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Each of us is complicit every time an oil spill sullies the environment - Woolwich Observer editorial

Every time an oil-soaked sea otter washes up on shore, you’re to blame. Well, not just you. Me, too. And everyone else. Our oil-addicted way of life means the stuff keeps flowing. Inevitably, some of it spills out into the environment. That’s certainly been the case in Alberta, where there have been three pipeline oil spills in the past month. The latest, some 230,000 litres, was reported Tuesday.

The industry claims pipelines are still the safest way of transporting oil. That’s true. It would take millions of trucks or railcars to move the oil, each providing numerous opportunities for spillage. But that doesn’t mean there’s room for improvement, as problems occur far more frequently that we hear about.

In Alberta alone there have been thousands of pipeline ruptures since 2005, spilling the equivalent of some 28 million litres of oil. In 2010, for instance, the province’s pipelines had some kind of failure every 1.4 days, releasing about 3.4 million litres of oil.

Pipeline problems aren’t rare, Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s claims notwithstanding. They’re fairly commonplace. That said, the infrastructure still delivers far more oil and gas on a daily basis than is inevitably released at intervals. Supporters essentially tell us that the spills are the price of doing business, the business of feeding our oil addiction.

As long as we’re so reliant on oil, we’ll be taking it out of the ground and moving it around in large volumes. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t be more careful about how we do that while we go about finding alternatives. Unfortunately, neither the Alberta government nor its Conservative cousin in Ottawa has any interest in more controls on the oil industry and its ilk. In fact, much of the battle over Bill C-38 – the omnibus bill that was the Harper government’s latest attack on parliamentary democracy – had to do with the inclusion of sweeping changes to environmental controls.

The government claims its simply streamlining the environmental process, rather than stifling public input. It also claims it’s protecting the process from the foreign influence it says fuels radical environmentalists. The facts reveal an altogether different agenda. U.S. groups have provided some $30 million to the battle against the oil industry being waged David-versus-Goliath style by Canadian environmental groups. On the other hand, the government is perfectly fine with corrupt state-owned Chinese oil companies dumping $16 billion into tar sands development, even as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) warns of China’s attempt to influence politics in our country.

Moreover, the government is reducing oversight even as numerous studies have shown efforts to date have been inadequate, with the situation only getting worse as tar sands production increases.

It’s no coincidence that the reduction in environmental regulations comes as the Harper government pushes for extremely controversial pipelines to send bitumen south (Keystone XL) or to China via the British Columbia coast (Northern Gateway). Which brings us back to the recent spills, reminders of what’s at stake with those proposed mega-pipelines. It’s something that Alberta and Ottawa want swept back under the rug.

York University history professor Sean Kheraj, who has long studied the pipeline issue, notes the industry, its purported watchdogs and government agencies seem to be working in tandem to downplay the problem of ruptures and spills. After wading through the documents over the years, he’s found problems are widespread, as he records on his blog.

“[T]he problem of pipeline ruptures is endemic to the industry. Now with over 399,000 kilometres of pipelines under the authority of the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, industry specialists and regulators not only know that this system has never been free from oil spills, but that a spill-free system is an impossible goal.”

Kheraj maintains the industry and government use measures and terminology that attempts to make the problems appear less troubling. Even information about spills is made as convoluted as possible to confuse the issue. Rather than frequency, how many spills in a year for instance, they talk about the ration of incidents to the total length of Alberta’s pipeline network. Hardly useful information to the public.

Such tactics reek of people with something to hide. Clearly, the oil industry is in a negative light. That goes double for the tar sands. Perhaps they fear an informed public would be even more hostile to oil. Perhaps, but it’s not as though we’re going to wean ourselves off the stuff tomorrow.  Nobody likes bad news. Reports of a plane crash worry the airlines, but we keep flying. Graphic images of traffic collisions don’t take us off the roads. There’s a risk in every case, just as there is with our use of pipelines to aid our dependence on oil (including to fuel our planes, trains and automobiles).

Oil offers us many advantages, which we may or may not choose to enjoy over the many negatives. While we use the stuff, we’re all complicit in the pollution, habitat destruction and increased cancer rates and other health problems that come with that arrangement. That’s no reason, however, to cut off debate about how we might start changing the situation.

Steve Kannon - June 22 - editor


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