Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic December 15, 2011 - 1:43 pm

Put safety first in Arctic offshore drilling: NEB review report

"Any company wishing to drill in the Canadian Arctic must demonstrate to us that they have a strong safety culture"

This diagram from the National Energy Board's offshore Arctic drilling review shows how a relief well works.
This diagram from the National Energy Board's offshore Arctic drilling review shows how a relief well works.

If companies want to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic they must be prepared to cope with any disaster, such as blow-outs or spills, the National Energy Board of Canada, the federal body responsible for regulating offshore drilling in the Canadian Arctic, said in a report issued Dec. 15.

A call for improved safety in offshore drilling emerges as the strongest message in the report, which states that “any company wishing to drill in the Canadian Arctic must demonstrate to us that they have a strong safety culture.”

“It’s a first step in the right direction,” said Trevor Taylor, a former Newfoundland cabinet minister for transportation, fisheries and aboriginal affairs, who is now a policy analyst for the environmental watchdog group Oceans North.

“They did put the ball solidly in the industry’s court, by saying, ‘if you want to do this, you can do it, but these are the tests you must meet.’ From that perspective, the report did a good job, but there could have been more clarity on some issues.”

Taylor would have liked to see some technical requirements spelled out more precisely in the review report.

“But they should be commended for taking the step down the road in developing Arctic filing requirements — that didn’t exist before. That’s a positive development,” he said.

The review of Canada’s regulations on offshore drilling in the Arctic started in May 2010, within days of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, where 11 people died on a drilling platform and oil flowed out of control for months.

For its review, the board looked at the root causes of that and other incidents.

And, in these, the NEB found a common thread: “a neglect of, or even an absence of, processes and procedures to identify, mitigate, or eliminate potential risks.”

“Beneath that deficiency lies an even deeper pattern of organizational cultures that did not put safety first,” the board said.

On Dec. 15, NEB promised to hold the companies that it regulates accountable for developing “a robust safety culture.”

“And we will audit their operations to observe and validate that safety culture,” the review report says.

The NEB also promised to carry out extensive monitoring to make sure companies are complying.

Companies that want to drill in Arctic waters must show that, in their contingency plan, they have the capability to drill a relief well to kill an out-of-control well during the same drilling season — to stop released oil or gas from polluting the environment.

“This is referred to as same season relief well capability,” the board notes. “The intended outcome of this policy is to minimize harmful impacts on the environment.”

The NEB filing requirements for offshore drilling in the Canadian Arctic, the companion document to the review report, sets out some of the information that the board will need to see when it assesses future offshore drilling applications.

“Any company that wants depart from our policy would have to demonstrate how they would meet or exceed the intended outcome of our policy,” the board says.

However, that may leave the door open for companies to use untested technology in dealing with blow-outs or other incidents, Taylor said.

As for the call for more Inuit involvement in Arctic drilling, which Oceans North made in its report to the NEB, this wasn’t touched on by the Dec. 15 report.

But other agencies and environmental reviews for offshore drilling proposals may deal with that, Taylor suggested.

While there are currently no applications for Arctic offshore drilling now before the NEB, the agency said it expects to see such applications in the future.

For its review, the NEB held community consultations, including three in Nunavut, received a variety of expert reports  and comments, and examined accidents, incidents, and emergency response exercises related to offshore drilling.

The NEB also held a roundtable in Inuvik last September where many called for more stringent industry standards and increased Inuit involvement.

You can consult the NEB review report document here.

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