Oil spills in southwest Trinidad

A couple weeks ago, I started writing a post in response to the announcement of Trinidad and Tobago’s first oil discovery of 2013; events overtook me when an oil spill occurred in southwest Trinidad. It was initially reported as a break in a 10-inch pipe at Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery; later reports spoke of four separate leaks and still later, eleven.

Initial reports were followed by images of oiled beaches, fishing boats and mangrove and reports of one community in particular that was affected by the spill. A local NGO, Papa Bois Conservation, has done excellent citizen reporting on the spills. In an effort to wrap my head around what was going on, I put together a Scoop.it page – “Southwest Trinidad Oil Spills” – and managed to collect over 150 articles from the three daily newspapers in TT over the course of just over two weeks. Petrotrin and the government have been calling the spills possible sabotage, with Petrotrin chairman Lindsay Gillette saying that in at least two of the spills specialised tools would have been needed to open the pipes that spilled oil.

Oil spills are nothing new in south Trinidad – streams and roadside ditches in the oil belt are frequently oiled or have oil-stained banks; old pipelines built by companies that vanished decades ago may still leak oil. It takes more than a trace amount of oil to even be recognised as a spill. That alone suggests that these spills involve substantial amounts of oil. Pictures from Coffee Beach in La Brea (where 25 people were hospitalised after the spill came ashore) show substantial quantities of oil on the beach, while this video shows oiled water and coastline. The damage done to coastal and marine life (and to coastal communities) is going to be substantial. I think that it shows progress that this is being cast as an environmental disaster, not merely a costly inconvenience for the company.

Petroleum (and natural gas) production in Trinidad is a fascinating microcosm of the extractive economy. Oil production dominates the economy, and oil royalties and taxes dominate state revenues. Production – which comes both with the benefits of employment and the costs of living with oil production – is concentrated in the southwest and southeast (primarily offshore in the southeast). The people of La Brea (to pick an example that came up here) see relatively little of the benefits of the petro-economy, but pay a disproportionate share of the costs. Fisherfolk and crab catchers will also pay substantial costs for this oil spill, but again, see little of the benefits. Beach goers will be inconvenienced, but the people who frequent the beaches in southwest Trinidad are disproportionately from southwest Trinidad. Again, the wealthiest people, and the people who see most of the benefits, will pay a far smaller price. And into this whole mix we need to introduce the natural environment.

The natural environment in southwest Trinidad has paid a high price for petroleum extraction. Although relatively lightly populated, the forests of southwest Trinidad are heavily fragmented and degraded. The coastal and marine environment has also paid a price over almost a century of oil production. Environmental conservation should be more than just a concern of middle class hobbyists – natural resources, ecosystem services, natural capital – however you want to name it, nature plays an important role not only in the economy, but also in the well-being of people. But, again, the costs of an extractive economy are unlikely to be paid by the people who enjoy most of the benefits.

Climate change and denialism

Most of the time, when we talk about the shifting Overton window, it seems like it’s an inexorable shift rightward, towards more and more extreme language. Gun control is something serious politicians can’t discuss any more, even after the latest massacre of innocents. Ideas that Ronald Reagan embraced now lie to the left of the mainstream discourse. Feminism and conservation are now bad words. Here and there, though, language takes a more progressive turn. Marriage equality is no longer an odd turn of phrase used by activists – at the end of 2013 not only is a word that people understand (even if they don’t use it), it’s also a concept that isn’t shocking to the mainstream. Another such word is climate change denial.

Wikipedia is always a good place to gauge how widely controversial language is accepted. Go back to 2003 and their intelligent design article was firmly in the hands of people who were trying to present it as a real scientific theory. That changed after the Kitzmiller decision in late 2005, but it still took years before it could be called what it was – repackaged creationism – openly in the article. Similarly, if you go back to 2009 the term ‘climate change denial’ was presented as a slur, an attack on people, and people were going to great lengths to distinguish ‘skepticism’ from denial. Even I had my doubts as to whether it was really a term that could really pass muster in Wikipedia (given their policy on ‘biographies of living people’). Four years later, it’s no longer an odd linguistic construction that people need to have explained – it may not dominate mainstream thought, but it’s a phrase you can use in class without losing people.

Across the board, the scientific endeavour is under assault, both from the right and (sadly) from the left. Groups dedicated to climate change denial rake in almost a billion dollars a year. But slowly, people are becoming aware of this. The scope of the campaign may still shock people, but broadly speaking they’re becoming aware of the role that these groups have played in shaping the message.

In general, denialism is a phenomenon that finds fertile ground when people feel disconnected from ‘the powers that be’. By casting themselves as grassroots organisation, the “climate change counter-movement” groups have gained traction against scientists (who are distant, unknown people). As these groups are gradually unmasked as corporate front groups, it becomes harder for the press to treat them as one of two equal sides in a debate, and people may realise that it’s not grassroots fighting out of touch academia, it’s large corporations throwing their weight around. Now, the underdog is the scientist, and rather than being an approachable ‘everyman’, the climate change counter-movement campaigner is now an equally distant corporate entity. So maybe, just maybe, there’s reason to be a little bit more hopeful today.