Fossil fuel industry gives cause for skepticism

Science Matters

The priority for people who run oil companies is to maximize profits. We know their words and actions are largely guided by a commitment to shareholders, and so we consider them in that context.

Politicians, on the other hand, are supposed to represent the public interest. Supporting industry can be good for citizens, but when elected officials devote more effort to creating opportunities for industry than for the people who elect them, they lose our trust – especially when industrial growth comes at a cost to the public interest.

Given the fossil fuel industry’s record of misleading the public and endangering the environment, its support from political leaders should give us pause.

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 people and spewing oil into the Gulf, was a wake-up call, but it already seems to be fading from memory.

We shouldn’t forget this disaster, and not only because some of the millions of barrels of oil is still wreaking havoc on ecosystems. Last year’s crisis was the result of a blow-out preventer failure, but the Gulf is still dotted with drilling rigs with similar devices, and most have not been properly inspected or maintained.

With the Deepwater Horizon rig, owners were permitted to fill out their own inspection reports, which were then submitted by U.S. government regulatory agencies as being accurate.

The Gulf is also home to 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells and 3,500 “temporarily abandoned” wells. The Associated Press reports that no one is regulating these wells to ensure they are secure and safe.

Meanwhile, the governments of Canada and Alberta have been waging a taxpayer-funded campaign against the European Union’s science-based proposal to label tar sands oil as a “high-carbon fuel”. And both governments have only recently admitted that the tar sands are having a negative impact on the Athabasca River.

Even in the face of scientific studies, politicians and industrialists were insisting that the tar sands were not affecting the Athabasca and that any contamination found was “naturally occurring”.

Our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels has also led to concerns over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, whereby great amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are blasted into wells to fracture the underground shale and release natural gas. Leaks, blow-outs, water contamination, increased ozone in the atmosphere, and emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, are just some of the possible consequences of this procedure.

What this tells us, along with facts about pollution and climate change, is that we need to take a hard look at our energy use and sources.

We can’t expect to get reliable information from the industry; after all, its priority is to promote its own interests. And we can’t expect much better from governments, which are often led by people who are more interested in their own short-term interests, based on election cycles, than in the longer-term interests of the people who elect them.

Canada has a petro dollar. Our economy is currently fuelled by high oil prices. But where will that leave us when our water, land, and air are polluted, when our children are suffering from the effects of pollution and climate change, and when the oil has all but run out and the rest of the world has switched to cleaner energy?

We need a better plan than just getting as much oil, gas, and coal as fast as possible.


Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications and editorial specialist Ian Hanington.