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Commentary: Connection between the oil spill, seismic surveys and expanding quarries?
Published on January 15, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Cathal Healy-Singh

Seismic surveys are used to explore for oil and gas. They involve repeated build up and discharge, every ten seconds, of sub-sea, high pressure air ‘explosions’, 24 hours per day, over a period of months. These discharges cause vibrations which penetrate the sea bed and propagate great distances through the ocean. Marine life close to the seismic bombs can be damaged. It is lethal to spawning fish. Consequently, hydrocarbon exploration impacts heavily on commercial fisheries and the lives and well-being of fisher folk.

Cathal Healy-Singh is an independent environmental engineer and advocate for wise use of natural assets. He has worked throughout the Caribbean on water treatment and supply, waste water and solid waste management, renewable energy, assessing the sustainability of development and advancing the Green Economy. He has directed state corporations in the energy sector (Trinidad and Tobago) as well as taken direct action at the grass roots/community levels to build public capacity and participation in processes to protect the well-being of the environment.
The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) chooses not to regulate the seismic surveys and, in doing so, violates the Environmental Act. This means that companies are not required to collect and submit basic data on the social and environmental impacts of the surveys. The ministry of energy supports the EMA as the energy sector in their view, should remain unregulated -- unfettered by such concerns. Their focus is petro-dollar based economic activity and NOT integrated natural resource management. Foreign oil/gas companies are indeed pleased because back home they would be obligated to assess risks and impacts when conducting seismic surveys. Maximizing profit is the bottom line mantra.

Petrotrin’s oil spill demonstrates clearly the unregulated nature of the energy sector. There are no real contingency plans in place to respond immediately to serious spills. There is no in-house technical or management capacity, or infrastructure on-island, to cope with what has happened in La Brea and environs. The highest response level of government’s existing contingency plan is to call for outside help!

The Guardian newspaper broke the story of Petrotrin’s aging and ailing infrastructure ripe for leaks and blow outs – the result of 17 years of negligence. This means a systemic failure at routine infrastructure maintenance. A past minister of energy (PNM) claims to have been aware of the problem and chose to focus on refinery upgrades. This extraordinary admission makes clear that negligence and the preference for unregulated resource extraction, crosses party lines!

Further, the current health, safety and environment manager at Petrotrin cannot pronounce the word “impact”. He omits the “t” at the end. This should be cause for alarm because at the heart of this manager’s portfolio is the continuous monitoring and assessment of the IMPACTS of fugitive hydrocarbons on staff, the public and the general environment, as well as responding to emergencies.

The Ministry of Energy (MOE) is responsible for granting mining licences to quarry operators. Here too, the MOE prefers unregulated licensing. Little interest is paid to social and environmental concerns. At the beginning of 2013, the MOE hired a foreign company to carry out a strategic environmental impact assessment (SEIA), which recommends expansion and designation of mining zones (quarry areas). Only quarry owners were consulted. No information on social impacts that would have been gathered through community engagement was considered ‘strategic’ enough, to inform the report. The SEIA process was carried out in secret and presented to the public after it was complete.

Interestingly, the terms of reference for the SEIA were developed under the PNM. The requirement for community consultations was removed when the contract was awarded by the PP to the UK consultant. Unregulated quarrying is disastrous for the Northern range where 80% of our naturally occurring drinking water originates.

So the connection is that resource extraction, whether it is oil or gas or aggregate, on-land or offshore, is unregulated. This demonstrates an absence of meaningful social and environmental values in the market place.

In the face of global breakdown of climate and ecological systems, and the urgent need ‘resource security’ across the board, we in Trinidad and Tobago are taking a “casually catastrophic” approach to our own development.
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