A Brief History of Oil Spills (And Our Uncertain Future)

Publication Date: 
June 14, 2010

These days, Canadians watch in horror as the worst oil spill in US history plays out in the Gulf of Mexico. Many are unaware, though, of the many other large spills that have occurred over the years throughout the world (see Spill Size History). While the present fears and concerns relate to offshore drilling rigs, spills actually occur at several different points along the chain of operations (see Spill Locations and Causes). In a review of reports of 133 major oil spills since 1967 it was found that most spills are from tankers (78%) and pipelines (9%), while the remaining occur at the wells / rigs (8%) or terminals and storage locations (5%) (see Spill Locations and Causes). We all know, however, that a spill from a well can dwarf a spill from a tanker.

Many, including politicians, want to believe that with improvements in technology and stricter regulations we will soon be able to prevent all such disasters.  The above review, however, does not support this optimistic outlook. The majority of the accidents were not due to problems with technology and could not have been prevented by regulations or timely inspections. Of the spills that occurred because of shipping accidents, 29% involved ship collisions, 22% involved ships running aground, and the remaining 49% involved other combinations of  factors including inclement weather, fog, fires, explosions, and accidental damage to the ships. Human error, often coupled with insurmountable forces of nature, plays the biggest role in such disasters.

This view has been strongly supported  by John Hofmeister, founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy, and former president of Shell Oil Company. In his June 2, 2010 article in the Ottawa Citizen he states: “No set of government regulations, equipment redundancy, additional technology, permits, licences or inspections can prevent human factors from destroying what was never meant to be destroyed. Only human failings of judgment and/or behaviour can explain some of the great tragedies of our time.” In spite off these high risks, companies and governments alike continue to push limits in their relentless search for oil. Five years ago, even though Chevron admitted they would not be able to clean up a possible major oil spill off the coast of Newfoundland, they were still given the license to continue their operations. More recently, in a testimony before a House of Commons committee, BP Canada president Anne Drinkwater reportedly admitted that an oil spill in the Arctic might be intractable. This too failed to stop the government’s plans.

With the big picture now becoming clear, where does our hope lie? How do we invest in a safe future for our own livelihoods and the sake of our children? Do we push for more and more oil at any cost, like "gas junkies" "shooting up" our cars for the next "trip"? Or do we shift as quickly as possible to renewable energy sources, retrofitting, and conservation?

While the "Drill, baby, drill" cry is trumpeted by some, many more are now saying that this is irresponsible. A similar disaster in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, for example, could devastate maritime fisheries, bring businesses to a halt, and ruin families for years to come. Will we wake up and smell the fumes, or just roll over and sleep on?






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