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Harper can’t whitewash the risks of offshore drilling in the Beaufort

Today is Prime Minister Harper’s fifth and final day of touring the Canadian Arctic.

Over the course of the week he has generated a flurry of media coverage making a number of announcements (and a little photo-op dancing on the side) including improved airports, new roads and the creation of a marine protected area – Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area which covers approximately 1,800 square kilometres of the Mackenzie River Delta and estuary in the Beaufort Sea. Harper also participated in a military drill aimed at demonstrating Canada’s ability to assert it’s sovereignty.

This tour comes shortly after the announcement of Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy which emphasizes, ‘exercising our Arctic sovereignty; protecting our environmental heritage, promoting social and economic development, improving and devolving Northern governance.’

Canada is not the only Arctic coastal state to become more engaged in Arctic policy over the past few years.

Undoubtedly increasing interest is related to the discovery of 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under melting ice – the Arctic is increasingly being viewed as a final frontier for fossil fuel development. More than 80 per cent of the oil and gas is found offshore.

Even if you set aside the argument for the need to limit new exploitation of fossil fuels in the wake of needed commitments to emission reductions, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a devastating reminder of the risks of offshore drilling. Risks that are even more pronounced given a fragile Arctic ecosystem already under strain from climate change and conditions such as icebergs, winter darkness and a lack of nearby ports that dramatically compromise spill response measures.  

So while the Harper government talks about ‘sustainable development,’ and promotes conservation in Arctic, there are serious questions that must be raised. Can offshore drilling ever be safe in Arctic conditions? Is more development of fossil fuels justifiable when evidence is increasingly clear that the climate crisis demands urgent measures to reduce emissions? 

So far, the Canadian government appears on track to allow offshore drilling to happen. The promise that no drilling will occur in Canada’s deep Beaufort Sea until at least 2014 is Canada’s new policy is far from reassuring.

While the recent announcement of the marine protected area sounds positive, will this have any bearing on the development of offshore oil and gas? Presumably a spill in the Beaufort could potentially devastate nearby areas.   

The fact is, long-term plans for exploiting offshore reserves are already underway.

 BP – yes the same BP responsible for the spill in the Gulf of Mexico – has already acquired three offshore exploration licenses for the Canadian Beaufort Sea. Chevron is the latest player in Canada, winning a federal auction by agreeing to spend $103 million exploring a 205,000-hectare area in the Beaufort Sea. These represent significant financial commitments by Big Oil to exploiting Beaufort’s reserves.

The Conservative government has also failed to effectively act on the NDP motion unanimously passed by the House of Commons calling for review of all unconventional sources of energy including the tar sands and offshore drilling.  So far, the government has committed to a review of safety regulations under the Big Oil-friendly National Energy Board – a review that will only focus on the Arctic and whose scope will likely limit broad participation.

Opposition grows: Leave it in the ground!

Providing a nice contrast to the images of Harper’s tour are the challenges underway to Cairn Energy.

As reported in The Guardian, Cairn has come under fire in Scotland by climate camp protesters, “… dressed in black carrying a fake pig dripping in molasses to the headquarters of Cairn Energy, which has become the focus of environment protests over its drilling in the Arctic and its business dealings with the Indian mining company Vedata.”

A standoff happened earlier this week off the coast of Greenland, where Cairn Energy announced it had ‘struck oil’ raising worries that this may trigger a rush to drill.

Also reported in The Guardian, “A Greenpeace ship protesting against deep sea drilling… has been confronted by a Danish warship, and its captain threatened with arrest. The Danish navy has warned Greenpeace that the Esperanza will be boarded by armed personnel if it breaches a 500-metre exclusion zone around two wells drilled off Greenland by the Edinburgh-based oil firm Cairn Energy.”

“Ben Stewart, a Greenpeace spokesman on board the Esperanza, said the boat was being circled by three Danish military boats but the protesters were staying outside the exclusion zone. He said: ‘It seems crazy to us that the Arctic sea ice is melting, and the oil industry response is to start drilling here, rather than take melting sea ice as a warning about the huge risk to humanity from global warming.'”

Take action: Sign our action alert demanding no new development of oil and gas in Canada’s Arctic here

Find out more about our campaign to “leave it in the ground” in the Arctic, go here