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Canada is not prepared for Arctic oil spill

It is almost too painful to consider the implications of the slow-mo destruction being wrought in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is almost too painful to consider the implications of the slow-mo destruction being wrought in the Gulf of Mexico.

But facing that heart-wrenching mess is essential for several reasons, not the least of which is that northerners may face a similar crisis in the future in the High Arctic, a far-less-forgiving region.

So far, oil development in the Beaufort Sea has been stymied by a lack of pipelines to ferry oil to southern markets. Melting sea ice in the Northwest Passage and the long-planned pipeline megaprojects in the NWT and Alaska will change that.

So will increasing oil demand in an era of declining oil reserves.

Right now, companies like BP are tapping pools of oil lying deep below the Gulf of Mexico. Soon, they will turn to the Arctic.

There is oil here, and petroleum companies will demand the opportunity to exploit those resources.

The question is whether our governments are prepared for such a disaster. And will they stand up to those wealthy, influential companies, guaranteeing they are rigorously regulated and policed?

That is, are they willing to make sure the wild places the multinationals are profiting from are protected?

These are questions we ignore at our peril.

Experience from Alaska following the Exxon Valdez disaster and now from the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico suggests Canadians should be concerned.

Ottawa should not be complacent when it comes to safety.

But with its tendency to favour the oil industry, there are troubling suggestions it is.

Recently, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said he’s confident existing measures are good enough. Besides, any potential threats are a long way off, there are currently no exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea, he told Parliament on April 30th.

Prentice’s response is a tad misleading. The Arctic is a big, big place.

And while he’s confident of Canadian standards, he holds little sway over rules set by other nations. Like Greenland.

Its Home Rule government has issued permits in Davis Strait, abutting Canada’s maritime border. Drilling is set to begin in those shared waters this summer.

And oil spills do not respect international borders.

The place is ominously known as “Iceberg Alley,” according to Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington.

And both he and Yukon MP Larry Bagnell have asked the Conservative government how Canada might deal with a spill in the region, which, because of its cold temperatures, sea ice, remoteness and unique, highly specialized species is far more at risk from an oil spill than other places.

The two MPs received some odd answers from the government.

Greenland and Canada have an agreement to protect polar bears, said Prentice. There is no drilling in the Beaufort, said David Anderson, parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources (which isn’t really true: BP and Shell plan to drill in the US Beaufort Sea this year).

Bottom line, Ottawa has absolutely no plan to deal with a spill in remote Arctic waters.

And oil companies have been lobbying Ottawa to relax its requirements for relief wells, which limit escaping oil in the event of a blowout. Since the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon they have backed away from that, but their intentions are clear.

As we have seen in the US, this could be a huge problem, especially in a place as remote as the northern coast.

Twenty years ago, 11 million gallons of crude spilled from the guts of the Exxon Valdez. Eventually, the petroleum washed up on more than 2,000 kilometres of coastline, killing hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, fish and other sealife and mammals.

Today, the region is still suffering effects from that disaster. The herring fishery never came back. The king and Dungeness crabs are gone too.

For their troubles, Exxon paid citizens in the region affected by the spill $500 million. That’s about a week’s profit for the company.

To put it in perspective, the total loss of the herring fishery alone over the last two decades is pegged at $400 million.

Exxon’s settlement was to be $2.5 billion, but Exxon argued it down before the US Supreme Court.

And the Exxon Valdez was a tanker, a fairly conventional means of transporting fuel.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon is the lunatic fringe of the industry, which is going deeper and farther afield in the hunt for oil.

These companies are operating at the very edge of their technical abilities. And sometimes beyond them.

In the Gulf, the wellhead was 1.5 kilometres beneath the surface of the ocean. When the platform sank, killing 11 people, it opened a wound in the ocean that is, as it turns out, far beyond our ability to plug. Today, it’s spilling an estimated 6,000 barrels of oil a day, but some BP officials are now talking about 60,000 barrels a day (that’s equivalent to 2.5 million gallons).

It should come as little surprise the accident happened in a BP operation.

With revenues of $327 billion a year, the company spends lavishly twisting arms in Washington - a reported $16 million last year, putting it among the top 20 lobbyists in the US, according to the Guardian.

It has been using that influence to widen its access to the Gulf, where it has exhausted most of its shallow pools of oil, forcing it to go deeper and deeper - into that very edge of technological ability we talked about earlier.

And it is a company known to be cavalier about its approach to safety.

In 2005, its Texas City Refinery blew up, killing 15 workers. That was one of the worst workplace accidents in the US in the last 15 years. A review by the US Chemical Safety Board blamed organizational and safety deficiencies “at all levels of the BP corporation.” Even in the face of rising revenues, it cut costs and failed to invest in the facility, eventually undermining its safety, it ruled.

That wasn’t a unique situation. The board found a pervasive “complacency towards serious safety risks” at all five of its refineries, the Guardian reported.

Now BP is responsible for another disaster.

Despite the potentially staggering ecological consequences, BP’s liability for economic damage is capped at $75 million.

As in Alaska, BP has hired PR firms to shore up its image. And it is paying fishing boats to lay booms to protect the coast. It has dubbed them Vessels of Opportunity, though it’s not clear what opportunities the fleet will have in the aftermath of the disaster.

The lawsuits will pile up and, eventually, BP will have to pay, though probably far less than the actual damage.

This happened because the world is addicted to oil, and North America is a disproportionate user.

That addiction created BP, and the other petroleum companies. And it provides both the money and leverage they need to lean on government officials to allow them to drill in places that are, at best, crapshoots from a safety and technological standpoint.

The problem is, the only entity capable of standing up to these corporations are national governments strong enough to regulate, and to enforce those regulations.

As well, those governments should plan for things to go wrong, because such planning uncovers the unthinkable, like a torrent of crude oil gushing under Arctic ice.

How would Ottawa deal with such a calamity?

Well, thanks to questions from our two northern MPs, we know that we can’t. Not yet.

Canada should answer that question quickly.

Certainly, it should tackle it before oil companies start boring into our northern sea floor. (Richard Mostyn)