Gulf Spill Lessons Not Heeded by Canadian Government

Yesterday BP and the US government announced that the oil spill in the Gulf has been tamed, more than three months after oil began gushing into the sea. Capped a few days earlier, their latest reports are that about 75% of the almost five million barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf had been eliminated – roughly 25% was “dispersed”, 25% had evaporated and 25% was scooped up by all of those barges. That leaves only about 1.25 million barrels, about five times more than the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound in Alaska 20 years ago.

The so-called dispersed oil is turning up in water and sand samples at toxic levels, but officials are not talking about this. It appears as if the “out of sight, out of mind” approach is taking hold. In fact, a seemingly contradictory federal report released Wednesday indicated that roughly half of the more than 200 million gallons (750 million litres) of oil that gushed from the well before it was capped could still be in the gulf environment in some form as tiny dispersed droplets, tar balls, surface slicks or oil buried in sand and ocean sediment.

Yet even as the clean-up efforts continue, it seems that Canada’s government is ignoring some of the lessons of the Gulf disaster.

Today, the Globe and Mail reports that Chevron has been awarded rights to explore a 205,000 hectare deep water parcel in the Beaufort Sea for oil by Canada’s department of Indian and Northern Affairs. This award was granted despite the National Energy Board’s hearings that have yet to start on Arctic offshore drilling, called in response to the Gulf oil disaster.

Chevron and its buddies, including Exxon and BP, were pressuring our government to further relax our already lax regulations for drilling onshore in Canada’s Arctic by removing the requirement for companies to demonstrate capacity to drill same-season relief wells. They argue that they have a new technology that makes the relief well unnecessary.

Heard this before? Can you imagine a Gulf-like leak in the Beaufort with its very small ice-free window – Mackenzie delta nearby, birds, sea mammals, fisheries, and indigenous communities that live off the sea and the land?

This is exactly the wrong approach Canada should take to development in the North.

Now is not the time to relax offshore drilling regulations. Rather than do away with the requirement to have advance plans for drilling relief wells in case of a spill, oil companies should be required to actually have relief wells in place before working wells are built. Also, blow-out preventers of the type that failed in the Gulf should be tested regularly.

Unlike the United States, Norway and Britain, Canada lacks a regulatory process governing whether or where oil and gas development can happen in the Arctic. Licenses are granted, and contracts signed with oil and gas companies before any environmental assessment by the NEB takes place.

The result: exploratory licenses exist in environmentally sensitive areas in the Beaufort Sea, where a blowout would have immediate negative effects on the delicate ecosystems there.

Strict regulations, and the will to adhere to them, are absolutely essential for safe, sustainable oil and gas development off of Canada’s shores, and in the Arctic.