Burtynsky: “Make sure they put that valve on.”

May 20 2010


Recycling #23, AMARC #5, Photograph (c) Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto & Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York.

On Day 20 of the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Chevron Canada began work on what will be the deepest oil well ever drilled in Canada, about 430 kilometers Northeast of St. John’s in the Orphan Basin.

On Day 24 of the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, The Canadian premier of Oil, a collection of sobering large-scale photographs taken by renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, opened at The Rooms.

The pictures are an accumulation of over a decade’s worth of work, research and travel, and they explore our unending greediness for the precious black stuff. And they do so with all the kindness and forgiveness of a swift punch in the face. From aerial shots of the smoking Alberta tar sands to ragged Azerbaijan fields dotted with forgotten derricks and lurching pools of sludge, the pictures are brutal and horrifying and beautiful all at once.

The show is premiering here for exactly the reason you might expect: this province is about to get its hands very dirty in the big oil business, and Oil succintly conveys everything that entails, right down to what we’re left with after it’s all gone.

Sarah Smellie sits down with Edward Burtynsky to talk about Oil, oil, and some advice for Danny Williams.

So, you’ve been doing this for a long time and you’ve seen a some of the worst that we, as a species, have to offer. But you’re also on the board of Worldchanging.org and are active in sustainability and long-term thinking movements, like the Long Now Foundation. How do you stay hopeful?

Well, I think that once human beings recognize a problem, they’re actually pretty good problem solvers. Although this one is pretty formidable, in terms of just the sheer numbers that we’re talking about. And also it’s formidable when you start looking at China and India and their embrace of all things Western, in particular consumer culture and looking for happiness in material wealth. In many ways, their contentment often came from the societal and familial relationships that sustained them, and their footprints were very low. One can say many were poor, though not necessarily unhappy—I think there’s a misconception that we have in the West that if you’re poor then you’re unhappy. I’ve seen a lot more poor people happier than a lot of the rich people on this side of the world.

I think it’s in that world that there is more camaraderie. There isn’t always a competition, and they kind of share and take care of themselves. I see all that in Third World countries. But it’s the Third World embracing our trajectory and capitalism and consumer wealth and dependence—that, to me, is the greatest concern. I mean, we could dial back a bit what we’re doing, although we’re not doing a good job of that. But it’s a question of whether, as they dial up, we can be along their side and help them dial up without dialing us into oblivion. Because there’s no way that the whole population, as it grows to nine billion, can actually lead a life like we have here and actually have a planet left. So the trajectory is bleak, unless some major changes of attitude and expectation are challenged.

And you see that happening?
Well at least it’s being talked about. At least in the media it’s now part of a discussion. I remember in 2005, 2004, a lot of us were sitting around tables going, “Why isn’t anyone talking about this, why isn’t this front page news?” versus not even making it to the back page. But now it’s hitting the front page, and I think that’s encouraging. But I don’t think people quite understand the degree of what has to happen to try to contain this problem.

What do you think of the coverage so far of the BP oil spill? Do you think the coverage and the reaction has been proportional to the severity of the situation?
Well, I was just there, photographing it. I talked to a lot of the people who were covering it since it started¬—people who were trying to photograph it, reporters, people who were in New Orleans—so I did canvass a bunch of opinions. I was left with a lot more questions than answers. I think there are just a lot of unknowns.

What I did notice was that there was an incredibly massive PR machine at work there, trying to contain the whole perception of it, and the severity of it. There are a lot of questions about the degree of the damage, like when you’re up in the plane, you can’t see it. A lot of it is under the water. Now, is that a particular type of oil? Is that because they’re using this dispersant on a huge scale that no one’s ever used it on before? There are stories that they’re injecting the dispersant way down underneath, where they can get at these globules before they even get up onto the surface. Some of this is not verifiable, because at ground zero, you can fly three thousand feet above it, but they’re keeping a lot of the media away. So media are in the high zone.The three thousand foot ceiling is massive, it’s hundreds of square miles. You can fly lower on the very perimeter, but there’s almost nothing going on there. So there are a lot of questions about what’s going on and how much is verifiable or not.

The truth will be outed, I believe. Maybe. But it may actually start to slip away from consciousness if the visuals don’t come. They’ve proven that if the visuals aren’t there, then people forget about it. But there’s still that much oil hitting the Gulf of Mexico, and whether it’s ending up on the sea floor or somewhere else, you know you can’t have that much oil in a natural body of water and not expect some severe consequences. Unlike the Exxon Valdez spill, where there weren’t hundreds of thousands of people dependent on work along those shorelines. A third of the seafood and fish for the United States of America comes from the Gulf of Mexico. So, it’s one of the richest seafood producers that the world has, and the whole thing’s up for grabs right now. No one knows what is going to happen.

Newfoundland is apparently on the verge of boundless offshore oil riches. What would you say to Danny Williams if he were to walk in here right now?
Well, I’m not so naive to say that… I mean, if it’s there and it’s economically viable, there’s still going to be a demand for it. You can’t flip a switch on this. You can start to slowly slipstream one alternative energy source for another over time, but there’s no possibility of a sudden truncation. So the need for oil is still going to continue.

There’s a huge lobby group from the oil industry that went after the minerals department in America and fought to not have to put on these half a million dollar safety shut-off valves. But they would never let deep sea wells run without them in the North Sea for instance. BP has to use these shut-offs, anyone operating in the North Sea has to use them. But, somehow, they come to America and they’re able to lobby their way out of this half a million dollar thing. And I think they wish they hadn’t, because this is going to cost them billions, and half a million looks like chump change right now. Five hundred thousand dollars. They spent twenty-five million dollars to remove that piece of equipment and save five hundred thousand dollars per well. Well, that was pretty dumb. [laughs]

So, I think I’d say to Danny, “Make sure they put that valve on. Make ‘em pay that half a million.”

Edward Burtynsky’s exhibit of photographs, Oil, is on exhibit at The Rooms now.

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