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Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill Update & The Canadian Dimension

May 5, 2010

The oil spill caused by the sinking of the BP Deep Water Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico has gripped the world’s environmental consciousness and caused the tides to shift in public perception on the risk and benefits associated with offshore drilling. Obama is coming under renewed and intensified pressure to reverse his position on  expanding offshore drilling as a means to increase American energy independence (a policy goal which has been debunked), despite his recent announcement that no leases for offshore drilling will be given untill more is known on the cause of the BP disaster. Taking a more definitive stance the goven-ator of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced a ban on new offshore drilling projects, a complete reversal from his previous position that was in line with Obama’s and designed to help abate the state’s fiscal crisis.  Speaking to the gap revenue caused by this policy change, he said “If I have a choice to make up $100 million and what I see in Gulf of Mexico, I’d rather find a way to make up that $100 million.”

The fallout from the deep water horizon disaster has not been exclusively American, as reported on this week’s Terra Informa; proposed drilling operations in Canada’s arctic are coming under increased scrutiny as well. The increased attention to offshore resource extraction projects comes at a time when the global arctic, due to a changing climate, is charging towards expansive resource development in its oceans and coastal regions.

In 2007, Imperial teamed with ExxonMobil Canada to spend $585 million to buy land in the Beaufort. A year later BP spent $1.2 billion to buy land on the continental slope which leads into the ultra-deep passages along the continental shelf. The companies are (currently) asking the board (National Energy Board, NEB) to reconsider a requirement to maintain a same-season relief well drilling capability as expensive and impractical. It would mean maintaining a rig on standby to respond to a blowout during a drilling season that averages 100 days a year. (Conoco seeks hearing delay on Arctic drilling by Shaun Polczer, Calgary Herald)

A lesson must be learnt from the BP Deep Water Horizon disaster, which may have been prevented if a relief well had been in use, and the test for environmental groups and civil society on this lesson will be the NEB hearings on relief well requirements in the Canadian arctic. An offshore drilling oil spill is always environmentally destructive in some fashion but the arctic regions of the world posse’s unique challenges which make oil spills both more likely and more destructive.

To begin with arctic ecosystems have a far higher ecological vulnerability to oil spills due to two main factors lower biodiversity, which has been suggested to be associated with lower resilience, and the presence of many valuable and vulnerable organisms. The lower biodiversity of the north, when applied to the food chain analogy, means that when certain links get weakened or knocked there are less links that fill that same role resulting in a great chance of the effects being spread across all organisms in the ecosystem. The lower biodiversity in the north is also accompanied by lower regeneration rates due to climatic conditions and sun light availability meaning that the impacts of oil spills will take a much longer time to be worked out of natural systems when compared to more tropical regions like the Gulf of Mexico. The Beaufort Gyre , is another characteristic of the arctic which makes it especially risky to off shore drilling. This wind driven current that accumulates fresh water, sea water, ice and spins them through the lower Canadian arctic archipelago manifesting unpredictable ice patterns, is becoming even more unpredictable as climate change drives sea water composition changes, changes in sea ice patterns and increased fresh water inputs due to melting glaciers. This makes for a more unpredictable environment for offshore platforms and an increased likelihood of difficult clean up conditions.

The nature of arctic ecosystems and human systems both work to limit the capacity to manage, control and reclaim oil spills. The Gulf of Mexico is an area with vast human resources capable of taking on the enormous challenge of simply applying the current method of management which produces limited results. In the arctic where hardly any human resource are present a response to any major oil spill would require mobilization of resources beyond the capacities that presently exist.

With no Arctic seaport, no roads, virtually no Arctic naval capability, and very few airports from which to stage a recovery and cleanup, the government would be hard-pressed to mount an effective response. How would you get a cleanup crew on site with no port or airstrip? We just don’t have the infrastructure. It all boils down to a logistical nightmare. (Ed Struzik, Yale 360)

To me this push for increased offshore drilling at the expense of environmental safety is a clear characteristic of peak oil politics. As the last remaining easily accessible oil is utilized the oil companies are known seeking to use their influence to increase the profitability of the less easily extractable oil. There is no getting around the higher costs of actually drilling the holes, getting the oil and transporting it, these companies see the ability to increase their profit margins by decreasing environmental and work safety regulations.

Western Arctic Member of Parliament (MP) Dennis Bevington says the explosion of BP’s sub-sea well off Louisiana on April 20 — and the resulting oil spill — should raise warning flags in Canada, especially about the need for relief wells in Arctic drilling operations.

“These same oil companies want an exemption from having to drill relief wells for their operations in the Beaufort Sea,” Bevington, a member of the left-of-centre New Democratic Party, said during question period in Canada’s federal parliament Friday. With this clear evidence that the most stringent environmental protections must be applied to offshore drilling, will this government stand up to the oil companies, enforce drilling relief wells and come up with a real plan to deal with disasters in our Arctic waters?”

Oil companies have argued relief wells in the North are not practical, since it would take too long to drill them if there is an accident. But oil industry critics have said the Gulf spill should raise warning flags in Canada, especially about the need for relief wells. (Eye on the Arctic, Gulf of Mexico oil spill raises arctic offshore drilling concerns)

Relief wells are not the solution to the concerns drilling in the arctic but show how the industry prioritizes its profit making abilities above ensuring environmental quality and public concerns are met. The industry has long claimed about the best practices and state of the art technology but that has all been exposed as PR and spin with the failure of BP to have any impact upon the spills dispersal.

“The National Energy Board must resist these lobbying efforts to lower standards, to lower security measures … because what is happening in the U.S. could happen in Canada. Even in the best of conditions, our technology to clean up oil spills is extremely limited, and Canada’s coastlines – particularly in the frozen and fragile North – don’t offer the best conditions.” Steven Guilbeault, cofounder Équiterre (Montreal Gazette, Bid to relax Arctic drilling rules under scrutiny)

The Sierra Club of Canada is leading the way by calling for a moratorium on offshore drilling in Canada so that the proper action can be taken in response to the BP Deep water Horizon disaster so as to ensure that no such risk threatens Canadian ecosystems. I think a harder line needs to be taken by environmentalist in this country. The belief was prevalent before and after the recent events in the Gulf of Mexico the position should only be cemented, under no circumstance am I willing to risk the ecological integrity of the Canadian arctic for the short term profit of oil companies. The drive for arctic resources is indicative of the age of peak oil and a line needs to be drawn somewhere or else oil companies will scourer the world pulling the last drops of oil out of the ground and locking us into our ecocidal trajectory. Allowing offshore drilling in the arctic is not simply accepting the status quo it is allowing the current destructive system to enter a new stage where environmental and human health is increasingly put at risk to allow for sustained profit. I believe that drilling in the arctic is a bad idea in any situation but when there is an abundance of energy alternative waiting to be taken onto the mainstream taking such absurd risk for the preservation of profits and a business model is a case of willful negligence. The disaster in the gulf of Mexico has shown us that despite the oil companies claims of surround “the latest technology” there will always be a significant risk of ecological catastrophe associated with offshore drilling and this risk is totally unwarranted when there is an array of alternative energy options that exist in a more pacifistic relationship with the environment and could provide us with the same benefit without such an enormous risk. If it was my choice I would go beyond a moratorium on offshore drilling in the arctic and ban it completely.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2010 7:56 pm

    oil spills can really mess up the environment, i hope we can find a very good solution to control oil spills “””

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