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Canadians have own oil worries after Gulf spill

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Canadians have own oil worries after Gulf spill

Worries about northern catastrophe after BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout

  • A polar bear and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
    U.S. Fish & Wildlife ServiceA polar bear and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Polar bears in the Beaufort Sea.
    danielguip/FlickrPolar bears in the Beaufort Sea.

TORONTO — A political convention where people shout, "Drill, baby, drill" is not one you're likely to see in Canada. That kind of rapture better fits our neighbors to the south.

Here, things are done more discreetly.

It took the blowout at the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico before most Canadians gave any thought to the potential for a similar catastrophe off their shores. And when questions were raised, the answers were revealing.

Canadians learned that major oil companies were for months lobbying the National Energy Board to ease safety requirements for offshore drilling in the environmentally sensitive Beaufort Sea — a body of water that includes U.S. and Canadian territorial waters north of Alaska and the Yukon.

Oil companies wanted Canada to relax regulations on its side of the Beaufort that require a relief well to be drilled in the same season a main well is completed. In the event of a blowout, relief wells are used to reduce the pressure and, therefore, the amount of oil that would gush into the sea.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a relief well would have made all the difference. Without one, BP was reduced to using mud, golf balls and rubber tires in a failed bid to tap the geysers of crude killing marine life and the livelihood of fishermen.

Canada's regulator had set June 3 and 4 to hear the request by Imperial Oil — backed by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and other major oil companies — to ease the same-season relief well rule.

In a pre-hearing submission to the National Energy Board earlier this year, Imperial argued the building season in the Artic is too short for a relief well to be finished in the same season. A main well, it added, takes two or three summers to complete.

Imperial further argued that insisting on a same-season relief well would essentially block deepwater drilling in the energy rich Arctic. It instead called on the board to emphasize measures that prevent spills. The company conceded, however, that a blowout in the Beaufort Sea could spew crude for up to three years before a relief well could be drilled.

BP backed Imperial's main argument. In its pre-hearing submission to the Canadian regulator in March, it said relief well rules "ought to be rescinded" and replaced by preventive measures that allow more time to drill the relief well.

These lobbying efforts were brought to a halt in mid-May by the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Imperial suddenly called for a postponement of the hearings until after an investigation determines the cause of the Gulf blowout.

The National Energy Board agreed, adding it would now conduct a full review of its offshore drilling regulations.

Several companies, including Imperial, have leases to drill offshore wells in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, but none have yet received permits from the regulator to do so. (Canada does, however, have offshore rigs in the Atlantic Ocean, producing about 12 percent of the country's crude oil supply.)

Gaetan Caron, the National Energy Board's CEO, assured a parliamentary committee May 13 that there will be no drilling in Canada's portion of the Beaufort until at least 2014.

Still, one committee member suggested Caron may be too soft on the oil industry, noting he once said his regulating agency's top priority is to "contribute to innovation and economic growth and to reduce the administrative burden on business."

Oil companies are scrambling to get their hands on the Arctic's vast and untapped natural resources. The scramble has become more intense as global warming melts the Arctic ice, opening up waterways for tankers and offshore drilling. It's no small irony that the burning of fossil fuels is melting Arctic ice, thereby allowing for more drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic.

A scientist who used to be a senior official at Environment Canada, William Adams, warned the same parliamentary committee in May that an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea would have a "catastrophic" impact on the ecosystem, which includes the summer breeding grounds for bowhead whales, and accelerate the melting of sea ice.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said there will be no drilling in the Arctic "unless the environment is protected." Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon later described Arctic oil extraction as "a commercial activity of immense potential."

There are growing calls for a moratorium on offshore drilling across the Arctic. A recent public opinion poll found 54 percent of Canadians want deep-water oil drilling "suspended until safety can be reasonably assured." Another 23 percent want it banned outright because it is "not worth the risk."

One of the problems with oil spills is that they don't recognize international boundaries.

Greenland has issued offshore exploration licenses in Davis Strait, near Baffin Island on the eastern side of Canada's Arctic. And President Barack Obama's administration — while suspending additional sales of offshore oil leases — is allowing Shell Oil to proceed with plans to drill exploratory wells on the American side of the Beaufort Sea and the adjacent Chukchi Sea, near the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee.

Obama seems to have the backing of Americans. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll May 12 found six out of 10 Americans support more offshore drilling, despite the Gulf Coast oil spill. "Drill, baby, drill."

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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