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Cleaning up in the Gulf: If we can’t mitigate the risk, we shouldn’t undertake it (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Cleaning up in the Gulf: If we can’t mitigate the risk, we shouldn’t undertake it (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Gerald Butts

An Arctic spill would be even worse Add to ...

As oil continues spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, we hope daily that the next never-before-attempted solution will stanch the flow. Americans are asking: How could this happen? Canadians are asking: Could this happen here? And if so, could we clean it up?

The truthful answers aren't comforting. Yes, it could happen here and no, we could not clean it up.

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Offshore drilling is a challenging business with calamitous downside risks. The U.S. regulatory framework is stronger than Canada's and their response capacity dwarfs ours. No matter, they could neither prevent nor contain a spill during a placid season in what is perhaps the best-serviced marine environment on Earth.

Canadians are plumbing some of the world's roughest, coldest and least-serviced oceans: the North Atlantic and the Arctic. If the Gulf tragedy were repeated in the Beaufort Sea, the impact would be far worse.

This is not a speculative point. We know how ill-prepared we are to deal with Arctic spills. Environment Canada spent millions in the 1970s on test spills in the Beaufort. Officials lost track of the oil plume beneath the ice cover and concluded that none of the conventional approaches - dispersants, booms, burning - would work in Arctic waters.

More recently, last week the federal-provincial regulator governing Chevron's Orphan Bay deepwater drilling admitted we would be lucky to clean up 5 per cent of a spill in the North Atlantic. He said natural dispersal might be the best strategy - an admission that will doubtless surprise most Canadians.

The implications for Canada are clear. A risk that cannot be mitigated should not be taken. We have a long way to go before we can assure Canadians that everything possible has been done to prevent and plan to contain a Gulf-scale spill in Canadian waters.

The responsible way forward is to see in the Gulf tragedy an opportunity for self-examination. In the short term, we need an independent review of the regulations governing the leasing, exploration, and development of our offshore resources. The review should address three key issues:

First, it should provide a new framework to govern how we drill. We must apply the best regulations, technology, training and enforcement to prevent and reduce accidents. However, technology is not foolproof, human behaviour less so. Blowouts and other accidents are not 100-per-cent avoidable.

Second, where we drill is at least as important. Unlike our neighbours in the Arctic, Canada does not consider environmental sensitivity before awarding exploration licences. BP's Beaufort Sea lease overlaps with two areas identified by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as environmentally sensitive. The first marine protected area proposed for the Beaufort - a beluga whale sanctuary - has an operating gas well inside its protected zone. Should a blowout or spill occur, we would have little time before damage is done.

Third, we need the capacity to deal with blowouts and spills when they occur. Canada is unprepared to respond to a major oil spill in ice-covered Arctic waters. The Harper government, which has made historic and positive strides forward on the Arctic file, is well-equipped to lend this matter its full attention.

Canada is a uniquely gifted country. We enjoy more natural resources per capita than any people on the face of the planet. We should see in this great endowment a concomitant responsibility to steward those resources responsibly and sustainably. Most important, we should do everything possible to protect the natural world and future generations of our species from the consequences of our worst mistakes.

Of course, this will amount to whistling past the graveyard unless we finally begin to plan in earnest for the post-fossil-fuel era. As the world runs out of easily accessible oil, pressure develops to exploit riskier, more sensitive areas. The Gulf tragedy notwithstanding, we have not heard the last of "Drill, baby drill." Without a careful plan for alternatives, Canada will have no realistic options. The time for that plan is not after the oil runs out.

Let's hope that Gulf spill can be stopped soon and the damage somehow limited. Let's hope that such a disaster never visits the wild, fragile waters of Canadian Arctic, and that if it does, we can clean it up. Hope is one of the unique attributes of our species. But so is our ability to plan a better future. Let us see in the dark waters of the Gulf an impetus to make that future a reality.

Gerald Butts is president and CEO of WWF-Canada.

 

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