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BP can’t explain how it would clean oil spill in Arctic

“An oil spill or blowout would have a devastating impact”

By SPECIAL TO NUNATSIAQ NEWS

ANDREW MAYEDA
CANWEST NEWS SERVICE

OTTAWA — The head of British Petroleum’s Canadian unit offered no assurance on May 13 that the company would be able to clean up an oil spill off Canada’s Arctic coast.

In testimony before the House of Commons natural-resources committee, BP Canada President Anne Drinkwater said company officials are doing “everything in our power” to clean up the massive oil spill off in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I can assure you that we, and the entire industry, will learn from this terrible event and emerge from it stronger, smarter and safer,” Drinkwater said.

However, she had little to say about the company’s plans to prevent or respond to a spill in the Canadian portion of the Beaufort Sea. In 2008, BP acquired exploration licences for three segments of the Beaufort Sea, roughly 180 kilometres off the Northwest Territories.

“I’m not an expert in oil-spill techniques in an Arctic environment, so I would have to defer to other experts on that,” said Drinkwater, when asked by Liberal MP Larry Bagnell if she agreed with the view of some scientists that oil trapped under the Arctic ice would be impossible to clean up.

Drinkwater also baffled members of the committee by saying it would be “inappropriate” for her to comment on differences between Canadian and U.S. regulations governing offshore drilling.

“I haven’t carried out a detailed evaluation, a comparative evaluation, of the two regulatory regimes, so it would be inappropriate for me to respond to that,” she said.

New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen said he was disappointed by the lack of substance in BP’s testimony.

“You’d think, coming to a hearing like this, British Petroleum would have as many answers as possible to assure the Canadian public. We got nothing today from them,” said Cullen.

“The oil companies have said ‘Trust us, we know what we’re doing and we’re not going to allow a spill like this.’ Well, that clearly is not going to wash with the public any more.”

The Harper government has insisted that strong rules are in place in Canada to prevent a spill on the scale of the Gulf Coast disaster.

But the head of the National Energy Board, which regulates offshore drilling in the Beaufort, acknowledged there’s no guarantee a similar spill couldn’t happen in the Beaufort.

“No safety regulator can possibly say that an accident will never happen,” NEB chairman Gaetan Caron told the committee. “It is our job to prevent that to the best of our abilities.”

This week, the NEB launched a full-blown public review of its safety and environmental standards. Caron said any regulatory changes will depend on the findings of the investigation into the Gulf Coast spill.

“Two weeks ago we did not know what an incident of this kind looks like,” he said. “Today we know… What we don’t know is what went wrong.”

The energy board also cancelled hearings on its policy that oil companies must drill a relief well in the same season in which they drill their main well.

The NEB will now expand the hearings to include other aspects of spill-prevention. BP, along with other companies eyeing production in the Beaufort, has argued it would be difficult to drill both a main well and relief during the short drilling season in the Far North.

“BP is not rejecting the option of a relief well, but we are acknowledging the challenge of building a relief well in the same season,” said Drinkwater.

There have only been two exploratory drilling projects in Canada’s Beaufort in the last two decades — both at shallow depths of only about 10 metres. Caron said his agency doesn’t know if it’s possible to drill both a main and relief well in the same season at the greater depths involved in the projects currently proposed by BP and other companies.

An official with the Inuvialuit Game Council said his organization doesn’t support exemptions to the NEB’s relief-well policy.

“An oil spill or blowout would have a devastating impact on the Beaufort ecosystem and on the ability of the Inuvialuit to continue their traditional lifestyle,” said Lawrence Amos.

With files from Mike De Souza

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