All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The unexpected costs of oil

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The (oil polluted) community of Tadoule, Northern manitoba

It’s easy to be single-focussed about the environmental consequences of using oil and other fossil fuels.  Many of us think about climate change but we easily forget other aspects, especially those that are unexpected.  It’s not just climate change, nor even just air pollution.  I was reminded of that after reading a couple of excellent books recently.

I recently posted a review of one of these books, Shaun Loney’s An Army of Problem Solvers.  He describes the situation in the first nations community of Northlands, in northern Manitoba just south of Nunavut:

There is more money spent on diesel and its cleanup that on housing, economic development, and healthy food combined.  It is another instance of abundant government money available to spend on a problem.  The diesel is job killing, environmentally backwards, and brutally expensive.

On my flight into Northlands from Winnipeg, I met reps from a soil-remediation company who were familiar with the community. They had been there many times before on lucrative government contracts.  They were on their way to undertake a half-million dollar contract to take soil samples and come up with a remediation plan.  A multi-million dollar contract to actually clean up the soil would follow.  None of this creates local jobs.

Northlands uses diesel mostly for power and heat.  Their situation is far from unique (a good review of the situation in other northern communities can be found in BriarPatch magazine on-line).

The 2013 I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River (Seattle Times).


I always have a few books on the go.  I was just finishing Elly Blue’s 2016 Bikenomics (how bicycling can save the economy.  Portland: Microcosm Publishing) on the heels of Loney’s book, meditating on some of the more absurd costs of oil dependence, when I read Blue’s comments about the Skagit River Bridge collapse.  This is a bridge that is part of Interstate 5 in Washington State.  But this wasn’t another case of poorly-maintained, crumbling infrastructure: the bridge was in fine shape before the collapse.

The part of the story that never got more than a passing mention in the media is that the bridge did not collapse because of structural defects…The cause of the collapse was a truck that struck the bridge overhead structure several times.  The truck was too large for the bridge, taller than the maximum height indicated for crossing and larger than the bridge’s designers, half a century earlier, had likely ever imagined a truck could be.  At the time of the collapse, the truck was in service delivering heavy oil-drilling equipment from the Port of Vancouver, Washington, to the Alberta Tar Sands oil fields.  The equipment was housed in large containers for the trip, and it is one of these empty containers that struck the bridge struts on the southbound trip.

These are just two examples of costs that we don’t often associate with oil, just two among many.  Oil pervades the economy, of course, and so one expects issues associated with oil to crop up in unexpected places.  This isn’t to say that we should get off oil overnight.  But, at the same time, oil shouldn’t get a free pass; the damages that oil causes, from air pollution and soil contamination to unexpected infrastructure accidents should all be part of the tally.  Then we can make wiser decisions.


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