Is Cairn Energy Prepared for an Arctic Oil Spill?

We were all transfixed by the environmental destruction of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill last year. Yet, however bad the spill in the Gulf of Mexico was, almost everyone agrees a major spill in the Arctic sea would be worse. How much worse? Last November a report commissioned by the Pew Environment Group examined that question, and concluded a cleanup could take years – if it’s even possible at all. Efforts would be hampered by wintertime temperatures that can drop below minus 50 degrees Celsius, fierce Arctic storms, endless darkness and fog that shrouds the region for more than half the days of the year.

Yes, drilling in the Arctic is reckless, and dangerous – and something big oil companies are quite eager to do.

Case in point: Edinburgh-based oil and gas company Cairn Energy has plans to drill off the coast of Greenland – without making its oil spill response plan public. This is a document that an oil company has to draw up explaining how it would clean up a spill. They are nearly always made public, but Cairn is keeping its one secret.

On Thursday, Nature Canada joined 53 other international organizations – including Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Council of Canadians – in sending a letter to Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist, expressing serious concern over the lack of transparency regarding Cairn’s operations in this unique and fragile region.

Cairn is gambling with the pristine wilderness of the Arctic. Walrus, seal, bowhead whale and polar bear habitats could be disrupted and entire remote communities wiped out if a toxic spill eliminates their means of subsistence living.

A spill in this region could be devastating to arctic seabird colonies feeding on the ice floes at Important Bird Areas along Nunavut’s northern coast, Baffin Island or as far south as Labrador. Ivory Gulls, Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Thick-billed Murres and many other seabird or water bird species would be at risk.

Our changing climate –due in large part to the burning of fossil fuels — is melting the Arctic sea ice, changing the nature of one of the most remote, and vulnerable places on earth. It is time to place a moratorium on new offshore drilling, including the Arctic, and to end our reliance on dirty, polluting fossil fuels in favour of responsible development of clean, renewable energy.

Here in Canada, the Government should delay new off-shore drilling projects until a consistent, strictly enforced set of regulations is in place that protects the environment, oil and gas workers and coastal communities.

Even with preventive measures in place, accidents are certain to occur, so it is important to identify places of great ecological significance and permanently protect them. Establishing a comprehensive system of marine and coastal protected areas is essential before development begins, so that irreplaceable natural habitats aren’t lost forever to unsustainable development projects and unforeseen accidents. Important Bird Areas and existing Migratory Bird Sanctuaries are good starting points to better protect habitats for birds that, in many cases, Canada shares with the rest of the hemisphere.