – which ultimately will pay the costs for cleaning up any major spill while the foreign-owned proponents pocket the bulk of profits and pay them out of the country – should swallow such assertions at face value.

Nor does it mean that subjecting such schemes to rigorous scrutiny is some kind of betrayal of Canadian society.

There is risk. And there is risk. Jaywalking downtown at 3 a.m. carries significantly less risk than jaywalking on the free-way during rush hour. One risk might be acceptable, the other looks like stupidity. Among the issues emerging from the present pipeline debate is the question of whether the risks cited by the proponents are the actual risks and potential liabilities.

Proponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, for example, postulate a worst-case spill of limited size that occurs in sheltered waters during the calmest summer months.

Critics reasonably ask what the consequences – and costs – of a spill would be were a super-tanker to break up during winter on the exposed outer coast, where winds, tides and currents have the capacity to distribute heavy oil over a vast area.

Critics reasonably wonder whether the assessment of risks, both environmental and economic, and who bears the brunt of them, takes place in an unbiased forum given the official demonizing of those expressing doubt.

The principal demonizer – our federal government – has now arbitrarily rewritten the rules to both redefine the criteria for environmental assessment while usurping the final decision-making power from the body intended to do so at arm’s length.

The province has not even sub-mitted its position to the Joint Review Panel on this incredibly important subject. Instead, it has surrendered to the federal power its right to hold an independent environmental review in the interests of British Columbians.

Yet the risks could be far greater than those framed in the documents filed by the proponents.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.