Oil spill raises Arctic offshore drilling concerns

The oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has raised questions about how safe it will be to drill for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea.

The oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has raised questions about the safety of drilling for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea.

Oil companies like BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Imperial Oil have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to lease large tracts of the Beaufort seabed for exploration.

But Western Arctic 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 New Democrat, said during question period 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?"

Relief well policy under review

Environment Minister Jim Prentice said the National Energy Board, a federal independent agency that regulates parts of Canada's energy sector, is reviewing its policies on relief wells.

"We have amongst the most robust offshore drilling policies anywhere in the world that applies in Canadian waters," Prentice said, adding that no exploratory wells are authorized in the outer Beaufort Sea now.

"The National Energy Board is, in any event, reviewing its relief well policy. They obviously will be attentive to how this develops."

Oil and gas companies that want to drill in the Arctic must first get regulatory approvals from the National Energy Board. To do that, they must show they will drill relief wells in case of an accident or provide an alternative safety plan.

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.

Blowout prevention studied

The National Energy Board is looking at other ways to prevent oil well blowouts.

Like all oil rigs, the BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico was equipped with a "blowout preventer," a house-sized metal device that is supposed to squish the affected oil pipe and seal it shut. In the Gulf of Mexico case, the device did not work.

Some Canadian oil and gas companies, including Chevron, say they are developing similar but newer technology that would control an Arctic well before it got out of control and blew out.

"There are technological solutions out there that can be brought to bear to make drilling safe enough," said Bill Scott, manager of Chevron's Arctic Centre in Calgary.

Scott said Chevron has developed a blowout preventer that has more safety features. The company is testing its new device in a laboratory and plans to submit it to the National Energy Board for approval this fall.

Danish drilling a concern for MP

Bevington also asked Prentice about Denmark's recent move to issue drilling permits in the eastern Arctic waterway of Davis Strait.

Bevington argued that Denmark's permits would allow companies to drill right up against Canada's maritime border with Greenland, raising the risks of an accident affecting Canadian Arctic waters.

"Davis Strait is also known as 'Iceberg Alley,' and all we have protecting us is a non-binding agreement on oil pollution," he said.

"What is this government doing to ensure Denmark is taking all the steps necessary to protect the environment in the strait? Or are we going to wait until oil is washing up on the shores of Nunavut?"

Prentice did not offer any specific details but said the environment will be protected.

"The government of Canada has an excellent relationship with the recently elected home-rule government in Greenland," he said. "In fact, the Canadian government has signed the very first agreement with that new government in Greenland, which was to protect the polar bears.

"We've discussed these very issues with this government, and Canadians can be assured that the environment will be protected."