Earlier this month, Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that a “horrific” oil spill like the one in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t happen in Canada, because our strong environmental regulations would prevent it. This came as good news to Canadians, as British Petroleum, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, holds three licences to explore more than 6,000 kilometres of the Beaufort Sea.
What Harper failed to mention is that late last year his government made major changes to those regulations, changes which severely limit their effectiveness. Under the new system, oil companies write their own environmental protection ticket. They set the goals, design the system to meet those goals and lay out their own plans for inspecting and testing the system.
According to an article in the National Post, where once companies applying for deep-sea drilling licences in Canada “were required to install specific kinds of equipment, such as safety valves and blowout preventers,” the companies now decide for themselves what equipment to install.
It may be that in Harper’s mind there is no contradiction between this privatization of regulation and his claim that we are adequately protected. Perhaps he really believes that making the private sector responsible for regulating itself makes sense. There is, after all, a clear record of such successes in the past. From the tiny town of Walkerton, Ontario, to the US financial crisis of 2008, from the listeria outbreak at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Foods to the oil spewing all over the South coast of the US, self-regulation has proven itself again and again.
This week, William Adams, a former scientist at Environment Canada, told the House of Commons Natural Resources Committee that a spill in the Beaufort would have a “catastrophic” effect on Canada’s Arctic. Describing drilling in the area as “extremely risky,” Adams predicted that a spill would be disastrous for large mammals and seabirds, and would “exacerbate the impact of climate change by speeding the melt of pack ice.”
There’s no guarantee that any degree of regulation would be sufficient to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic, but it is certain that in the area of environmental protection, less is not more. But less is what we might very well get if the Conservatives have their way.
One of the failed bills from the last Parliament that’s been slipped into the omnibus budget bill now before the House would permit the minister of the environment to waive the requirement for an environmental review on any project. No criteria are attached to this new ministerial power, nor is there any opportunity to appeal.
So, if BP should happen to want to make a campaign contribution to the Conservative Party before the next election, there’s evidence that the money may not go to waste – assuming that Canadians are crazy enough to re-elect Harper. Design your own safety mechanisms, skip the environmental review, how much better does it get?
For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the human greed factor, and say that oil company executives, many of whom make more money in stock options than they do in salary, will set the public good ahead of their own interests. Let’s say that every decision maker at BP, Shell, and Exxon is a responsible, ethical human being who puts duty ahead of wealth at every turn. Will their first thoughts be for the environment?
It is the first duty of a responsible corporate executive to maximize profits for the benefit of the company’s shareholders. Dividends, jobs, pensions, RRSPs, continued exploration, research, and development, and the security of our financial system, all depend on corporate profits, and no one seriously expects the people who manage those corporations to put anything, even the future of the planet, ahead of maximizing those profits.
That’s why there are regulations. We can no more rely on corporations to regulate corporate activity than we can expect government to create wealth. If Canadians want continued access to cheap oil – and we do – then we must accept that oil companies will be drilling in the Arctic. If we want to minimize the risk to the sensitive Arctic environment, we will need to provide very strict government regulation over that drilling.
And if we want an honest government that will write those regulations so that they place the future of the planet ahead of corporate profits, we’d better get to the polls as quickly as it can be managed, because we sure as hell don’t have one now.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.