Oil, Oil, Everywhere

Nothing triggers robust discussions about energy policy like a major oil spill. The oil spill which occurred as a result of the catastrophic failure of a BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico is a pretty classic example. As the huge oil slick crept closer and closer to shore, concerns about the health of wildlife and the natural environment across the American South began to rise. Predictably, so did questions about energy policy, including challenges to the President’s recent outspoken support of expanding oil drilling operations in the United States.

I couldn’t help but think about the class issues associated with oil drilling while this situation was unfolding.

Here in Northern California, I can enjoy an unobstructed ocean view. Not a single drilling platform in sight, just the occasional fishing boat close to shore or passing cargo vessel far out to sea. I’m not going to lie to you: I enjoy that view. I even enjoy it through the windows of my car when I am driving back and forth between Fort Bragg and Mendo or points beyond, burning petrol all the way.

I’m not the only person who enjoys that view. Northern Californians have lobbied hard and vigorously to resist offshore oil drilling. One of the primary arguments has been that one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world is located just off our shoreline. Oil drilling clearly impacts marine life even when oil isn’t bubbling up out of broken wellheads. Even though our ocean is not very economically profitable at the moment due to overfishing, that doesn’t change the fact that it is highly diverse, very unique, and very fragile. Concerns about the health of the waters off our coastline are legitimate and oil drilling could well impact the recovery of our fishery.

But the resistance to offshore drilling here is also about the fact that, well, drilling platforms are ugly. I remember the first time I went to Southern California and saw platforms, vividly. It was horrible. Great, hulking skeletons lurking off the shoreline. And keep in mind that I am someone who loves abandoned industrial sites (and even lived in one).

An oil platform in the sunset, taken outside Askøy in Hordaland, Norway.

(Photo by Flickr user Chris-Håvard Berge, Creative Commons License.)

Oil platforms are ugly. One of the wealthiest counties in California is Marin, which just happens to be in Northern California. Marin also happens to be a centre for organising against offshore drilling. This is not a coincidence. The residents of Marin are quite happy to use petroleum products from plastics to petrol, but they don’t want to look at oil platforms when they go to Stinson Beach.

Residents of the Gulf don’t have that luxury. Offshore drilling thrives there not just because the oil industry got a foothold at the right time, but because residents, by and large, don’t really have any choice. Likewise with Alaska, another area where oil drilling is very prevalent. It’s an important industry for Alaska. The residents cannot afford to be choosy about where the money they need to survive comes from. Hence, drilling.

Oil is in a lot of places. Tests certainly indicate that our highly productive marine ecosystem is probably located over oil deposits. How usable that oil is and how much of it there is is a subject of debate which, you guessed it, requires test wells to resolve. Test wells aren’t going to be permitted because they are the first step in establishing drilling platforms. And tourists from Marin do not want to look at oil platforms when they take their Mendocino vacations.

But, you know. Maybe they should.

I am opposed to oil drilling because I’m opposed to using petroleum as a source for energy and consumer products. Because it’s not sustainable, and because it hurts the environment. But I don’t see why I, in particular, should have the privilege of not looking at oil platforms when plenty of other places around the world don’t have that privilege. The only reason I don’t see platforms (don’t work for an oil company, don’t get cheques from oil companies to compensate me for drilling in my community) is because some rich folks don’t want their views messed with.

Yes, opposition to drilling here is also coming from the fishing community and the environmental community. And that opposition is valid and important. But let’s not fool ourselves; it’s the efforts of the rich folks from Marin, San Francisco, and points surrounding which has secured our coastline. And given that California is experiencing a budget crisis and people in Southern California are already looking at oil rigs when they go to the beach, I think it’s not unreasonable that eyes are going to drift North and ask why our oil reserves are not being tapped.

If we can’t develop a functional way to stop using oil, I think it’s time to start asking some hard questions about class and privilege when it comes to where drilling does and does not happen. Personally, I don’t think that being rich (or living in a place rich people like to exploit) should exempt you from looking at oil platforms.

Should exempt you from things like this:

Aerial photo of the Montara offshore oil platform and West Atlas mobile drilling rig. On August 21, 2009, a well on the platform blew out as a new well was being drilled, and both the rig and the platform were imediately evacuated. Oil and gas condensate are spewing uncontrolled into the Timor Sea off Western Australia, and will continue to do so for at least 7-8 weeks until a new rig can be brought into the vicinity to drill a relief well. Photo by Chris Twomey / Australian Greens.

Aerial photo of the Montara offshore oil platform and West Atlas mobile drilling rig. On August 21, 2009, a well on the platform blew out as a new well was being drilled, and both the rig and the platform were imediately evacuated. Oil and gas condensate are spewing uncontrolled into the Timor Sea off Western Australia, and will continue to do so for at least 7-8 weeks until a new rig can be brought into the vicinity to drill a relief well. Photo by Chris Twomey / Australian Greens, Creative Commons License.

If we can’t make reducing dependence on oil a priority, if we are going to insist on drilling, I think we need to ask what makes some communities more special than others when it comes to deciding on the placement of oil wells. The bottom line should be that wells should go in the locations with the best and most extensive oil deposits; if your goal is drilling for oil, you might as well do it right.

Who cares about the environment, right? We can always bust out the detergent and containment booms the next time a major oil spill happens. We can always hire people who are unqualified to clean up and not provide them with adequate protections. We can always trust oil companies to have a plan in case for a worst case scenario.

Or we could actually commit to investing in alternatives to oil.

It’s our choice, and it’s time to start talking about the social justice implications.