Bloom Blog

Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation

Walking On Thin Ice: Oil & Gas Drilling in the Canadian Arctic

The last couple of weeks have witnessed a surge of interest in Canada’s arctic for oil and gas prospecting. All of this, we should be reminded, comes on the heels of what is being called the largest environmental disaster in US history.

On August 6th, it was announced that Chevron Canada won a license to explore 205,000 hectares of deep-water seabed off Yukon’s north coast for potential drilling.

Perhaps wary of public blowback, both Chevron and the Canadian Government have stressed that drilling cannot yet begin as federal regulators are reviewing Arctic offshore drilling regulations. Nonetheless, Chevron has announced that it is committed to spend $103 million to explore for oil and gas in the region. With this much money being invested, the question seems not if they will drill, but when.[1]

This announcement comes a week after Imperial Oil Ltd., ExxonMobil Corp. and BP announced that they have formed a joint venture to explore offshore deep-water areas in the Canadian arctic for which they bought leases in 2007 and 2008. As the CBC reports, the joint venture aims to avoid duplication of personnel and equipment in the remote Arctic sea. The report continues, “the leases are located in the sea’s deepest areas, where ice often moves, breaks and turns.”[2] It seems the energy giants are acknowledging the significantly increased risks involved in the north, and are responding to them by banding together to split costs and share the liability.

Another recent development that hints northern development may be on the horizon is that Natural Resources Canada has begun seismic testing and geomapping in Lancaster Sound, in Canada’s arctic. According to the CBC these tests are aimed at mapping the area for potential oil and gas resources. The move was appealed by a group of local Inuit residents on the grounds that the testing would do damage to wildlife migration routes, which their traditional hunting grounds depend on. On Sunday August 8th the Inuit won their injunction.[3]

On Tuesday, August 10th, Prime Minister Harper waded in to argue that the injunction should be lifted. Harper has been careful to base his arguments on the scientific merits of the research and has explicitly said that the main motivation is not oil and gas. However the fact that this issue has attracted such high level attention makes clear that major interests are at stake.

While I would love to believe that those interests are the fate of the planet threatened by increasing global warming I think that given the past history of this government and its relationship to the environment and oil and gas that assumption would be naïve.

This latest activity, together with the two announcements from the major oil companies that have acquired licenses in the region, all seem to indicate that the race for the arctic has begun.

It is troubling and ironic that this race is set to take off just as oil has stopped surging into the Gulf of Mexico. This oil disaster may have finally come under control after 3 months, but the estimated 5 million barrels (587 million liters) of oil leaked into the Gulf will threaten human and environmental health for generations to come.

Do we humans ever learn our lesson? Or are we so enamored with our own ingenuity that we believe that what happened before cannot happen again, that while others have erred we will somehow get it right!?

The whole arctic situation reeks of hubris and folly. The only lessons learned from the Gulf of Mexico seem to be self-deception. We seem to think that through better technology and more refined protocols everything will be okay. Again, just as we found in the Gulf, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that we can engineer ourselves to safety without confronting the greater problems of our unsustainable rates of consumption that are ultimately motivating these increasingly risky oil explorations.

These recent moves towards the arctic are exceptionally troubling because they combine the inherently risky operation of deep water drilling with the exceptional dangers and sensitive environments of the arctic. Recent news of the largest iceberg to have broken free from Greenland since 1962 combined with discouraging reports on the Arctic’s accelerating warming, both indicate the arctic’s increasing instability and the consequences of an oil based economy.

Not only are the risks higher in the delicate arctic eco system, but our ability to react to a disaster is also much lower. According to a recent report by Andrew Mayeda of Postmedia, it would take at least 3 years to successfully drill a recovery well in the arctic, compared to the three months it took in the Gulf. The reasons include the short seasons when ships and drilling equipment can actually access the remote sites, compounded by extreme weather conditions, and ice hazards.[4]

According to Imperial Oil the chance of an “uncontrollable hydrocarbon spill” in the arctic is less than that of getting “struck by lighting.”[5] That sounds reassuring but it is also misleading because it ignores the scale of consequences. It also ignores the fact that given enough time, lightning will always strike. And while an oil leak may be statistically unlikely, if it were to happen it would be all but uncontrollable and catastrophic.

Three years of continuous oil flow would do irreparable damage to the artic ecosystem and the wildlife and indigenous cultures that depend on it for survival. No amount of political-spin or public relations B.S. can change that.



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This entry was posted on August 18, 2010 by in Commentary: Current Events.
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