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An oil rig and accompanying vessel sit moored in Halifax harbour in October, 2009 (The Canadian Press)
An oil rig and accompanying vessel sit moored in Halifax harbour in October, 2009 (The Canadian Press)

Allow deepwater drilling: Senate panel Add to ...

An investigation by Canadian senators that followed the disastrous oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in April has determined there is no need to halt drilling off Canada's coasts.

Members of the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources were disturbed to hear calls for a moratorium in Canadian waters as oil gushing from BP's well threatened ecologically sensitive areas of Louisiana.

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"Given the fact that governments and citizens sometimes draw hasty conclusions following such an event," said Conservative Senator David Angus, the bipartisan committee launched into an investigation of the state of offshore drilling in Canada.

"The purpose of our study was to allay the fears of Canadians and to show them exactly what the situation is in Canada today so they can form an informed opinion …," Mr. Angus, the committee co-chairman, told a news conference on Wednesday.

The panel invited 26 witnesses - four from the regulatory agencies charged with overseeing offshore drilling, eight from the federal government, three from the Coast Guard, one from the company that responds to East Coast oil emergencies, nine from the oil industry, and one from an environmental group.

The result is a report that finds there is no need for alarm.

"The facts," Mr. Angus said, "do not justify the current banning of Canada's offshore drilling operations following the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico."

There is no drilling off the Pacific Coast where a moratorium has been in place since 1972, he noted. "The Arctic, same thing … there is none, zero, nada going on at the present time" - although it is expected to start in 2014.

On the East Coast, Chevron Canada is drilling a well that is even deeper than the one that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. But "it's being done under very careful supervision and so forth," Mr. Angus said.

Grant Mitchell, the Liberal co-chairman of the panel, said the senators recognized in crafting their report that they had to balance economic benefits with environmental and safety risks.

But critics said the report is a whitewash.

"They are really placing the financial interests of this industry before the public interest and it's a scandal," said Rob Powell of the World Wildlife Fund, the lone environmental agency to testify before the committee.

Denis Bevington, the New Democrat MP who represents the Western Arctic, pointed out that the House of Commons has passed a resolution calling for a comprehensive review of regulations around unconventional oil and gas development, including deepwater drilling. The Senate study is premature and "only clouds the waters," he said.

The senators did express some points of concern. Among other things, they said:

» The fact that regulatory agencies such as the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board are responsible for both developing petroleum resources and regulating petroleum activities could lead to a "material conflict."

» A thorough discussion between the industry and the regulators regarding how and when relief wells should be prescribed.

» The maximum liability of $30-million in damages that falls on the petroleum companies in incidents where they are not found to have been negligent should be examined. "As the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates," says the report, "this $30-million figure may be woefully inadequate."

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