in ottawa and washington moratoriums on drilling are necessary

Despite legal challenges from industry, complaints from local politicians and bad rulings from unsympathetic judges, Washington has rightly chosen to reaffirm its decision in May to suspend deepsea drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite legal challenges from industry, complaints from local politicians and bad rulings from unsympathetic judges, Washington has rightly chosen to reaffirm its decision in May to suspend deepsea drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Monday, Barak Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a second moratorium to replace an earlier ban that was tossed out in federal court. It is as strong and, if anything, more tightly argued than the first.

Whether the new ban can withstand legal challenges remains to be seen. The important point is that the Obama administration has affirmed one of the basic lessons of this mess: that industry claims cannot be accepted at face value.

BP was tragically unprepared to deal with this spill; indeed, a new and tighter cap that everyone hopes will stop the leak altogether is only now being installed, 13 weeks after the blowout. Until the industry shows it can drill safely in deep waters, and respond swiftly and surely to an accident, it should not be allowed to go forward with that kind of operation.

This is something that Ottawa should remember when considering issuing drill permits in the high Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean.

Drilling, in short, cannot be resumed on faith alone.

In the US, Salazar said he would invite input from industry and the public, and was open to modifying the order. But first, he said, industry must “raise the bar on its practices and answer fundamental questions about deep-water safety, blowout prevention and containment, and oil spill response.”

In Canada, the Harper government has simply said there are no drilling permits in the North. This is disingenuous, as exploration and drilling are going on throughout the region.

And Harper’s government has also stated Canada’s existing regulatory practices are good enough. Are they? There is no review in this country – and no contingency plans for cleanup should a spill happen in international waters near our national borders.

Should Greenland issue a permit near our waters, and a disaster happens, Canada would be caught flatfooted.

Is this good enough in a region the international community has clearly flagged for the next energy rush?

In the US, Obama’s original May 27 moratorium banned new deepwater drilling in the Gulf and suspended existing operations at 33 exploratory deepsea wells for six months. The new moratorium applies the same restrictions for the same time period, ending November 30, unless the administration decides otherwise.

The biggest difference involved the way in which Salazar cast his argument. The original moratorium focused mainly on depth, proscribing any drilling at depths exceeding 150 metres. The district court judge who overturned the ban, Martin Feldman, in effect said that focusing only on depth was too narrow to be persuasive.

Salazar chose this time to emphasize uncertain technologies. The new ban covers all floating rigs, like the BP rig, using subsurface blowout preventers, as well as floating rigs that use blowout preventers on board the rig itself. This pretty much covers every deep-water rig with the capacity to drill in the gulf.

There were howls from the usual quarters – from industry, predictably, and from Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator from Louisiana, who said the new moratorium would cost “thousands of hard-working Louisianans” their jobs.

One must sympathize with the battered residents of Landrieu’s home state. But one cannot ignore the fact that most of the Gulf’s 3,000 producing platforms and shallow-water drilling rigs are still in business, or that Obama has earmarked $100 million specifically for relief of unemployed oil workers.

The main thing that cannot be overlooked is that it would be folly to resume drilling until everything has been done to make drilling as safe as it can be and to ensure a rapid response when systems fail.

The US has clearly identified safety and rapid response in the event of a spill as an issue that must be addressed. Ottawa has done nothing.

That should change. (Richard Mostyn/New York Times)