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arctic council

This image provided by Greenpeace Sunday May 29, 2011 shows the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson oil rig which activists scaled.Steve Morgan/The Associated Press

As Canada prepares to take the helm of the eight-nation Arctic Council, a proposed treaty dealing with blowouts and oil spills is being criticized as so pro-development that it will delight drillers but leave the fragile Arctic environment exposed to catastrophic damage, according to Greenpeace Canada.

"The agreement does nothing to protect the Arctic environment and nothing to protect the peoples of the Arctic … it is effectively useless," said Christy Ferguson, Arctic project leader for Greenpeace Canada, which obtained a draft of the treaty, likely to be signed at the summit when Canada takes over the leadership of the Arctic Council in May.

The pact – still labelled a draft – isn't expected to change significantly before it goes into force just as oil exploration in Arctic waters will be booming as the summer ice cover recedes dramatically as a result of global warming.

"No one is ready to deal with a Deep Water Horizon-style blowout in the Arctic," Ms. Ferguson said in an interview. She was referring to the massive 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico where, despite thousands of highly skilled workers, scores of specialized vessels, and several nearby ports and staging areas, a gusher of unstoppable oil spewed nearly five million barrels of oil for 87 days until it was plugged in a multibillion-dollar effort.

Like the first treaty to emerge from the still-evolving Arctic Council – a 2011 pact on divvying up the Arctic for search-and-rescue responsibilities and response co-ordination – the proposed deal, dubbed Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, is long on good intentions and short on specifics. However, as it is individual states that set and enforce drilling standards, establish liability limits and impose pollution cleanup requirements, the vagueness of the eight-nation draft may reflect little more than the realities of finding the lowest common denominator of agreement in a multilateral setting.

Nevertheless, Greenpeace was openly scornful of the draft agreement's absence of hard rules or requirements. "This document is akin to the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, simply saying, 'If it's not too much trouble, please have a national plan to not detonate atomic bombs,' " Ben Ayliffe, head of the Arctic Oil campaign for Greenpeace International, said in a statement Sunday.

Environmentalists fear a catastrophe similar to Deep Water Horizon in the Arctic would cause far more damage, be harder to plug and – if the onset of winter ice prevented quick successful capping – could spew unabated under the Arctic pack until the following summer.

Yet the proposed pact imposes no actual requirements in terms of drilling safeguards, equipment, or capacities to deal with blowouts or oil spills. Rather, what is intended as a binding treaty obliges Canada and other Arctic nations to do their best to prevent spills and try to clean them up quickly.

Even before Greenpeace leaked copies of the draft pact to The Globe and Mail and a handful of other news organizations in Europe, development advocates and environment critics seemed in agreement that the Harper government was tipping in favour of offshore drilling despite the uncertainties and risks.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, tapped by Mr. Harper in a surprise choice to represent Canada alongside the foreign ministers from the other seven circumpolar nations, "is clearly, on behalf of the government of Canada, taking a pro-development approach," said Doug Matthews, an Alberta-based energy analyst. "The federal government is bending over backwards to accommodate the energy industry's interest in the Arctic," he added.