Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Putting A Price On Nature

(AP Photo/Maritime New Zealand, Graeme Brown)
I’ve been thinking about oil transport and oil spills after reading some of the stories about the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project and oil tanker routes in British Columbia.  So have a few other readers.

Liz commented on an article posted about the dangers posed by supertankers laden with the pipeline oil from the Kitimat port on the B.C. coast. She pointed out: “While it is not a tanker, the mammoth cargo ship over in New Zealand provides a sobering example of how difficult it can be to contain a wrecked, sinking large vessel.” That would be the Rena, grounded since October and now sinking off the east coast of New Zealand.

It’s always after spill and cleanup efforts that a cost is put on the social, economic and natural resource damages. That’s when we get some kind of order of magnitude when a Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolds or a Nestucca or Rena or Exxon Valdez spills its oil.

Why not before the fact, another reader asked? Is anyone modeling and calculating the social, economic and natural resource cost if an spill were to occur in or around the supertanker routes in Hecate Strait?

There’s a good map at the Globe and Mail depicting the tanker routes, Where the Gateway leads: Tanker routes to Kitimat

There’s a YouTube video modeling what a spill might look like and what will be affected, Tar Sands and Tankers Part 4: Modeling a BC Spill

As reported by the Vancouver Sun’s Larry Pynn, project proponent Enbridge has made its own estimates of how a spill would affect the tanker transit areas.

“Enbridge environmental studies suggest that the condensate would evaporate relatively quickly, producing ‘short-lived toxic effects.’

“It would take up to five years for the Kitimat intertidal zone to recover from a spill of 250 cubic metres of bitumen, as much as two years for condensate, Enbridge calculates.

“A major bitumen spill from a tanker would be much more serious, affecting all levels of the food chain, fouling the feathers of birds, contaminating fish spawning and rearing areas, invertebrates and marine mammals.

“The depth and longevity of effects would depend, in part, on the amount spilled, location and time of year.

“An Enbridge study calculated that a spill of 36,000 cubic metres of bitumen — on the order of the Exxon Valdez spill — in Wright Sound would contaminate 240 kilometres of shoreline in 15 days.

“It could take four years for exposed rocky shores to recover, up to 12 years for sheltered shores.” ( What if a supertanker tanks? )

So how much in dollars (Canadian, if you want) would the social, economic and natural resource costs be for spills like this? What’s that kelp bed worth? That nesting duck? That salmon stream? The years of closed fishery? The loss of a culture?

And wouldn’t it be reasonable for these costs to be agreed upon in the project permitting process and for project approval be contingent on the project proponents insuring with a performance bond the amount of damages risked by its operations?

Oil guys claim all the time that an accident won’t happen. That’s date cheap talk and we’ve seen unthinkable accidents happen again and again.

Until a fair price is paid for using the people’s marine waters and insuring it won’t be damaged, risks continue to be socialized and profits privatized.

It’s not up to the government on behalf of the people to prove that risks in the project exist; it’s up to the project proponents to prove that they will minimize the risks and be responsible for any damage that might occur— from the smallest incident to the worst-case scenario.

I recall giving a talk once about what a wetland was worth and finding a couple of birders rather upset in referring to how wetlands help avoid paying for expensive runoff pollution facilities. They would have preferred the worth to be limited to the natural and aesthetic.

So would I but in a capitalist system we use the tools we have to accomplish what’s right and fair— and in this case it happens to be putting a price tag on nature.

(On the subject of putting a price tag on nature, you must read — in a completely different vein— Carl Safina’s current blog “Bluefin Tuna: New Record Price for Carcass Further Devaluates the Fish” where he bemoans how the news media reported the story of a single bluefin tuna selling at wholesale auction in Tokyo for a record $736,000. Good stuff.)

--Mike Sato

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