Concern is growing around Bill C-22, which would change the rules around oil spill cleanups. The technology for cleaning up oil spills, such as using chemical dispersants, is not widely understood, and its impact on Arctic waters has yet to be fully debated.

Bill C-22 was introduced by the Federal Minister of Natural Resources earlier this year.

It would pre-approve emergency plans for oil and gas companies to deal with oil spills, such as the speedy use of dispersants, or chemicals used to break oil into smaller particles in the event of an oil spill at sea.

Nunavut's oil and gas reserves — with an estimated value of upwards of $2 trillion dollars — remain largely untapped but few expect them to remain that way.

"I’m not going to say it’s going to happen," says Bernie MacIsaac, assistant deputy minister of Economic Development and Transportation. "But it’s on the horizon that there will be stronger interest in oil and gas in Nunavut."

Michelle Leslie

Michelle Leslie is a fellow at the Munk School of Global Journalism who says Bill C-22 has gone largely unreported. (submitted by Michelle Leslie)

Current law requires oil companies to contact the the relevant off-shore petroleum board before beginning an oil spill cleanup. It's a delay that backers of the bill say is impractical and puts the environment at risk.

"How this bill will change is that you no longer have to call to get permission," says NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie. "You can just use dispersants and you just sort of report it after the fact to a panel or a board." 

Leslie says when it comes to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic she feels legislators should wait as a precautionary measure until they know for certain it won't cause harm to wildlife.  

"A lot of those environmental protections, whether it's the Environmental Assessment Act or rules around the National Energy Board, well they've been whittled away. They've been gutted. So I don't have faith in that process right now and I don't know that any project that gets through that process will actually be safe."

Speeding up the cleanup process also worries Michelle Leslie (no relation to Megan Leslie), a fellow at the Munk School of Global Journalism who says Bill C-22 has gone largely unreported. 

She says oil spill cleanups can be just as detrimental for the environment as the spills themselves.

"If an oil spill happens under ice, you’re not getting to it, even with a dispersant," she says. "They might have to think of something like in situ burning, which is lighting it on fire. There are huge environmental repercussions to that."

The dispersant Corexit was used in both the 1989 Alaska Exxon Valdez and 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico spills.

In the Gulf of Mexico, nearly seven-million litres of Corexit was poured onto the spill.

"If a spill of that same magnitude happened in colder Canadian waters, we would have to use that much more dispersant," says Leslie.

An Environment Canada study states the dispersant is 27 times safer than common dish soap, but some say that figure is dangerously misleading. They say that five of Corexit's 57 ingredients are linked to cancer and can pose "high and immediate human health hazards."

Fisheries and Oceans says it’s partnered on a number of ongoing studies aiming to improve its knowledge of potential impacts of chemically-dispersed oil in a range of freshwater and marine fish species from other geographic areas.

In an email, the department said the outcomes of this work will assist in assessing possible effects in Arctic environments.

The new bill and the issue of cleanups are expected to be discussed at an oil and gas summit in Nunavut's capital in January.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said that under current law, companies are required to contact the Minister of Environment before starting an oil spill cleanup. In fact, they are required to contact the relevant off-shore petroleum board.
    Dec 11, 2014 7:08 PM CT