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NEWS: Harper weakens East Coast offshore oil drilling rules

The Canwest News Service reports today that, “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.”

“Canada currently has four active offshore oil projects, all of them located off the coast of Newfoundland. The projects are regulated by a federal-provincial agency called the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.”

(More specifically there are currently three oil rigs off the coast of Newfoundland (the Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose platforms). Drilling has just started in the Orphan Basin. And there is the offshore Sable natural gas project located near Sable Island, Nova Scotia.)

“Under the previous federal regulations, companies were required to develop contingency plans and have equipment in place to deal with a range of emergencies, including ‘a situation requiring the drilling of a relief well.’ …Previous board guidelines said companies were expected to identify a rig that can drill a relief well. Companies were also expected to provide details about the relief rig’s ‘operating capability, its location, contractual commitments, state of readiness and the schedule for mobilization to the well site.'”

“But 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 Canadian regulatory changes are part of a shift from ‘prescriptive’ regulations that require companies to have specific environmental safeguards in place, to ‘goal-oriented’ rules that supporters say give companies more flexibility to adopt the latest spill-response technology.”

“Many oil-spill experts believe two relief wells being drilled by BP offer the best chance to stem the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The relief wells are designed to plug the leak by pumping a special heavy fluid into the original well.”

The CBC reported on May 21 that according to an EKOS poll:

  • 39 per cent of respondents said offshore drilling in Canadian waters should be suspended until the government can review the risks
  • 13 per cent said the practice should be stopped permanently
  • 32 per cent of respondents believe drilling should continue until it is determined whether there are serious risks of a similar spill (as in the Gulf of Mexico) off Canada’s shores
  • 9 per cent said they think drilling should continue as usual.

While the CBC reported this as ‘Canadians split on offshore drilling: poll’, the poll suggests that 52 percent want a suspension of offshore drilling (either temporary or permanent) and 84 percent would agree to some stoppage if serious risks are proven.

The Canwest News Service article adds, “The National Energy Board (NEB), which regulates drilling off Canada’s Arctic and West coasts, made similar regulatory amendments late last year. In the wake of the Gulf Coast spill, the NEB cancelled hearings into its policy requiring companies to drill a relief well in the same season that they drill the original well. The board also declared a full-blown review of its safety and environmental-protection standards.”

Last week, Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom wrote that, “Until the Gulf spill occurred, Ottawa’s National Energy Board appeared poised to give Arctic drillers – including BP – an exemption from crucial environmental safety rules, simply because they found them inconvenient. Canada’s federal government is quietly pushing ahead with plans to give the oil industry a double boost — first by giving the more pliant NEB sole responsibility for the environmental assessment of Arctic oil proposals; second by letting the cabinet exempt some projects from scrutiny altogether. The opposition Liberals, desperate to avoid an election they might lose, are refusing to block either. The politicians and their oil friends calculate — probably correctly — that a year from now the Gulf spill will be forgotten, the media will again be focused on Tiger Woods’ sex life and few will be paying attention to who regulates what in the Beaufort Sea.”

To see our ‘ACTION ALERT: Demand a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic’, please go to

For more on the weakening of Canadian regulations, as well as a comparison between Canadian and US drilling regulations, please go to

The full Canwest News Service article is at