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Trudeau’s weak Arctic oil & gas drilling pledge a distraction from pipeline approvals

A Council of Canadians-Indigenous Environmental Network organized protest at the Foreign Affairs building in Ottawa against Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling, May 2011.

The Council of Canadians demands more than a five-year ban on new licensing of offshore oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters.

The Canadian Press reports, “The federal government announced Tuesday plans to ban offshore oil and gas licensing in the Arctic, citing the need to protect the environment from future energy development, but the move was largely dismissed by industry observers as a weak gesture that won’t harm their interests. Experts pointed out that there are no drilling plans in the region now, suggesting that the ban is of little consequence. [University of British Columbia professor Michael] Byers said the move seems to be politically motivated and is designed to show that Trudeau is protecting the environment despite a recent decision to sanction two oil pipelines — the Trans Mountain expansion and Line 3 replacement project.”

In March 2010, 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 urging them to pursue a moratorium on all new exploration for fossil fuel resources in the Arctic region. At that time, we also expressed our opposition to exploration licenses that had been granted to Chevron, Imperial Oil and Exxon Mobil. Chevron has a licence for 205,000 hectares of seabed off Yukon’s north coast, while BP has three licences for exploration rights in a 6,000 square kilometre area about 180 kilometres off the coast of the Northwest Territories in the Beaufort Sea.

The Globe and Mail notes, “[These] existing industry leases remain in place and producers have no plans to drill over the next few years due to poor economics and technical challenges.” Chevron scrapped its exploration program in 2014 citing weak oil prices. “In 2015, the companies suspended their effort to win regulatory approval for an exploration program portion of the Beaufort Sea. They had planned to drill [during] the summer of 2020 at the earliest. …Imperial has sought to extend the life of permits that are set to expire in 2019 and 2020 to 16 years, up from nine currently.”

We have also argued that there should be no exemptions from the relief well rule. Current federal rules 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.

Today’s news adds, “Imperial and U.S. oil major Chevron Corp. had both sought exemptions from the rule, arguing it was not feasible given the short northern drilling season.”

Market analysts suggest that given current projections for future prices it could be more than 10 years before these transnationals revisit plans to explore for offshore oil and gas in the Arctic. The Trudeau government’s pledge prohibit new licensing for a five year period – and not take action on existing licenses – is therefore not the climate leadership that is needed from the federal government.