Photo: Oily disasters: When will we ever learn?

The Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Mexico where the current disaster is occuring. (Credit: ChvyGrl via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster was the worst accidental spill in history. No, not the one getting the headlines today, but the one in 1979 — although the current spill may eventually prove to be larger. Those of us old enough to remember may be experiencing déjà vu.

On June 3, 1979, a blow-out preventer failed on the Ixtoc I drilling platform off the coast of Mexico. The well was owned by Mexico's state oil company, Pemex, but the drilling was being done by Sedco, which later became Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig where the current disaster is unfolding.

As with today's crisis, the experts tried to control the 1979 spill with a number of methods, including booms, dispersants, placing a giant metal "top-kill" dome over it, and plugging it with garbage and cement. None of these techniques worked then, and they aren't working now. The Ixtoc spill went on for more than nine months, spewing between 477 million and 795 million litres of oil that washed up on the coasts of Mexico and the U.S. It wiped out fishing along the Mexican coast for years and harmed and killed sea turtles, dolphins, birds, and other animals.

In the end, the Ixtoc spill was stopped when Pemex drilled two relief wells and pumped mud and steel balls into the well. BP is drilling relief wells at the Deepwater Horizon site but expects to take up to three months to complete them.

The main differences between the two spills are that no one died in the Ixtoc disaster, whereas 11 people were killed in the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, and the Ixtoc well was being drilled in 49 metres of water, while the Deepwater Horizon was more than 1,500 metres deep.

It makes you wonder if we'll ever learn. In Canada, oil companies are drilling a well off the coast of Newfoundland that is even deeper than the BP well in the Gulf. Oil companies are also gearing up to drill in Arctic waters, and the B.C. government has been putting pressure on the federal government to lift bans on drilling and oil tanker traffic off the West Coast.

These spills are just a visual reminder of the damage that our fossil-fuel addiction wreaks on the environment every day. After all, if the oil weren't being spilled, it would eventually be burned, spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Environmental havoc is only one reason to conserve energy and switch to cleaner energy. Security is also a crucial issue when it comes to global oil supplies. From the costly war in Iraq to the instability of some of the main oil-producing countries, we're seeing increasing problems with our reliance on this ever-more-scarce energy resource.

Some people argue that's a reason to increase supplies from domestic sources by expanding production in the tar sands, extracting oil from shale, and drilling more off our own coasts — but that's an absurd argument. Any one of these leaves us open to more environmental damage from spills and pollution during drilling, extracting, and transporting. In fact, a study led by the University of Alberta's David Schindler and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that pollution from the Alberta tar sands into the Athabasca River and its tributaries is equivalent to a major oil spill every year.

We don't seem to be good at learning from the past. No matter what the technology or energy source, whether it's fossil fuels or nuclear, we must be prepared for the worst-case scenario before we proceed. That's because, no matter how minimal the risk, the consequences of an accident, as we've seen from the Gulf of Mexico to Chernobyl, can be calamitous.

One thing we know for certain is that relying on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels for our energy needs has serious consequences for the environment, human health, the economy, and our security. And yet governments still continue to subsidize what U.S. TV host Rachel Maddow correctly referred to in a show comparing the two spills as "the most profitable industry the universe has ever seen."

Let's prove that we can learn. We need to conserve energy and we need to tell our governments that it's time to start the shift to a clean-energy economy and to keep the oil wells and tankers away from our waters.

June 25, 2010

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