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Oil and Water

I was standing on a beach in Bermuda in the summer of 1976, taking a break from my on-the-job training with one of Canada’s maritime patrol air squadrons. The scene along the bay and out to the Atlantic was idyllic, the pink sand glistening at my feet.

I stood rooted in one spot for about five minutes, enjoying the feeling of the place, watching my feet sink deeper under the sand as the waves washed in and out. When I finally roused myself to move I felt something sticky, and looked down to see the soles of my feet and toes covered in a substantial layer of tar.

It took ages to get that tar off my feet, and I’ve often wondered, with Bermuda lying hundreds of miles offshore, where that oily mess might have come from.

I stood on another beautiful beach that same summer, also on-the-job training, this time sea survival exercises at Goose Spit here in the Comox Valley. The water was noticeably colder, but the vistas even more magnificent than Bermuda, and I noticed no tar on my feet after a day on The Spit.

I so fell in love with the Comox Valley that I knew I had to come back somehow, and when I returned to live here, my love of beaches blossomed into a passion for the wild stretches of Long Beach and the west coast of Vancouver Island. I visit a few times every year, and it is still possible to stand in one spot out there for 10 minutes or more, without leaving your feet covered in oil.

Is there any price that can be put on the treasures of our coastline? What about the beaches of Haida Gwaii, or the magnificent rivers traversing the BC interior? People come from all over the world to experience these wonders, in no small part because they are so rare elsewhere on Earth.

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Speaking of prices, here’s one for you. $38.1 billion US. That is the estimate of what BP will have to pay relating to criminal and other charges for their massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. They have had to sell substantial assets in order to raise those funds, and were just informed that the US Government will ban them from future federal contracts due to their “lack of business integrity”.

The U.S. and various state governments are still seeking billions of dollars in civil penalties against BP over the environmental damage. More than 100,000 businesses have unsettled claims against BP for losses they have suffered, and BP’s share price remains about one-third below its level before the disaster.

Assistant US Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the deaths and the oil spill “resulted from BP’s culture of privileging profit over prudence.”

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This all makes me wonder how much Enbridge has discussed budgeting for cleanup and claims arising from a spill along their proposed Northern Gateway pipeline route. Of course they will not likely accept any liability for what happens to the bitumen once it has left their pipes, so I assume that the cost of protecting shareholders from even further liabilities will be borne by the storage facilities and tanker companies that will transport the product out of the proposed facility in Kitimat.

I also wonder to what extent the global insurance industry is willing to cover these companies against accidents and claims, on what contractual terms, and what the yearly premiums might be to cover the tens of billions of dollars in potential damages?

Then I wonder why shareholders would want any part of a company that faces such serious risks.

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Of course not everyone in BC is against the Enbridge project as it is planned, just 2/3 of us. But it is likely that at least half of those who are alarmed by, or opposed to this project, are themselves shareholders of Enbridge.

How so? Well through Canada Government or employer pension plans, or through holdings in most Canadian equity mutual funds. Enbridge’s presence in Canadians’ RRSPs is in fact commonplace.

If you are unsure whether you too are an owner, you may refer to the list of your mutual fund’s top ten holdings, or dig a little further into the fund company’s annual report to find out what your exposure is to Enbridge. Better yet, ask your advisor to do so and see what reaction you get from them.

I’m thinking that even if you are unconcerned about the financial risks of investing in this company, or other related companies to this project, you may be uneasy from the standpoint of owning a company that operates in a manner so contrary to your own personal values.

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And then I wonder if, 50 years from now, the world will still be using energy that is derived from these most cumbersome and contentious and harmful means. What then the value of a bucket of bitumen? What price did we pay for it beyond the dollars and cents? And what legacy will remain for the communities that found themselves exposed to this activity?

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