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Guidelines issued for Arctic offshore drilling review

The National Energy Board has issued the guidelines for its Arctic offshore drilling review, revealing a scope of inquiry that is being criticized for being too industry-friendly and avoiding tough issues.

The review will examine how companies can drill safely while protecting the environment, and assess how they can best respond when things go awry.

But Canada's energy regulator declined to expand its review to examine offshore drilling on the East and West Coasts - as many groups, including the federal NDP party had requested. It will not look into diplomatic issues that could result from a spill, as Fisheries and Oceans Canada had requested. And it will not fund the costs of groups looking to intervene in the process. Smaller aboriginal groups and environmental organizations often seek such funding to pay for the cost of participating in what can be an expensive process of research and filing.

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Those decisions led critics to blast the new scope as unnecessarily limited and skewed toward pleasing industry. According to Ian Doig, a Calgary newsletter writer and respected industry voice on Arctic exploration, the new scope of review addresses "motherhood" issues and stays away from the tough questions he had hoped the NEB would examine.

It does not, for example, include a look at how companies can proceed once they have found oil - whether they transport it by pipeline or by ship.

"It confirms what a lot of people have been saying - the coziness between the two [industry and the NEB]" Mr. Doig said.

He called the new scope, which was drafted following input from more than 100 people, groups and governments over the summer, "disappointing."

The board will conduct hearings with northern aboriginal groups this fall, and will rely in part on the recommendations of the U.S. Government's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. It will issue a public report when it has completed its work. But it does not specifically address a concern raised by the British Columbia Investment Management Corp., which asked that companies be required to drill simultaneous relief wells in the Arctic.

Instead, the regulator says it will look at the "effectiveness and reliability of options for regaining well control, including relief wells."

It will also assess the effectiveness of spill containment and cleanup options and how those are financed. It will examine the "state of knowledge" on the physical and biological environment of the Arctic offshore, and it will look at how much is known about the "long-term impacts of a spill on the environment, way of life and communities in Canada's Arctic."

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Doug Matthews, an energy consultant who specializes in Arctic issues, pointed to wording in the new scope that says: "The results of the review will be incorporated in the examination, by the board, of future applications for offshore drilling in the Arctic."

"Now that begs a very large question: Who said there should be future applications?" Mr. Matthews said. "I think it's a debate worth having - should we even be there in the first place?"

Mr. Matthews also criticized the NEB for not establishing a timeline for review. In an online statement, the regulator said it "is committed to take the time necessary to do this right."

"That's very worrisome in the North," Mr. Matthews said. "We take a hit all the time for not being able to get stuff done on time, and here we're going again."

A spokesman for Chevron Corp. did not immediately return a telephone message left Monday afternoon. Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman with Imperial Oil Ltd., said it's "too early to comment" on the new scope, which was released late Monday.

"We'll need to assess and understand," he said.

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