Skip to content

NEWS: Concerns grow about the safety of Arctic drilling

The Canwest News Service reports that BP Canada president Anne Drinkwater could offer no assurance to the House of Commons Natural Resources committee this past Thursday that her company would be able to clean up an oil spill off Canada’s Arctic Coast.

Drinkwater could only say, “I’m not an expert in oil spill techniques in an Arctic environment so I would have to defer to other experts on that.”

This is unacceptable given BP obviously has its eyes on some of the 90 billion barrels of oil estimated to be in the Arctic region.

In 2008, BP acquired three licenses for exploration rights in a 6,000 square kilometre area about 180 kilometres off the coast of the Northwest Territories in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling could begin as soon as 2014.

Drinkwater also told committee members that it would be “inappropriate” for her to comment on differences between Canadian and U.S. regulations governing offshore drilling because she hadn’t “carried out a detailed evaluation of the… two regulatory regimes.”

But here are at least a few points of concern and comparison to consider.

Required equipment
The Canwest News Service reported earlier this week that, “(Prior to changes made in December 2009), companies were required to install specific kinds of equipment, such as safety valves and blowout preventers. The old regulations outlined everything from how companies should cement the casing on an oil well, to how they should conduct pressure tests.”

“(But under) new regulations, well operators must (only) set environmental-protection goals, list the equipment they will use to achieve those goals and disclose their plans for inspecting, testing and maintaining such gear. They are not required to install any specific equipment.”

Relief well rule
Reuters reports that, “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.”

The Globe and Mail reports that, “Oil companies say they will not be able to drill in Arctic deep waters unless the National Energy Board drops (this) provision…”

“BP’s disaster in the Gulf has already forced the federal regulator to reverse itself on a planned review of its relief well rules, and the prospect of a blowout spewing crude under the sea ice for two or three years will make it difficult for the NEB to give the companies the latitude they are asking.”

NEB review
The Canwest article about the hearing notes, “This week, the NEB launched a public review of its safety and environmental standards.”

That said, Gaetan Caron, the head of the National Energy Board, told committee members that, “No safety regulator can possibly say than an accident will never happen.”

And the earlier Canwest News Service article had reported that, “Canadian regulators relaxed offshore drilling regulations (in December 2009), giving the energy industry more flexibility when putting in place safeguards against oil spills.”

So the same regulatory body that relaxed regulations just five months ago is now launching a public review while acknowledging an oil spill accident could happen in the Arctic.

New Democrat Natural Resources critic Nathan Cullen says, “This (testimony) is coming from an industry that is claiming we can trust it to self regulate. If they refuse to give straight answers to Parliamentarians, I don’t know how the NEB believes these companies can oversee their own safety. Today’s hearings made me more concerned about the risks and impacts of a major oil spill in Canada.”

Required equipment
The Canwest News Service reports that, unlike the new Canadian regulations, U.S. “drilling regulations enforced by the MMS lay out detailed requirements for what equipment operators must use.”

Violations, few fines
An article in the Houston Chronicle reports, “In a review of Mineral Management Service accident and inspection records, the Chronicle found that the service’s investigators red-flagged potential violations of government safety standards in five out of 20 accident investigations it completed at BP offshore operations since 2005, including rigs and platforms. But only one incident resulted so far in a fine, the records show.”

Required drawings
Federal law in the United States also requires that companies keep complete, up-to-date “as-built” drawings (which show how generic parts are modified when assembled) of their rigs and platforms.

But as noted on their website, “Last year, Food and Water Watch learned from a whistleblower that, as a contractor for BP, he discovered the Atlantis platform (124 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico) was operating without the proper safety documentation.” More than 95 per cent of the welds on subsea components and 85 per cent of the piping and instrument diagrams had no final engineer approval.

Safety responsibility shifted to companies The Canwest News Service  also notes, “In a recent investigation, the Wall Street Journal found that the U.S. (Department of the Interior’s) Minerals Management Service (MMS), which regulates offshore drilling south of the border, has been gradually shifting safety responsibility to the oil industry.”

‘Cozy relationship’
And yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “For too long… there has been a cozy relationship between the industry and the (regulators) that permit them to drill. That cannot and will not happen any more.”

On March 25, the Council of Canadians, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the REDOIL Network issued an open letter to the foreign ministers of Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia just prior to their Arctic Summit in Chelsea, Quebec.

That letter urged them to pursue a moratorium on all new exploration for fossil fuel resources in the Arctic region.

MPs must understand that environmental destruction is likely to occur with oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

To date we have seen corporate pressure to weaken safety regulations.

MPs should support a moratorium and the government should be promoting the transition away from fossil fuels to publicly-owned renewable energy.

Given the imperative to reduce the world’s carbon emissions, we should not allow BP and other corporations to extract carbon-emitting oil and gas from the Arctic.

Our message is clear – leave it in the ground.