The High Price of Cheap Oil | The Caribbean

[My OnEarth magazine article on the Bonaire fire is: “Another Oil Disaster- This Time in the Caribbean.”]

Smoke over Bonaire from fire oil storage facility. (Photo by John Smith)

A major fire at an oil storage facility last week immediately caught my attention because of the location: Bonaire, a tiny Caribbean island just fifty miles north of Venezuela.


In the summer of 2001 I was invited to speak at a festival on this diver’s paradise. (I was writing mostly about marine issues at the time.) The diving lived up to its reputation — not an easy feat given endorsements such as this:

Bonaire is to conservation as Greenwich is to time.”  Captain Don Stewart, pioneering marine conservationist.

The Bonaire National Marine Park was created in 1979 and completely encircles the island, from the high-tide line all the way out to a depth of 60 meters (200 feet).

It is a unique underwater environment with some 60 species of coral alone and over 400 species of fish — everything from the ubiquitous stoplight parrotfish, to schools of squid, to the less common but spectacular spotted eagle ray.

And that’s just the ocean.

Reef life in Bonaire. Clockwise, from top: Coral polyps feeding, stoplight parrotfish, squid, spotted eagle ray

The desert landscape of Bonaire is home to its own rich variety of plant and animal life, including a flock of some 5,000 flamingos, many of which feast on brine shrimp in the salt lake Goto Meer.

Flamingo, Goto Meer (Photo by Bert Poyck)

The fire, which burned for 55 hours, poured thick black smoke into the air. The official word so far is that the tank contained naphtha — a general term given to a large number of petroleum-based products. An official investigation of the fire, including its environmental effects, is already getting underway.

Of course, everyone is hoping that any damage will be minimal. Still, while Bonaire may have dodged the bullet this time, if the hydrocarbons from the tank — which is only meters away from the shore — had flowed directly into sea, they could have devastated one of our hemisphere’s most diverse reef communities.

Which again begs the question: What costs are we prepared to pay (or have others pay) for our “cheap oil” economy?

Read the article at OnEarth.

Video by Sean Paton

Picture gallery from Bonaire oil tank fire

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4 thoughts on “The High Price of Cheap Oil | The Caribbean

  1. Having been to Bonaire – and feeling lucky to have lived through it – I can say that it is the most under-regulated and lawless Carribean island I’ve visited. It is no surprise that there is malfunction regarding health or safety of any kind. Chartered a sail with a captain who proceded to tell us about all the dead bodies she has picked up for the government! Wacko! Based on all that, Aruba is no surprise either! They are all hitting the hootch or smokin’ ditchweed! Just sayin’….

  2. Bonaire was my home for the best 4 years of my life. Thank you for bringing attention to this tragedy/travesty. I hope you can and will continue to keep the pressure on for an investigation into how and why this happened, and perhaps more importantly, into the extent of the environmental damage (above and below the water) to this beautiful and special island.

  3. Thanks for staying on this story, and asking the obvious question, WHY are we storing oil a mere 50 meters from one of the world’s most pristine reefs?!

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