While the US has halted all drilling activity for the moment. the deepest exploratory well in Canadian history is being drilled right now in the Orphan Basin, 400 kilometres north-east off the coast of Canada.
Three other exploratory deep-water wells are planned in Canada’s Beaufort Sea over the next five years: One of them is being drilled by BP, another is being drilled by Imperial, and the third oil company is still to be determined.
The fact that such activity looks set to go ahead is made more worrying by perceived weaknesses in Canada’s regulatory systems.
Since the Gulf of Mexico spill, investigations have shown that there were serious lapses in enforcement of US regulation policies. While such negligence is a cause for great anger among conservation groups, at least there are regulatory practices in place.
In Canada the national regulatory system here is a lot weaker than in the United States. Both safety requirements and decisions on where drilling is allowed are not significantly addressed in official regulatory processes.
In the past five years, requirements such as comprehensive environmental assessments, prescriptive safety equipment and relief-well capacity have been removed from industry regulation.
Craig Stewart, director of the Arctic program for WWF Canada explained in a recent interview for a Canadian newspaper the degree to which Canada is failing to address the danger posed by deep sea drilling:
“Decisions on where to let leases is not part of the regulatory process. Secondly, Canadian regulations governing drilling on the East Coast do not require use of relief wells at all – which is crazy given that’s going to be the ultimate solution in the Gulf. And thirdly the Canadian process does not require an environmental or risk assessment during the exploratory drilling phase, unlike the United States.”
In the same interview, Stewart explained how a clean up operation in Canada would be almost impossible, and that would make the impact even more devastating on the country’s wildlife and environment.
“The major difference in Canadian waters from the warm waters of the Gulf is that we would not be able to contain or clean up more than 5 per cent of spilled oil,” he said. “And that’s because in the Arctic we cannot clean up oil that flows under ice, and in the North Atlantic the rough seas would make it virtually impossible to contain the oil before it spread.”
“The United States government estimates there is up to a 40 per cent chance of an oil spill in the American Beaufort Sea…We would expect the same odds in Canada.”
With many species in and around Canada’s Arctic waters already suffering as a result of global warming, an environmental disaster on the scale of the Gulf oil spill could push many over the brink into extinction.
When asked what would happen if a spill did occur, Stewart’s answer was simple:
“Basically we’d be screwed.”
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