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(Un)Happy Earth Day?

It’s that time of year when the media and some right-wing think tanks like to remind us how much progress has been made in protecting the environment in recent decades. Forty-one years ago we celebrated the first-ever Earth Day, and you would think that by now we would be able to list meaningful improvement on many fronts. 

Not so fast. 

Are things really better? 

It’s certainly possible to point to technological advances and improvements in the sampling results for individual chemicals, but one can’t help but be pessimistic about the most important factor — our willingness to address problems and change behavior.

Decades ago, images of grotesque environmental devastation shocked people and politicians of all stripes into action.

The first Earth Day was in 1970, and was a response to a number of high-profile environmental disasters, notably a fire Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which was fueled by the massive amounts of toxic sludge in the water.

The Cuyahoga fire was also a major motivating factor behind groundbreaking legislation, like the U.S. Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The Act helped spur on similar legislation around the world. This type of legislation accounts for any real progress we’ve seen on the environmental front since the 1970s. 

This year, Earth Day coincides with the one-year anniversary of the BP oil disaster that spewed more than 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.    

Dramatic images of the toppling rig ablaze, an underwater crude volcano gushing 24/7, dead waterfowl and devastated wetlands clearly illustrated the spill’s wide-reaching scope in a way images from the 60s never could. 

But instead of inspiring swift, decision action, these images seem to be met with a collective shrug of resignation.

Media coverage of the BP disaster has all but disappeared even though the entire Gulf region continues to struggle. Perhaps more shocking, the U.S. administration is now granting permits — including to BP — for more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, these permits are being approved without making any meaningful changes to the regulatory practices that were implicit in enabling such a catastrophe to take place.

In Canada, our federal government is pushing forward with plans for deep-water wells in the Arctic where, due to the isolation and weather conditions, regulators say blowouts could go on for years before being brought under control.  

Even with the wake-up call provided by the BP spill, Canada has yet to change legislation which caps a driller’s ultimate liability for a spill at a maximum of $40 million. Clean-up for a massive spill can easily rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.

Not only has there been no progress to address lax oil and gas drilling regulations, there is a continental effort to — get ready for this — repeal core environmental laws.  

In July of last year, the federal government used the excuse of an economic dip (which hit Canada far less severely than almost any place in the world) to gut environmental assessment legislation.

It would nice to wish you a Happy Earth Day, but recent governmental action — or rather, inaction — doesn’t give us much cause for celebration.

Maybe next year.

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