by David Sweet

On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, 20 April 2010, a day intended to celebrate and educate about environmental protection, the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in 1,500 metres of water 66 km off the Louisiana coast.

For the next 87 days until 15 July, when the well was finally capped, the world witnessed a series of failed attempts to stem the flow or prevent what many, including President Obama, have called the worst environmental disaster in the history of the US.

While pictures of oil-soaked birds are always guaranteed to create immediate outrage, nobody really knows the long term impact of pumping 5 million barrels of oil and 2 million gallons of dispersants into the Gulf.

And whether this proves to be the United States’ worst-ever environmental catastrophe, or just ranks in the top five, this is really saying something, given all of the ways we have screwed up our air, water, soil and environment in recent history.

The unfortunate truth is that far too many of our major environmental catastrophes – such as the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and coal ash spills in Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as oil spills in Alaska and now the Gulf – have come as the result of our quest for big fuel reserves and energy production.

While the legal finger-pointing and manoeuvring is well under way regarding causation and liability (criminal as well as civil) – and government reaction in terms of a temporary deepwater drilling moratorium (which the courts did not quite agree with) has been swift – these short-term actions are really no more than blips on the timeline.

In fact, while reactive, knee-jerk policies are predictable, they are clearly not the optimal way to move forward with a comprehensive strategy that rewards the most efficient use of our scarce resources.

Drilling at the pressures found in 1,500 metres of water is risky business. And while we can drill wells now with a greatly reduced environmental footprint, and also learn from the mistakes that we have made, the risk never goes close to zero.

Since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, not a single nuclear plant has been built in the United States. Whether the Deepwater Horizon incident is to become the Three Mile Island of the oil industry is yet to be determined.

In an unrelated development, a major global supplier recently announced an export ban for a critical commodity which is likely to trigger huge price increases and hamper growth in already fragile economies.

The commodity is not oil but wheat, and the ban was announced by Russia as a result of a severe drought, bringing scorching temperatures and wildfires that have destroyed about 20% of Russia’s crop, forcing the country to draw upon its emergency reserves.

The linkage between our inefficient use of fossil fuels, evidence of severe climate change around the world, and an impact on our food and water supplies cannot be ignored.

While it is often necessary to think big in terms of food and infrastructure, there is a danger in not thinking locally and small as well.

Local power and locally produced food can play a critical role in establishing a more sustainable framework for global development. Our best efforts and intentions notwithstanding, the next environmental catastrophe and climate-driven food or water crisis is just around the corner.

Perhaps it is time to start thinking smaller and closer to home.

David Sweet 
Executive Director, WADE


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