100429-G-8744K-012I was talking to a colleague who works on oil issues yesterday about the Gulf of Mexico spill.

As we chewed over the unfolding disaster, he said “the trouble is that the spill might make Canada’s tar sands more attractive for American politicians.”

Right on cue, hours later another colleague sent an article from the Calgary Herald making the very same point.

Entitled “Gulf spill gives oilsands a chance to shine” it puts forward a fundamentally flawed pro-drilling argument.

To start with, though, credit where credit is due. The article is right on a couple of points:

Firstly that the spill is likely to stop offshore drilling in the US in short-term at least. The longer the spill goes on and the political fall-out spreads with the oil and anger grows across the Gulf, the longer it will be before drilling will be allowed again.

Already we have Senators from Florida and New Jersey saying they would strongly oppose new laws allowing deepwater exploration off Alaska and the east coast for the first time. And Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California has also said offshore drilling will not happen off California.

The Herald article is also right where it says that the spill is “a huge blow to the stated desire of the current administration to wean the country from being dependent on imported oil.”

But their argument is that with offshore drilling now off-limits you have to get your oil from OPEC or… wait for it …. the tar sands.

The Calgary Herald argues that “Anyone assessing the risks associated with drilling offshore versus the oilsands is going to be looking at things much differently today than he would have last week. All of a sudden it’s a choice between risks that are quantifiable versus those that are unknown. In the case of the oilsands, the size of the resource has been defined, the exploration risk is non-existent and the environmental challenges fall into the remediable category.”

The Herald argues that an ecological “catastrophe is unlikely because the risks are simply not the same.”

The madness of this argument needs to be exposed for what it is:  just pure and simply mad. The ecological devastation caused by the tar sands is beyond doubt, not only on a local level but also because of climate change. You cannot bull-doze primary forest, pollute waterways and belch out millions of tonnes of carbon and call it a pick-nick. The concept that you can “remedy” climate change just does not make sense.

The tar sands lobby have once again spectacularly missed the point.  What this spill shows again is that we need to reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons per se. We do not have to have poisoned communities and dying widlife at all, either in the Gulf or Canada.

What we do not want to do is just shift drilling from offshore – where there are ecological risks – to onshore – where there are different but potentially greater long-term ecological risks.

Once again an oil spill has presented a perfect chance to understand the risks of oil and the need to decarbonise our economy, not recarbonise it. As someone has said of the spill “When oil and nature collide, oil wins”.

The Herald finishes by arguing that “the Gulf of Mexico situation has presented Canada’s oilsands producers with a window to alter the perception of their segment of the energy business. And while it’s tough to take advantage of a competitor knocked to the canvas, it’s time to seize the moment.”

It is time to seize the moment. But big oil does not have to win this time. This is not a boxing match – it is more like a seedy drugs deal, with the dirty drug dealer saying – hey that offshore oil is bad stuff, but while there is a shortage of supply, why not try some of our seriously bad crack hydrocarbons – they will really mess you up.

If there is any long-term hope from this spill it is not that you move from one oil supplier to another, it is that we wean ourselves off oil for good.

It is time for nature to win.