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Arctic waters at further threat if relief well rule abandoned

The National Energy Board will rule soon on the issue of relief wells for Arctic drilling projects.

Current federal rules in Canada require that any company drilling in the Arctic have the capacity to drill a relief well in the same season. The relief well is meant to ensure that a leaking well can be capped before the seas are covered with ice preventing other capping operations. A special heavy fluid, such as a heavy mud followed by cement, can be pumped down a relief well to stop the flow of oil from the damaged well.

The challenge for the transnationals seeking to exploit the Arctic is that the open ice drilling season can be as short as 50 days and it can take three years to complete a well.

In 2010, Reuters reported, “BP and other oil companies have urged Canadian regulators to drop a requirement stipulating that companies in the Arctic have to drill relief wells in the same season as the primary well.” At that time, the Globe and Mail also reported, “Oil companies say they will not be able to drill in Arctic deep waters unless the National Energy Board drops (this) provision…” The Financial Post adds, “Imperial and its partners have long argued harsh conditions and short operating windows in the north make drilling two wells in a single season untenable. They have pushed regulators to accept equivalencies.”

Today, the Globe and Mail reports, “The National Energy Board will review proposals by Chevron Corp. and Imperial Oil Ltd. for alternatives to same-season relief wells in future Arctic drilling, in the first tests of a recent change to long-standing policy. Chevron and Imperial are in the early stages of planning deep-water wells on their respective acreage in the Beaufort Sea and are seeking rulings on whether they can avoid having to show they can drill another well in the same season to deal with a blowout or other environmental mishap.”

That article notes, “[Imperial spokesman Pius Rolheiser] declined to describe the alternative technology under consideration, saying the company wanted to submit the details to the NEB first.”

If a relief well isn’t drilled in the same season, and the so-called “alternative technology” fails, oil could spew beneath the ice for months or even years.

When the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded and sank in April 2010, a sea floor oil gusher flowed for 87 days spilling 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. A relief well wasn’t in place at the time and the drilling of the relief well didn’t begin until two weeks after the oil began to spill and pollute the water.

Based on past actions, it’s apparent where the Harper government stands on this issue.

In June 2010, the Canwest News Service reported, “The Harper government has watered down regulations governing oil drilling off Canada’s East Coast so that oil companies don’t need a backup plan to drill a relief well in the event of a blowout. …Under the new regulations, which came into force in December, companies aren’t specifically required to have relief-well plans. Draft guidelines issued by the Newfoundland board do not contain a single reference to relief wells.”

The Council of Canadians has demanded a moratorium on all new exploration for fossil fuel resources in the Arctic region.