Editorial: Economic Improvement by Environmental Disaster

Trent Ernst, Editor

There are certain phrases that have entered the English Language that show that PR people can make even the worst thing sound good.

Consider the phrase “friendly fire,” which sounds like what you might find at a Girl Guide outing: “Gather around the friendly fire, folks!” sings the head guide, “and we’ll all make s’mores!”

Instead, the phrase means when someone on your side starts shooting at you. “He was killed by friendly fire.”

This redefining and reframing of issues is not a new thing. People have been doing it since the beginning of time. Don’t focus on the negative, focus on the positive! You didn’t just lose your leg in an accident, you lost 30 lbs in one day!

Sometimes, however, this goes too far. A few months ago, the Liberal public safety critic took issue with Bill C-30, which would give law enforcement the right to acquire personal information without a warrant, a violation of civil liberties afforded to Canadians. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews framed the argument this way: “He can either stand with us, or with the child pornographers.” The comment met with a great deal of backlash.

I don’t know if the most recent comment from John Thompson will elicit such a widespread cry of “foul,” but it should.

Thompson, who took the stand at the Northern Gateway hearing last week said, and I’m not making this up, that some businesses would benefit from an oil spill from the Northern Gateway.

Let that sink in for a moment: an oil spill would be good for the economy.

Well, okay, yes, if a spill were to happen, someone would need to clean it up, and yes, they probably wouldn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts, but can you really say things like this with a straight face?

Thompson told the Joint Review Panel that given what happened after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, clean-up crews attending a spill could generate economic spin-offs.

“Part of the evidence in the spill recovery document is, in fact, a lot of those companies in the Alaska communities made more money catering to the clean-up of the spill than they would of under normal circumstances,” Thompson said under questioning from the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union.

Well, sure, if that’s our only metric, then yes, people got paid to clean up the mess, to the tune of about two billion dollars.

Never mind that nearly 25 years later, there are still 21,000 gallons of crude oil that wasn’t recovered. If you kick aside a few rocks on the beaches of Prince William Sound, you’ll still find a layer of oil. Never mind the estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs that are estimated to have perished.

The American economy boomed after sending half a million people overseas to get shot in World War II, but does that make those deaths a good thing?

If economic impact is our only metric, what do we say to the 26,000 tourism workers that lost their jobs after the Exxon Valdez? In that one industry alone, an estimated $2.4 billion went out the window. What do we say to the commercial fishers that lost their jobs, or the 15,000 people who used the Alaskan Coast to provide their food? How do you calculate the monetary cost of that?

Thompson admitted that a spill could have a big impact on things like, oh, say, fishing, but he says that compensation and the chance to work on cleanup crews ensures people don’t lose any income.

“The net result of these whole compensation schemes is the idea that at the end of the day, nobody is any worse off than they were beforehand,” he said. “So what you would see is that the income levels would remain the same, the source of the income would differ. Instead of getting it directly from sales of product, it would be through the income compensation.”

Which sounds nice, but let’s go back to our point of reference: the Exxon Valdez spill. Originally, Exxon was on the hook to pay $5 billion in damages, which might have gone towards covering lost revenue and other costs, but after 14 years of lawsuits and appeals, that was dropped to $507.5 million, or about 12 hours of revenue for the company, coming nowhere near covering the economic costs to the people of Alaska.

But apparently, you can say anything with a straight face if you practice it long enough, so I want you to go and stand in front of your mirror and practice for the next time you’re in front of a judge: “It wasn’t murder, your honour, I was creating new job opportunities for coroners.”