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From Mannar to Beruwela: The dangers of offshore drilling for oil

May 31, 2010 7:33:30 AM- transcurrents.com

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

The unprecedented – but perhaps not unpredictable – floods in Colombo and Gamapaha districts demonstrated both the danger and the unsustainability of the ‘Build Baby, Build’ approach to development. Development is far too serious a business to be left to politicians and officials made short-sighted by ignorance and avarice.

This month’s deluge indicated the necessity for ordinary people to take an interest in extraordinary ‘development projects’ in their areas, because when the powers-that-be make errors, it is the powerless who are called to pay for them, with their property, their health and even their lives.

The steady decline of water retention areas in the Colombo district due to hyper-construction is a visible reality. The dangers inherent in the current craze for highways were cast into sharp relief by the fact that the Navy had to blow a blast hole in the earthwork of the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway to enable floodwaters in the Gampaha district to recede. According to residents, areas which had never known flooding succumbed to the deluge this time, because, ‘water has collected on the land to the right of the incomplete expressway project’. As a resident stated, ‘The authorities should have thought about these things when they started this project…. This is a glaring instance of the authorities ignoring the people and their advice and going ahead with a project” (The Sunday Times – 23.5.2010)

Sri Lanka is a small country and what it needs are not a host of new expensive highways but the repairing and the proper maintenance of the existing road network and the building of an adequate system of drainage. Unfortunately the authorities are unlikely to abandon the ‘highway craze’, because, though improving the existing road network would be far more effective and far less costly (both financially and environmentally) it would drastically reduce money-making opportunities for the well connected (via massive contracts). Similarly, it is the state which grants building permits to construct in water retention areas. For example, a plan to build an amusement park in a major water-retention area in Rajagiriya-Nawala is currently on hold not because it did not receive official sanctions (it did) but because some of the residents in the area managed to obtain a restraining order from the courts. If the residents lose the court case, the project will go ahead, and Colombo will witness a far more devastating flood, someday soon.

Though the floods have receded, the problems are far from over. Doctors are warning about the possibility of epidemics (caused by contaminated water) while the affected people will have to put their shattered lives back in order – no easy task given the general economic situation. Unfortunately, with no major election in the offing, the regime seems more interested in the IIFA awards and doing cosmetic surgery on Colombo for the benefit of the visitors. The Opposition is too busy navel-gazing to ask serious questions about the regime’s current and future construction plans and indeed its very approach to development. For instance the plan to build on the Galle Face Green and to construct a new Galle Face Green by reclaiming the sea should be re-examined by independent experts for its environment impact. The mere fact of the deluge proves the colossal incapacity of the Environmental Authority to make accurate environmental impact assessments of large-scale projects. For instance, the opposition needs to demand that the official environmental impact assessment for the Katunayake Highway be tabled in parliament, so that it can be re-evaluated by the public in the light of the recent deluge.

There is a connection between the Lankan floods and the still unfolding crisis created by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The financial and economic costs of the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill will be colossal while its human and environmental costs are incalculable (for instance, according to some experts, the health of the people living in the affected areas will suffer permanent damage).

The tragedy is that this was a preventable tragedy. The Deepwater Horizon explosion happened because of insufficient regulation and lack of oversight. This state of affairs was caused by the Bush-era craze for deregulation and the mutually profitable nexus between the oil industry and those government officials charged with overseeing the operations of off-shore drilling. According to media reports, the US Interior Department which is responsible for the regulation of off-shore drilling warned about the possibility of ‘back-up system failures’ in oil rigs 10 years ago. The warning went unheeded. For instance, in 2007 a regulator from the Interior Department said that ‘blowouts’ (like the one which happened in the Gulf of Mexico) are rare and that even if they happen their effect, including on the environment, would be far from significant. Given such a lackadaisical attitude, an avoidable tragedy became inevitability.

According to an official report released last week, a cosy relationship exists between the American oil industry and the officials of the Mineral Management Services, the Agency within the US Interior Department charged with overseeing offshore drilling. Many of the ‘overseers’, whose first task should have been to ensure the safety of the drilling operations, turned a blind eye in return for expensive gifts and other benefits from the oil companies. Given this context, the inability to prevent the fateful explosion and to react to it with sufficient rigour in the initial stages are explicable. So is the fact that the day the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, the US Interior Department gave 27 new permits for offshore drilling, including 2 permits for BP which owns the Deepwater Horizon. Of these 27 permits 26 were granted regulation exemptions, including the 2 permits given to the BP, a privilege also enjoyed by the Deepwater Horizon oil well.

Juxtapose the Lankan flood crisis and the US oil spill crisis and the composite picture contains a clear warning of a future danger. According to media reports, Sri Lanka will begin offshore oil drilling, perhaps as soon as next year. Our offshore oil deposits have been divided into 8 blocks, extending from Mannar to Beruwela.

Blocks I and II have been given to India while China has picked up the southernmost Block VIII. Some of the agreements are signed already though they have not been made public or even discussed in parliament. Off-shore drilling is new to Sri Lanka and the relevant regulations will have to be prepared from the scratch. Given that the entire country (and future generations too) will have to bear the costs of any ‘accident’ in this field, the regulations must be discussed in parliament and made known to the public.

What is the regulatory framework prepared for off-shore drilling projects? What are the safety precautions? Does Sri Lanka have any overseeing authority or has a carte blanche been given to India and China? If there is an accident of the Deepwater Horizon sort, who will be responsible for dealing with it and who will pay its cost? These are not esoteric questions, especially given the recent tragedies caused by ill planned and unregulated construction projects (including road construction under the Maga Neguma) in Sri Lanka and off-shore drilling in the US. Neither India nor China is noted for concern for human and environmental costs of development. As a result both countries are suffering from severe environmental degradation. Consequently there is no reason to believe that either country will act with sufficient circumspection in little Sri Lanka. If at all, both are likely to be more willing to risk large scale environmental degradation (with its attendant economic and human costs) in Sri Lanka, than in their own countries.

Imagine an accident just 10% as serious as the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion off the Lankan coast. Imagine its impact on this small island, on its coast and its sea, its economy and its environment, its flora and its fauna, and its people. Being small, our capacity to absorb and withstand the impact of such an ‘accident’ would be negligible. Being poor and underdeveloped, out ability to handle the economic costs of such an accident would be minimal. The damage caused by the Katunayake Expressway alone indicates that the possibility of such a danger cannot be dismissed out of hand, since our authorities seem either unable or unwilling to take even the minimal safety precautions or to heed any warnings.

Sri Lanka should use her oil deposits, but with a far greater degree of care than has been displayed in previous development projects. Unfortunately a government in severe financial trouble can be motivated by money alone – lease the oil wells as soon as possible to make a fast buck. Such a government is unlikely to be concerned by potential risks and dangers. In fact such a government is likely to dismiss warnings as nonsense at best and verbal sabotage at worst.

According to media reports, the President has taken over the Petroleum Resources Development Agency. Off-shore drilling too has become a ‘Family-subject’. The evolving Rajapakse attitude to development indicates the possibility of a militarist approach to economic tasks. Consequently non-antagonistic contradictions could be interpreted as antagonistic ones and any act of dissent, however democratic, seen as enemy action, and treated accordingly. Trade union and public protests can thus be labelled ‘economic terrorism’ and responded to in non-democratic ways. Such an approach would render difficult, if not impossible, any peaceful public opposition to harmful ‘development projects’ such as the Eppawala protest. Oil drilling may even be declared as falling within the field of national security and the regime might impose a media blackout on oil exploration.

The dominant opinion considers oil to be the panacea for all our ills. But the experiences of other third world countries outside of the Middle East demonstrate that oil can be a mixed blessing at best. Whether the presence of oil benefits a country and its people depends on many factors, especially the attitude and the actions of its government. Where the government is corrupt or inept and lacks commitment to public welfare, oil has caused more harm than good, Nigeria being the most obvious case in point.

Development is a public concern. Therefore development projects should be open to public scrutiny. The Opposition should at least demand a two-day debate on the flood disaster; ideally it should carry out an investigation into the causes of the deluge and suggest and demand remedial measures. The Opposition should also demand that the government table in the parliament the agreements it has signed so far with India and China on off-shore drilling. The regulatory framework prepared for off-shore drilling should be made public as well.

The May deluge demonstrated that politics has an impact on even the most non-political of us. When governments do not act in the best interests of the governed, the governed suffer. Therefore it is both the responsibility and the duty of the governed to ensure that governments make as few mistakes as possible in governing. Good governance and intelligent governance are not just debating points; their presence or absence impact on all of us, intimately. In the absence of an effective opposition, citizens have no choice but to take upon themselves the task of overseeing and regulating the acts of the government. Silence and inaction, ignorance and indifference carry a heavy price, as we experienced this month.