Is the BP Fiasco Making The Tar Sands Look Better?
As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from a well owned by the multinational oil company BP, albeit at a reduced rate now that some of the outflow from the well is being captured, an odd transatlantic spat has developed around the fact that the initials BP used to stand for “British Petroleum” but now stand for nothing at all. US President Barack Obama referred to BP as “British Petroleum” at one point, and this left his ambassador to the UK scrambling to explain that this was not intended as a slight against Britain. Nevertheless, some UK commentators – notably Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher – were quick to take offense, and even to suggest that some deeply rooted hostility towards Britain was coming to the surface.
Although it’s true that Obama has displayed few signs of wanting to maintain a “special relationship” with Britain, I tend to agree with Mary Ellen Foley that his administration’s outrage over BP’s incontinent well has little to do with the company’s national origins. However, I do find it a little unsettling that BP has become a meaningless acronym, as if to epitomise the idea of a nebulous corporate entity that comes from nowhere, is accountable to no one, and is interested in nothing apart from the bottom line. A meaningless acronym is also, of course, a blank canvas onto which people are free to project their own impressions. In the wake of the accident in the Gulf of Mexico, BP might as well stand for Bloody Prats, Betrayed Principles, Bountiful Profits, Bungled Penetration, Barracuda Patrol, Big Problems, Bringing Pain or Better Pray.
I’m being unfair, of course. While it’s true that BP has a poor safety record and a reputation for rushing in where many oil companies would fear to tread, it’s also true that the corporation has been fairly cooperative with respect to the necessary steps of capping the well and arranging a compensation fund for the people whose livelihoods have been affected. Though I hesitate to put too much faith in anything written by Lawrence Solomon of the National Post, his suggestion that US government protectionism has been excluding European (and especially Dutch) resources and expertise that could help the clean-up effort certainly deserves a careful hearing.
The chorus of condemnation that has been directed at BP in recent weeks also strikes me as unreasonable in three respects. First, it seems more than likely that Obama and his lackeys have been levelling unpersuasive threats of ass-kicking at BP as much because the company makes what one article called “a useful political foil” as because of any genuine sense of outrage over the damage to the environment. Second, the media have been quick to condemn BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s “PR gaffes” – the infamous quote about wanting his life back, for example – almost as if correct PR were virtuous and praiseworthy in itself. This strikes me as an incredibly sinister development.
The third and most important point, though, is that BP has in a sense become a scapegoat for a much larger problem: the fact that we really are starting to run out of easily obtainable oil. However severe BP’s deviations from whatever “best practices” are normal in the industry, they are superimposed on the inherent risks of deepwater drilling. And if demand for oil cannot be drastically reduced, deepwater drilling is one of a rather limited range of options for keeping the stuff flowing as more easily accessible oil fields come to produce less and less. At least in the near future, the world’s economies may have to rely on oil extracted from places like the Gulf of Mexico, with an inevitable risk of begrimed seabirds and immolated turtles.
One obvious alternative source of energy, though, is Canada’s tar sands. While extracting oil from the tar sands is an inefficient process, energy-intensive in itself, there’s at least no inherent risk of spewing vast quantities of oil into the ocean. The world will eventually need to become far less dependent on oil in general, because of global warming and because even “alternative” sources like deepwater drilling and the tar sands will only keep us going for so long, but we (as a species) have no realistic option other than to keep finding and exploiting oil deposits in order to keep our economies going during the early stages of the transition.
Right now, the tar sands look like they may be a somewhat better bet than deepwater drilling. In the short term, Canada’s political leaders should encourage development of the tar sands, and Michael Ignatieff in particular should stop agitating against plans to export tar sands oil on tankers from Kitimat, B.C. In the long term, the government should be promoting construction of environmentally friendly infrastructure and research into alternative energy sources.