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  • Georgina Milner

It shouldn't take a disaster to cancel fossil fuels


Oil spills are no new phenomena. Oceans have been polluted and habitats destroyed by massive oil spills every few years or so through recent decades. The recent oil spill off the coast of Mauritius was preceded by BP’s Deepwater fiasco, the biggest oil spill in American history, which itself was preceded by the 2002 Prestige oil tanker disaster where 50,000 tonnes of crude oil spread across the west coast of Spain. And of course, before the Prestige spill, the Erika oil tanker capsized in the North Sea in 1999, with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill still fresh in international memory. As disastrous as oil spills are to ocean life and local economies, in the long-term there is little difference. Had that oil not spilt into the sea, it would have been transferred safely to be sold at gasoline pumps or to facilities where it would be burned for energy, releasing tons of greenhouse gases. The only difference of an oil spill is what the oil ends up polluting - air or sea.

The Japanese ship that crashed off Mauritius’ coast in early August has spilled an estimated 1,000 tons of fuel oil into the unspoiled waters. Whilst a far smaller quantity than spills of previous years, it is still causing immeasurable damage to what is a biodiversity hotspot. Mauritius’ economy relies heavily on its tourism industry, of which the now bleached coral reefs and devastated marine life are vital pillars. Although previous oil spills around the world have occurred in equally environmentally sensitive areas, they also have still significantly affected marine animals and plants. The Deep Water Horizon incident off the gulf of Mexico resulted in the deaths of thousands of ocean life species, from planktons to dolphins. Around 40 dolphins were found dead near the site of the spill off of Mauritius’ coast, leading to thousands protesting in the capital of Port Louis, demanding investigations into the cause of their deaths and to hold those responsible to account. Marine biologists also suggest that there are other longer-term impacts of marine life such as impaired reproduction, restricted growth, disease and skin abrasions.

In an effort to help control the damage, France sent a military aircraft with pollution control equipment. Japan sent a team to assist the French efforts, as well as the Mauritian coast guard and multiple police units. Whilst there is insurance style legislation in place in many countries, such as the Oil Pollution Act in the USA, these regulations are often weak and restricted due to the millions spent by oil and gas giants lobbying to block climate protection policies. And, although the 2003 Supplementary Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage requires any company importing more than 150,000 tons of oil annually contribute toward a fund to help pay for damages, one can expect these companies not to cough up easily. Armed with the best lawyers money can buy, oil companies are often able to wriggle free of the blame or fork out only a portion of clean up costs. When a pipeline ruptured in Michigan, it spewed crude oil for more than 17 hours before finally being shut off, running into the Kalamazoo River and polluting more than 4,000 acres. The clean-up effort that cost more than $1 billion was reimbursed only $177 million by Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company at fault. Fossil fuel companies are capitalist only as far as it is profitable for them, whilst they privatise the gains, they are more than happy to socialise the costs.

In fact, limited as the compensation is that can be procured for the clean-up of oil spills, there is at least the possibility of compensation. There is no such insurance scheme to deal with the rampant air pollution that would have occurred from the burning of the very same oil had it reached its intended destination. The free market will continue to fail as long as the external costs of fossil fuels go unaccounted for and as long as taxpayers are forced to eke out funds for a band aid to be placed on the gushing wound of greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst a switch to 100% renewable energy is what is most key in dealing with the climate and pollution crisis, in the meantime and to hasten along this change, restrictions are required. Rather than as a tax, a levy on each gallon of gasoline sold should be considered as more of an insurance policy, to pay in advance for the damages that will inevitably occur later. We cannot keep waiting for disasters to happen. Large scale catastrophes will always spur people to action as they can be seen with their own two eyes but the same level of urgency must be maintained in-between. While oil spills are relatively rare events, the damages from emissions are only increasing every day.

IMAGE - Flickr (International Maritime Organization)



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