Proponents of offshore oil and gas development off British Columbia's coast are urging people not to jump to conclusions about an oil rig accident polluting the Gulf of Mexico.
But those fighting offshore drilling say that's just what people should be doing, because the slick threatening the Louisiana coast is a clear warning of what could happen in B.C. if a federal moratorium is lifted.
"The lesson we're learning about offshore oil rigs this week is identical to tahe lesson the Exxon Valdez taught us about the risks of tanker traffic in 1989, which is that technology is great - but it doesn't prevent spills," said David Anderson, a former federal cabinet minister.
"I was hearing about how great technology was 40 years ago … but the truth is the industry is not foolproof. If it was, that extremely expensive, high-tech oil rig wouldn't have caught fire," he said.
Mr. Anderson has long argued against lifting the offshore oil and gas development moratorium in B.C. that was imposed by Ottawa nearly four decades ago.
Mr. Anderson said former prime minister Pierre Trudeau brought in the moratorium, and a ban on inshore tanker traffic, because of fears the ecologically rich, rugged and remote north coast of B.C. would be devastated by an oil spill.
"Those policies protected our coast. It's because of that, that region remains one of the few pristine areas left on the Pacific," Mr. Anderson said.
B.C. Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom, whose government has been pushing Ottawa to lift the moratorium, said he hasn't abandoned ambitions to develop offshore oil, but the Gulf spill has put those plans on hold.
"I'm going to wait and see what is found out about this disaster that is taking place in the Gulf right now," he told reporters. "If it can be pursued in an environmentally sound and scientifically safe way, I think we would look at that. But right now the focus is really clearly on the disaster that is unfolding before our eyes."
Mr. Lekstrom said he wants to know if there is a way to ensure an accident like that "doesn't happen again."
But in the legislature, Rob Fleming, the NDP environment critic, told Mr. Lekstrom not to ignore the obvious warning.
"The Deepwater Horizon was a state-of-the-art oil rig, yet the disaster in the Gulf has demonstrated that no technology can ever stop devastating oil spills from occurring. This minister knows or ought to know that an oil spill off British Columbia's sensitive coast would be devastating. It would wipe out the orca population. It would wipe out our salmon species. It would wipe out species at risk up and down the coastlines of British Columbia," he said.
"Given the massive destruction we're seeing in the Gulf, will somebody from this government stop pushing the federal government to lift the moratorium on coastal drilling in British Columbia unequivocally?"
David McGuigan, a Prince Rupert businessman who's long advocated offshore oil and gas development in the Queen Charlotte Basin (where there is an estimated 9.8 billion barrels of oil) urged people not to jump to conclusions.
"There's no question a spill of that magnitude on the B.C. coast, with the climate and ecology we have, would be extremely serious," he said. "But I don't agree with those who say that that's the inevitable result of offshore development."
Mr. McGuigan said people should wait until an investigation is complete before judging whether the safeguards were inadequate.
Environmentalists, however, say that B.C.'s coast has such remarkable environmental values, including the Great Bear Rainforest, that it would be reckless to put it at risk.
"After this disaster in the Gulf, I can't think there'd be much appetite for offshore oil rigs," said Pat Moss of the non-profit group Friends of Wild Salmon. "The idea should really be dead."
Shannon McPhail of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition said the oil industry has spills wherever it operates, and it will only be a matter of time before B.C.'s coast is damaged if offshore drilling is allowed.
"How many times do we have to learn the same lesson?" she asked.
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