Not any more

Senate aims to dispel fears about offshore drilling in Canada

In Canada on August 17, 2010 at 21:01

A new Senate committee report aims to assuage the concerns of Canadians who have watched oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico for the past four months and wonder if a similar disaster could happen off the coasts of this country.

“Mainly we are allaying fears,” said Alberta Liberal Senator Tommy Banks, who is a member of the Senate committee on energy, the environment and natural resources.

“It is not possible to say, if we are going to drill anywhere for oil, that there will never be a problem,” he said Tuesday in a telephone interview. But “we wanted to be more aware of ‘what does this mean?’ and ‘what are the various aspects of offshore drilling?’ Because offshore drilling is not a single thing, it’s a whole bunch of things.”

Mr. Banks would not divulge details of the committee’s recommendations, which will be released Wednesday along with the report. But, he said, offshore drilling means different things in different parts of Canada and the senators wanted to make that clear.

On the Pacific Coast, there is a moratorium that prohibits drilling. That makes the western situation much different to the one that exists in the waters of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where drilling has been going on for a number of years and where Chevron is currently drilling deeper than the well that has spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

And then there is the Arctic, where BP and other major international oil companies hold licences to explore in the Beaufort Sea but no drilling is expected until 2014 and where the National Energy Board would have to approve any such activity.

“The main thrust of the report is to make ourselves and, we hope others, aware of the diversity that offshore drilling includes,” said Mr. Banks.

Offshore drilling in shallow water on a platform that sits on the bottom of the ocean is one thing, he said. “Offshore from a floating platform is quite a different thing.”

And the Arctic is another issue entirely, said Mr. Banks. If there was drilling “under 10 feet of ice and a blow-out happened, what would that mean? How would you deal with it?” he said. “In the Gulf they can send out booms and sop the stuff up. But under 10 feet of ice that would be very difficult.”

Ian Jones, a biology professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a vocal critic of drilling off the Atlantic coast, said the most important recommendation the Senate could make would be to place the responsibility for promoting development and the responsibility for enforcing pollution measures in the hands of two separate agencies.

At present, the Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (SNLOPB) performs both functions.

“The current situation in Newfoundland puts CNLOPB in a blatant conflict of interest,” he said. “Given the industry-dominated nature of the board … promotion of development is the priority and proper response to oil spills has been neglected,” Dr. Jones said in an e-mail.

He also wants the Senate to recommend that extensive preparations be made in advance of any drilling to ensure that the effects of an offshore oil spill on the marine environment would be minimized.

Geoff Regan, the Liberal natural resources critic, said he hopes the Senate report will be a “wake-up call” to the government about the risks associated with offshore drilling, especially in the Arctic.

“I have been calling for a comprehensive national policy to deal with offshore sills, but the government is content to stick its head in the sand and say the risks are nothing to worry about,” Mr. Regan said Tuesday.

Dennis Bevington, who represents the Western Arctic for the New Democrats, said he would like the Senate to endorse the unanimous Commons resolution that was passed June requiring a complete review of all laws and regulations surrounding the development of unconventional oil and gas.

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