Toronto Star - September 18, 2011
By Colin Kenny
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s latest chest-thumping visit to the Arctic this summer played to Canadians’ fears that our country will some day lose control over our most romanticized national icon: the North.
But do we Canadians deserve the right to be caretakers of the Arctic? The Canadian government hasn’t come close to demonstrating that it is genuinely concerned about either the North’s extremely fragile communities, or its extremely fragile ecology.
If our concern about the Arctic is genuine, Canadians should insist that Mr. Harper stop focusing so intently on the importance of developing northern resources in the interests of southern Canada.
To paraphrase the late John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what the North can do for Canada. Ask what Canada can do for the North.” If we southerners treat the North with care and respect, it will reciprocate. This isn’t a plundering mission – or shouldn’t be.
Unfortunately, so far it looks like one, complete with military backup. In the words of Arctic expert W. R. Morrison: “Canadians, while promising to stand on guard for the ‘True North, strong and free,’ have been reluctant to display a real commitment to the region.”
If the Canadian government wants to demonstrate its right to control the Arctic, it should focus on: (a) the daily threat to the well-being of aboriginal communities in the North, where many people live in Fourth World conditions; and
(b) the endangered Arctic environment, imperiled by climate change that is quickly opening up its vulnerable waters to economic exploitation.
But these clearly aren’t the government’s priorities. In late 2009 it quietly decided to relax offshore drilling regulations, removing the requirement that oil companies present a plan for drilling a relief well in the case of a spill.
Since then oil companies have been also been pushing for relaxation of the same-season relief well rule that requires that a blowout or oil spill must be stopped before the ocean freezes up again. To drop that rule would be insane.
The truth is that if the federal government takes Arctic stewardship seriously, it should require oil companies to get their act together before any potential blowout. Potential oil blowouts should be treated like potential nuclear meltdowns – particularly in the fragile Arctic.
Cleanup shouldn’t be an option, because cleanups don’t work. Even in warm waters, you are lucky to recover 15 percent of oil spillages. People selling cleanup in the Arctic are selling snake oil.
The National Energy Board has been meeting in Inuvik, NWT, to hear arguments from oil companies, environmentalists and northern residents on whether drilling should be allowed in the Beaufort Sea, and, if so, what regulations need to be in place.
Here is what the NEB should require of oil companies if it does decide to allow drilling in the Arctic:
Relief wells must be drilled at the same time as working wells. If that had been done in the Gulf of Mexico, BP wouldn’t have wasted months of precious time trying to cap the working well and replace it with a backup. Pre-drilled relief wells would not penetrate the oil pocket, but be close enough to be operational within a day.
The NEB should also require that blow-out preventers like the one that broke down in the Gulf of Mexico be tested on a regular basis, with a redundant preventer in place so that if the first mechanism fails, the backup kicks in.
Finally, companies should be required to create “glory holes” in the seabed that are deep enough to ensure that the ice that regularly scours the bottom of the Beaufort will never, under any circumstances, incapacitate blow-out preventers.
Three simple regulations. The oil industry will argue that they would cost it a lot of money. Well, the oil industry makes a lot of money. Ask yourself, would you want to relax regulations in the nuclear industry to boost profits?
If we Canadians want to maintain our sovereignty in the Arctic, we should start demonstrating that we give a damn about the Arctic. Imposing tough environmental regulations on drilling would signal that we are not only in control in our portion of the Arctic, but that we deserve to be.
[Colin Kenny Colin Kenny served as deputy chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee. Prior to that he was an executive with Dome Petroleum email@example.com]