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Like So Many Bad Things, Oil Spills Are Good For the Economy

Destroying the environment is bad for the planet and all the life it supports, including us. But it's often good for business. But the massive costs of dealing with a pipeline or tanker spill and the resulting climate change consequences will far outweigh the benefits.
John Harper via Getty Images

Energy giant Kinder Morgan was recently called insensitive for pointing out that "Pipeline spills can have both positive and negative effects on local and regional economies, both in the short- and long-term." The company wants to triple its shipping capacity from the Alberta tar sands to Burnaby, in part by twinning its current pipeline. Its National Energy Board submission states, "Spill response and cleanup creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities, regions, and cleanup service providers."

It may seem insensitive, but it's true. And that's the problem. Destroying the environment is bad for the planet and all the life it supports, including us. But it's often good for business. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico added billions to the U.S. gross domestic product! Even if a spill never occurred (a big "if," considering the records of Kinder Morgan and other pipeline companies), increasing capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels a day would go hand-in-hand with rapid tar sands expansion and more wasteful, destructive burning of fossil fuels -- as would approval of Enbridge Northern Gateway and other pipeline projects, as well as increased oil shipments by rail.

The company will make money, the government will reap some tax and royalty benefits and a relatively small number of jobs will be created. But the massive costs of dealing with a pipeline or tanker spill and the resulting climate change consequences will far outweigh the benefits. Of course, under our current economic paradigm, even the costs of responding to global warming impacts show as positive growth in the GDP -- the tool we use to measure what passes for progress in this strange worldview.

And so it's full speed ahead and damn the consequences. Everything is measured in money. B.C.'s economy seems sluggish? Well, obviously, the solution is to get fracking and sell the gas to Asian markets. Never mind that a recent study, commissioned by the Canadian government, concludes we don't know enough about the practice to say it's safe, the federal government has virtually no regulations surrounding it and provincial rules "are not based on strong science and remain untested." Never mind that the more infrastructure we build for polluting, climate-disrupting fossil fuels, the longer it will take us to move away from them. There's easy money to be had -- for someone.

We need to do more than just get off fossil fuels, although that's a priority. We need to conserve, cut back and switch to cleaner energy sources. In Canada, we need a national energy strategy. And guess what? That will create lasting jobs! But we must also find better ways to run our societies than relying on rampant consumption, planned obsolescence, excessive and often-pointless work and an economic system that depends on damaging ways and an absurd measurement to convince us it somehow all amounts to progress.

It's not about going back to the Dark Ages. It's about realizing that a good life doesn't depend on owning more stuff, scoring the latest gadgets or driving bigger, faster cars. Our connections with family, friends, community and nature are vastly more important.

Yes, we need oil and gas, and will for some time. Having built our cities and infrastructure to accommodate cars rather than people, we can't turn around overnight. But we can stop wasting our precious resources. By conserving and switching to cleaner energy, we can ensure we still have oil and gas long into the future, perhaps long enough to learn to appreciate the potential of what's essentially energy from the sun, stored and compressed over millions of years. If we dig it up and sell it so it can be burned around the world, we consign ourselves to a polluted planet ravaged by global warming, with nothing to fall back on when fossil fuels are gone.

Scientists around the world have been warning us for decades about the consequences of our wasteful lifestyles, and evidence for the ever-increasing damage caused by pollution and climate change continues to grow. But we have to do more than just wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We must also look to economic systems, progress measurements and ways of living that don't depend on destroying everything the planet provides to keep us healthy and alive.

Written with Contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at


Oiled pelicans wait to be cleaned at the Bird Rehabilitation Center at Fort Jackson in Buras, Louisiana. (Getty Images)
Brown pelicans were already a threatened species when the BP oil spill occurred. After the spill, nearly one thousand were collected for cleaning, but more than 500 died. The population has largely rebounded, with the number of brown pelicans reported nesting in 2012 nearly as high as it was pre-spill. But images of the oil-slicked pelicans became an ubiquitous part of the media's coverage, and the oil has stuck: Two years later, researchers detected chemical and petroleum pollutants from the BP spill in the eggs of white pelicans in Minnesota, chemicals that could negatively affect embryo development.
Bottlenose Dolphins
A dolphin swims through the water off the coast of Louisiana. (Getty Images)
A late 2013 study found dolphins in the vicinity of the BP oil spill showed previously unseen signs of sickness, including lung damage, low levels of adrenal hormones and unhealthy weight loss.

"I've never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals -- and with unusual conditions such as the adrenal hormone abnormalities," one of the study's authors, Dr. Lori Schwacke, stated at the time.

Researchers also found an "unusual" spike in dolphin strandings; according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) findings: In 2013, bottlenose dolphins were found dead or stranded at rates three times higher than the average pre-spill rate.
Sea Turtles
A dead sea turtle is seen washed onto shore April 14, 2011 in Waveland, Mississippi. (Getty Images)
NOAA research released in August 2013 found large numbers of sea turtle strandings in the years since the spill, with about 500 stranded sea turtles in the area affected every year from 2011 to 2013. (Historically, estimates for strandings in the area would have been closer to 100 per year.)
Sperm Whales
A bloated and burned juvenile sperm whale that had been found dead on June 15, 2010 in the Gulf Of Mexico. (Courtesy of Greenpeace)
It's difficult to measure just how many sperm whales were affected, but one arresting photo of a rotting, burnt sperm whale carcass circulated widely after researchers saw the animal from a ship about 77 miles from the Deepwater Horizon site in June 2010. A 2013 study of sperm whale skin samples found higher than usual levels of genotoxic metals in Gulf of Mexico whales after the spill, with the whales closest to the site of the spill with the highest levels.

The genotoxic metals, including nickel and chromium, are capable of damaging DNA, causing lasting genetic impacts on generations of whales. In the short term, even a few whale deaths can affect an entire population as sperm whales, already an endangered species, give birth to very few calves.

"As soon as we get to the level of three deaths caused by human interaction -- and this would include the oil spill -- that would jeopardize that particular sperm whale population," Celine Godard-Codding, an environmental toxicologist at Texas Tech University, told National Geographic.
A common loon, photographed on May 6, 2012 at Port St. Joe, Florida. (Flickr)
As water birds, loons are vulnerable to water pollution -- and researchers have found they were indeed affected by the spill. A 2013 study of loons turned up dangerous levels of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in their bloodstreams, which could contribute to anemia, weight loss, liver damage, cancer, immunosuppression and other health issues.
Red Snapper
A bucket full of red snapper catch sits in Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola, Florida. (Getty Images)
In the immediate aftermath, red snapper in the affected area were found with lesions and rotting fins. While such physical scarring are less common in fish four years later, a recently published study conducted between 2011 and 2013 found the population of young snappers in the Gulf unusually small, with a noticeable decline in other reef fish as well.
A mountain of oyster sheels lies outside the BP oil spill cleanup operations center on May 4, 2010 in Hopedale, Louisiana. (Getty Images)
The Gulf Coast is home to about two-thirds of American oysters, but that population was significantly impacted by the spill. As non-moving organisms, oysters couldn't avoid the spill, and population growth was significantly down in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Across the northern Gulf of Mexico, oyster larvae were much rarer than usual, and mortality was high. According to fisherman, oyster populations are still drastically low (and fisherman can file claims for compensation as a result).
A crab skirts tarballs of oil on a beach at sunrise on May 23, 2010 on Grand Isle, Louisiana. (Getty Images)
Crab populations are also down, with a major drop of blue crabs identified in 2013. One reason could be still-slick marshes, which the crabs could be avoiding as they select their habitats. The remaining crabs were still showing signs of damage as of 2013.

"People are bringing in (crabs) that are really messed up," Darryl Felder, a University of Louisiana biology professor, told the Tampa Bay Times. "The crab catches are really down, and what they're getting have big lesions on them -- lesions and fungal or bacterial infections."
Whale Sharks
A whale shark photographed on August 11, 2011, in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Getty Images)
These massive fish feed at the water's surface for hours. A study published in August 2013 identified uncharacteristic whale shark sightings off the Florida Gulf of Mexico possibly connected to the spill, meaning the oil altered the fish's typical migratory paths. But not every whale shark was able to avoid the oil, confirmed biologist Eric Hoffmayer to National Geographic, and the oil could clog or suffocate their gills and contaminate their prey. A year after the disaster, researchers identified the already vulnerable whale sharks as a species uniquely at risk.
Bluefin tuna, 2006. (Getty Images)
The 2010 spill occurred during spawning season for yellowfin and bluefin tuna, meaning the fish embryos, larvae and newborn fish were also affected. According to a recent study, this resulted in defects in heart development, which affects the development of other organs and could lead to shortened lifespans. In addition, according to the NWF report, blackfin tuna, blue marlin, mahi-mahi and sailfish all had fewer larvae in 2010 than in the three years before.

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