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National Energy Board green-lights offshore drilling in the Arctic

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Today the National Energy Board released its review of the safety and environmental requirements for offshore drilling in Canada's Arctic. You can read the report here.

The report is part of the NEB's Arctic Offshore Drilling Review that was prompted after the public outcry to the BP offshore disaster in the Gulf.

The 53-page report compiles findings from the review which featured roundtables held in the North West Territories and Nunvaut with local community members and corporate representatives (such as Chevron, which have a stake in drilling in the Beaufort Sea). After discussing information that was gathered including numerous concerns that were raised by communities, the report outlines regulations for how drilling can be done safely while protecting the environment.

This is a major step towards offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea. With these guidelines in place, the corporations with exploratory licences, including Chevron, BP and Shell, may begin to bring forward applications for drilling.

The report's key findings include:

- The root cause of most offshore accidents is the lack of a broadly shared safety culture. In other words, people don't do what they are supposed to do.

- The NEB has the necessary tools to protect the safety of workers, the public and the unique Arctic environment.

- Northern residents want their voices to be heard in future decisions about offshore drilling, and they want to be involved in preparing for future drilling projects, in particular in training for emergencies.

- The NEB has re-affirmed its Same Season Relief Well Policy. Any company wishing to depart from it in a future application for a well would have to demonstrate to us how they would meet or exceed the intended outcome of the policy, which is to kill an out-of-control well in the same season in order to minimize harmful impacts on the environment.

- During the Arctic Review, industry representatives acknowledged Northern residents' concerns and committed to engaging communities in more meaningful ways, as early as possible in their planning processes. They also spoke of developing and offering appropriate training opportunities to Northerners to help prepare them for employment and business opportunities.

Here are some early comments on the review.

Are the regulations sufficient?

As reported in the Edmonton Journal, a major decision is the requirement for industry to demonstrate that they can counter a blow-out with a relief well in the same season.

"The NEB has re-affirmed its same season relief well policy," said the review summary posted on the NEB website. "Any company wishing to depart from it in a future application for a well would have to demonstrate to us how they would meet or exceed the intended outcome of the policy, which is to kill an out-of-control well in the same season in order to minimize harmful impacts on the environment."

Certainly this was a major demand of a number of interveners, but is it sufficient? This is the million-dollar question, and gambling with it puts lives and livelihoods on the line.

An international open letter to Arctic Coastal states co-ordinated by the Council of Canadians does not think there is sufficient evidence that safe drilling is possible:

"One influential report on Arctic oil and gas suggests, 'there are no effective means of containing and cleaning up oil spills in broken sea ice. Responding in winter is even more difficult because of harsh weather and limited daylight' (Huntington , Henry P., et al. "Arctic Oil and Gas 2007." Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), 2007 . Web. 27 Feb 2011, p.55). The United States National Academy of Sciences determined that 'no current cleanup methods remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters, especially in the presence of broken ice' ("Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska's North Slope." The National Academies Press. Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology (BEST), Polar Research Board (PRB), Earth and Life Studies (DELS). 2003, p.7). Further, the remote nature of potential drilling sites and environmental conditions threatens to allow a gap of days, weeks and even months in responding to a blow out or tanker accident."

The open letter also notes:

"Impacts on marine life also stand to have devastating effects on coastal fishing and hunting. Indigenous peoples and coastal communities in these Polar Regions already experience disproportionate environmental health risks, accumulative impact from toxic exposures and effects of the compounding changes of climate change and global warming."

Is it responsible to pursue oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea at a time of climate crisis?

The Council of Canadians registered as a participant for this public review, but did so hesitantly. We firmly believe that we need a moratorium on offshore oil and gas developments in the Arctic because:

- As seen with BP Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, there is no sure fire way to guarantee against a massive oil spill.

- A spill will devastate the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

- Further Arctic oil and gas development and a spill stands to have devastating impacts on local Indigenous Peoples including on food security and cultural needs.

- Melting ice in the Arctic shouldn't be seen as an opportunity for Big Oil to increase their profits with new projects -- it is a serious warming signal of the climate crisis.

- A moratorium is a logical first step in a just transition to sustainable jobs, energy and an improved environment for everyone.

Unfortunately, the scope of the NEB review prevented a thorough discussion of these reasons, focusing more on how to make offshore drilling safe (as detailed in their report), then considering why it simply will never be safe. In our submission to the NEB we recommended that the scope of the review be expanded to include the compelling reasons for a permanent moratorium on the exploration and development of offshore Arctic resources.

We argued that the gravity of the climate crisis demands Herculean efforts to reduce emissions and transition to an equitable green energy economy. Agreeing to a moratorium on all new exploration and development of offshore oil and gas resources in the Arctic is a logical first step in the transition off of fossil fuel reliance to sustainable jobs, energy and environment. This is the context in which rules are being reviewed.

Not unsurprisingly, the scope remained limited. The reality is that the NEB is a highly problematic federal agency that the Harper government is relying on increasingly to review and green light energy projects. The purpose of the NEB is to regulate pipelines, energy development and trade in the Canadian public interest. Yet rather than having a balanced board with members representing civil society, First Nations, experts and industry, many of the board members come straight from the energy sector.

There are no environmentalists or northern residents represented on the National Energy Board. Several current NEB members worked in the industry before their appointments, or with Alberta provincial regulators that have green-lighted resource projects. As reported in one of Brent Patterson's blogs:

"Since the Conservatives took power in February 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet has made 25 appointments to the boards of the National Energy Board, which regulates offshore petroleum exploration on Canada's Arctic and West coasts, and the two federal-provincial agencies that regulate drilling off the East Coast: the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board and the Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board. ...Most of the individuals appointed by the Harper government to the agencies that oversee offshore-petroleum drilling in Canada are former industry insiders or government officials with no stated experience in environmental issues."

This article was first posted on the Council of Canadians blog.

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