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.