Can an environmental disaster be a blessing?

It has been almost a month since an explosion on a BP oil rig at Gulf of Mexico created the “potentially unprecedented” environmental disaster, as described by the US president Barack Obama.

Mr. Obama used the incident to declare an end to the “cozy relationship” between the US government and big oil companies – a very bold move for any American president – and called for a halt to offshore drilling activity until stringent safety guidelines are put into place so that another disaster does not strike US coastal waters.

What does this say for our oil, mostly glued to sand particles in the northern areas of our province?

One can safely bet that, once the cost of the cleaning up at the Gulf of Mexico is known, there is likely to be a long lull in offshore oil exploration. It is also reasonable to expect that much of the investment currently slated for seabed drilling could be redirected to oil sands (or tar sands, if you want to call it that) production.

Even before the oil slick happened last month, Alberta’s provincial politicians were rubbing their hands with the expectation that the global recovery would increase the thirst for oil and the royalties would again start to flow to the province’s coffers.

The estimates are that by mid 2020s, Alberta’s oil revenues could add up to some $40 billion.

Now, with the Obama administration giving a cold shoulder to oil companies, oil executives could probably think that Canada’s federal and provincial governments will be ready to welcome them with open arms. Add to that the relatively risk free (no matter how detrimental it might be environmentally) opportunity of exploiting Canada’s/Alberta’s oil sands, there you have an ideal formula for fast economic growth and a chance to wave good bye to all the current concerns about the fragility of global economic recovery.

So from a purely utilitarian standpoint, there is not much doubt that the oil slick turns out to be a blessing for Canada/Alberta.

As long as the environmental pollution caused by the oil slick is undone, (there is no guarantee that can be achieved as scientists warn that the true proportions of the disaster can take months or even years to discover), no one should probably blame our politicians for being happy for the unexpected windfall.

The problem with that is when one begins to make big and easy money with oil, it becomes irrelevant to think about minor details like pollution, global warming and the need to focus on diversifying the economy.

That, probably, is the curse hidden under the blessing.