The environmental disaster currently taking place in the Gulf of Mexico has a lot of Canadians worried about drilling at home, especially in the fragile Arctic.
“There should be a moratorium on deep-sea drilling in the Arctic,” according to Dr. William Adams, who has a PhD in physical chemistry and was a past chair of the defence science advisory board
Adams was part of the most comprehensive study of oil pollution in the Arctic to date, the Beaufort Project.
This large-scale project was conducted in the 1970s as a joint study between the Canadian government and the oil industry.
In today’s dollars, $50 million was spent on the study.
Scientists pumped 59,200 litres of oil under the ice in a remote bay in the Beaufort Sea and spent two years watching what happened.
They studied wildlife, marine life, oceanography, meteorology, sea ice and oil spill countermeasures.
They also looked at consequences of a possible oil spill and methods of oil spill cleanup in ice-choked waters.
They found that the oil caused adverse effects on the entire biological food chain.
It also led to a massive growth in algae that destroyed the ecosystem and heated up the water and ice.
It turns out burning oil isn’t the only way to contribute to global warming. An oil spill similar to the one in the Gulf of Mexico would have huge impacts on the climate.
“It would not only be a catastrophe for Canada and the Inuit that live up there, but it would be potentially a massive global climatic catastrophe,” said Adams.
“We can’t even begin to model at this stage what the consequences would be.”
The artificial spill that Adams and his peers conducted left about one centimetre of oil under the ice. The test mimicked a spill of about 1,000 barrels a day.
The official line from British Petroleum and the US government is that the Gulf disaster is spilling 5,000 barrels a day.
However, independent experts estimate that it might be spewing more than 70,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico.
To clean up a mess like this, one would need technology for operating at long periods of time under the ice, said Adams.
“It’s coming along, but it’s not ready yet.”
Unfortunately, a lot of the knowledge collected in the study is being forgotten.
“Some of us are getting old,” said Adams, now 69 years old and one of the younger members of the project.
“The institutional memory isn’t there. People that were in government at the time are now long gone.”
More work needs to be done between industry and government to research the effects of an oil spill and how to clean it up, said Adams.
“Until then, there should be a moratorium on deep-sea drilling in the Arctic.”
Every year, the chances of an oil spill the Arctic rise due to the increase in oil and gas exploration and increased shipping because the ice cover is melting off.
The earliest that Arctic drilling could happen in Canada would be in 2014 in the Beaufort Sea, according to the National Energy Board.
More urgent right now are the plans of Canada’s neighbours.
This summer, Shell plans to begin exploratory drilling in the Beaufort off of the Alaska coast.
And in the Davis Strait, an area known as “Iceberg Alley,” Greenland is planning to drill just beyond the Canadian border.
Cairn Energy, a Scottish Corporation with no experience in the Arctic, is planning to brave the slushy waters in search of oil.
Its lack of experience isn’t about to sway Greenland.
The island is hoping to use its oil reserves to achieve financial and political independence from Denmark, under which it is currently an autonomous province.
A 2008 study by the US Geological Survey estimated that 50 billion barrels of crude lie offshore of Greenland.
The National Energy Board has been holding a review of Arctic safety and environmental requirements in light of what happened in the Gulf of Mexico.
The review looked into requirements, such as making company’s drill relief wells at the same time as their primary wells.
However, industry is saying that it’s impossible to drill the secondary wells in the same year, because of the short drilling season in the Arctic.
“So we could have oil spilling out into the Arctic for more than a year,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, Liberal critic for Arctic Issues and Northern Development.
“And no one from government has been able to tell me if there is any way an oil spill could be contained if it got under ice.”
According to Adams, there is no way.
The National Energy Board hearings have since been postponed, said Bagnell.
“They’re waiting to see what will happen in the Gulf.”
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