What can we learn from the Gulf of Mexico disaster?

What can we learn from the Gulf of Mexico disaster? Thanks to a previous Liberal government and the current Conservative one, Canada's environmental standards for offshore oil and gas drilling are not as rigorous today as those in the United States. As a

Thanks to a previous Liberal government and the current Conservative one, Canada’s environmental standards for offshore oil and gas drilling are not as rigorous today as those in the United States.

As a result, our chances of seeing an oil spill in our waters every bit as dramatic and traumatic as the one we are currently witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico are far more likely today than ever.

On March 26, 2005, the Liberal Environment minister of the day approved a significant change to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

With a single stroke of the pen, he allowed exploratory offshore drilling projects to proceed with only a screening-type assessment, rather than a full-blown environmental review. He also denied interested stakeholders any opportunity to comment on the possible economic, social and ecologic implications of offshore drilling projects.

And since then, the Harper government has gone even further to weaken our environmental standards for offshore drilling.

I learned this from reading last week’s debate in the House of Commons on a sensible and timely NDP motion that speaks to our collective desire to never see what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico repeated in the oceans lapping our eastern, western and northern coasts.

The motion called for “a thorough review and revision of all relevant federal laws, regulations and policies regarding the development of unconventional sources of oil and gas, including oilsands, deepwater oil and gas recovery, and shale gas, through a transparent process and the broadest possible consultation with all interested stakeholders to ensure Canada has the strongest environment and safety rules in the world.”

It was presented by the NDP’s Linda Duncan (Edmonton-Stathcona). Much to everyone’s surprise, it passed unanimously. Trouble is, I have serious doubts whether the federal government will keep its promise to act on it.

When the Liberals first moved to weaken the environmental assessment regulatory regime, they argued that the “environmental effects of offshore exploratory drilling are, in general, minor, localized, short in duration and reversible.” In an effort to see projects fast-tracked, they eliminated the need for comprehensive studies and meaningful public consultation.

The Conservatives changed the rules even more dramatically. They took the job of reviewing oil projects from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and gave it to the National Energy Board.

It went from a federal agency with a mission to protect the environment to one that focuses on economics and serves the petroleum industry. What’s that saying about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse?

“Canadians have watched in horror the monumental ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico,” Duncan said in making her case for a thorough review and revision of our oil and gas drilling regulations. “We are all disturbed by the damage to threatened species, the fishery and local economies and the pending spread of this pollution by hurricanes.

“However, people are equally outraged to learn of the abject failure of the US government to assert its regulatory powers and authority to control the offshore industry and avert this disaster, including deregulation, streamlined approvals, waived environmental requirements, transfer of powers to unelected agencies and an all-too-cozy and, in the words of President Obama, at times corrupt relationship between oil corporations and regulatory agencies.”

These are strong words, but perhaps not strong enough. We shall see, once the full story comes out about the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that has spewed 800,000 litres of oil Ð and perhaps up to double that Ð every single day since April 20 into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the event of a similar accident off Newfoundland, officials recently told a Canadian parliamentary committee it would take at least 11 days to bring an oil platform from the Gulf of Mexico to the site. And another four to five months would be needed to drill a relief well to stem the flow of oil.

If this happened in the Beaufort, heaven only knows how long it would take. Or if it is even possible, especially if the blowout happened during a time of year when fierce storms rage and the sea is covered with ice.

Cleaning up a major spill is another important consideration. Even in best-case scenarios, oil-spill cleanup measures are largely ineffective. Cleanup efforts on average only recover five to 15 per cent of the hydrocarbons, and the cleanup process itself can cause additional environmental damage.

In an Arctic environment, my guess is that cleanup would be much less successful, even if we had the ships, equipment, manpower and all the other resources being mobilized to contain and collect the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico and washing up on the beaches of several states.

What lessons can we learn from this spill, the largest ecological disaster in US history?

Listen to the people of the North about the lack of capacity to respond effectively to an offshore blowout or spill there.

Don’t listen to the oil companies that have been lobbying the National Energy Board to weaken environmental and safety rules for drilling in the Beaufort.

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to map the Canadian Arctic offshore territory in anticipation of oil drilling, first close the knowledge gaps: identify valuable species, critical habitat, long-term impacts of spills and recovery rates and cumulative environmental impacts, etc., etc., etc.

And last, but not least, let us do the right and reasonable thing and strengthen our federal laws, regulations and policies regarding unconventional exploration for fossil fuels in Canada’s offshore waters.

Don’t let this review be a whitewash. Don’t be satisfied with a little bit of a tightening up of the regulations. And by all means, make it mandatory for companies working offshore to drill relief wells as they drill exploratory wells.

Peter Lesniak, chief of staff

Yukon NDP caucus