Drilling for oil: The cost of needing our fix

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When the Gulf of Mexico oil rig blew, there was probably not a fisherman or fish plant operator in western Nova Scotia, where I live, who didn't have the same cold flash: an oil rig blows on Georges Bank; the enormous tides of the Bay of Fundy suck half the oil up and down twice a day, polluting everything from Cape Cod to Lockeport and right up to Moncton; while the other half is locked in the "gyre" of currents that goes round and round over one of the world's best fishing grounds

Nova Scotia Fisheries and Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau, picking up on several years of low-key oil company pressure on the issue, mused a couple of weeks ago about fish and oil being able to co-exist as the deadline to review the Georges Bank moratorium on drilling loomed. That went around the coast here like political oil slick. Belliveau, MLA for Shelburne, had championed the no-drilling-on-Georges campaign. Now, he had "become a politician," and broken his word.

Belliveau is in good company -- President Barack Obama has also had to backtrack on a recent expansion of offshore drilling -- and has quickly done the same and restated his original position. The NDP government is sure now to put off the review and keep the moratorium in place.

At least until next time, when public amnesia about environmental disasters kicks in again, as does our faith that technical invention will save us from ourselves, and a new generation of pressure valves and containment techniques is declared infallible.

What the Gulf blowout has done is brought back into focus the developed world's mad rush to nowhere with regard to the environment in general and oil drilling in particular. This happens every couple of years, after which we quickly forget and resume the gas guzzling. It's been some two years, after all, since oil came close to $150 a barrel and we're relaxing again. I'm told, for example, that Ford is going to stop making the little quarter-ton Ranger truck that I drive. It's a big seller in slow places like the Maritimes, but the real market wants monsters again.

You might expect a disaster of this scale would get us thinking. But the desperation of drilling doesn't relax. Even in recession, the world's oil appetite barely flinched. Shocked as we may be when something like this happens, oil companies have our implicit permission -- thanks to our relentless consumption -- to do whatever's necessary to supply our dope, even to short the safety if that's what gets the job done.

Meanwhile, the forces of denial are doing a bang-up job feeding the public what it wants to hear -- that nothing is happening that the "market" and technology can't fix. Sarah Palin lets out with "drill, baby, drill," and hordes of mindless zealots cheer triumphally, essentially applauding environmental destruction.

Rational public debate is impossible. Behind the curtain, however, where the experts talk among themselves, reality lurks. Environmental catastrophe aside, the desperation of drilling is meant to stave off "peak oil" -- the point at which supplies diminish and prices surge. It's getting closer. The Saudi oil minister recently declared that country's role as a "swing producer," capable of boosting production when world oil prices go ruinously high, will soon come to an end. The cheap reserves are declining while the costs and hazards of deep-sea drilling are rising. Again, environment aside, Canada's tarsands, a huge but ruinously inefficient source of oil, won't deliver on the scale the big scenarios call for because there's not enough water and natural gas to process it.

There's still the Arctic, where the ice is melting, thanks to us burning too much stuff to begin with, and where the oil companies rightly presume they have a friend in Prime Minister Stephen Harper when it comes to weakening environmental standards, which has been his stock-in-trade with regard to the mining companies and the tarsands. Only the bad publicity of the Gulf blowout has got Harper crowing about keeping up tough standards - for now. And only the Gulf blowout has put off talk of reviewing the Georges Bank moratorium.

On the U.S. side, the Georges moratorium runs to 2017. I expect it will be similarly extended here. For those inclined to wait that long, you can use 2017 as a test -- whether by then we have accepted that the only solution is to use less oil and are actively doing so, or whether we're so degraded in our desperation that drilling on Georges carries the blind necessity of an addict needing a fix.

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