Under Western Skies and Gross Negligence

At the Under Western Skies Conference on Environments/ Technologies/Communities in Calgary where it is 1 degree C and there is snow on the ground! Will be showing excerpts of OFFSHORE on Thursday. The conference opened this morning with utterly inspiring talks by Justice Thomas Berger and the four amazing women who are the key organizers of Idle No More. (more on them later)

Justice Berger made Canadian history in 1974 when he chaired the Berger Commission on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline which revolutionized the process and protocols of royal commissions in Canada by actually travelling to 35 First Nations’ communities in the western Arctic whose traditional lifestyle would be immediately impacted by the building of a pipeline. Those hearings, which were broadcast across the country and were the subject of a National Film Board documentary, provided a crucial and historic wakeup call to Canadians who suddenly witnessed the tremendous chasm between First Nations’ profound spiritual, political and cultural views around land, ownership and environmental obligation and their own unchallenged assumptions.

Despite the 50 million dollars invested by oil companies in advocating for the pipeline, Berger ultimately recommended that treaty claims had to be settled before any development proceeded. While supporting the possibility of a southern pipeline (if scrupulous environmental precautions were taken), he concluded that the northern part of the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay through Alaska should never be built as it would have a tragic and deadly impact on the porcupine caribou migration. As events transpired, the MacKenzie Valley pipeline was never built and over the last forty years attention turned to other resource projects including the tar sands and fracking. But how astonishing that in 1974, in the wake of the so called ‘energy crisis,’ that a Canadian royal commission would recommend a stall to the bulldozer of progress and to the power of the transnational oil companies who were lobbying for the pipeline in the first place. Seems nearly unthinkable today.

Last week another Justice did the right thing. After more than a year of deliberations and countless representations, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier found BP “grossly negligent” and “reckless” in causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Of course most people would concur (this was essentially the conclusion of the 17 month joint inquiry by the U.S. Coast Guard and BOEMRE which found that decisions made by BP to save time and money severely compromised safety) but I suppose it is extraordinary that a senior judge in the U.S. Justice system would, under enormous pressure, make this finding. For the past four years BP has lied about the amount of oil spilled, tried to shift the blame onto others, employed a team of lawyers to stall the proceedings and basically did everything to diminish its legal liability for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Finding BP ‘grossly’ negligent as opposed to merely ‘negligent’ means that the ultimate fines imposed could be increased by about $18-billion (U.S.). While there was much brouhaha in the press about justice being served, insiders pointed out that BP has enough liquidity to eventually handle this additional amount. While this may produce a chill for smaller companies contemplating risky plays, for large companies with deep pockets (and BP has very deep pockets) this could simply be the cost of doing business. But you have to ask yourself and shareholders are starting to do this about the very deep financial risk of deepwater drilling.

But before we start cheering, any financial pain inflicted on BP may be years into the future. They are appealing and the case could very well drag on for years (the Exxon Valdez took nearly twenty years to finally resolve by which time most of the plaintiffs had died!)