When it comes to oil spills, the question is never if but when and how bad.
At least 4.5 million litres of oil have spilled across part of the Peace River watershed in northern Alberta. It's the biggest crude oil pipeline spill in that province since 1975, and it's being described as "a major, major spill involving a significant amount of product" by provincial regulators, who took five days to announce Friday's spill to the public. Incidentally, it was also the second pipeline spill to take place in Alberta last week.
How long it will take to clean up the spill and how badly it will impact the people and environment around it is still unclear. Oil gushed out of the pipeline within the traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree, who lead a largely subsistence lifestyle within the pristine ecology of northern Alberta's boreal forest. The school in Little Buffalo, about 30 kilometres from the spill, is closed and residents are saying they've experienced nausea, burning eyes and headaches since the leak began. Some community members report that the oil is still leaking into the surrounding forest and bog.
What we do know is that no matter how many times oil companies tell us that practices and technology are improving, we'll never stop having spills so long as we depend on fossil fuels and the devices — including pipelines — that move them between coasts, countries and continents. The spills in Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico are a few recent examples, not to mention iconic disasters like Exxon Valdez. As old pipelines age and new ones are proposed — including the Enbridge pipelines that would tear tracks across Alberta and British Columbia to provide oil to American and Asian markets — the likelihood of spills grows.
What can you do about oil spills?
But preventing oil spills requires more than individual action. Northern Alberta is being hammered by oil and gas activities, with few plans in place to make sure that industrial development happens in a way that protects the environment, or the people and cultures so intimately connected to it. This is particularly true for First Nations, who with the help of Amnesty International are raising the issue as a matter of international human rights.
Tell our leaders to take action, too
Call on our leaders to develop and commit to plans for protecting Alberta and its people from the impacts of oil and gas development.
While you're at it, tell our leaders to stop providing taxpayer-funded subsidies to oil companies.
Oil spills don't need to be an intermittent and devastating reality for Canadians. We need to conserve energy, we need to tell our governments that it's time to start the shift to a clean-energy economy, and we need plans and regulations to keep pipelines and tankers from destroying our forests, valleys and oceans.