World Wildlife Fund Canada has released a sobering oil-spill model for the Beaufort Sea that suggests a major blowout would contaminate ecologically sensitive shorelines in Canada and Alaska and seriously impair the livelihood of coastal Inuit communities.
The WWF report released Friday comes as Imperial Oil Ltd. and Chevron Corp. are separately preparing for reviews by the National Energy Board and Inuit-led environmental panels on their plans to begin drilling for oil in the deep water of the Beaufort Sea by the end of this decade. The companies will be submitting their own environmental assessments – including worst-case spill scenarios – as part of those hearings.
Prior to that, both Imperial and Chevron will apply for an exemption from the NEB's requirement that companies be able to kill a potential blowout with a relief well in the same season that the accident occurs. The companies maintain that a strict interpretation of the same-season relief well (SSRW) regulation would prevent development in the Beaufort Sea. The regulator has said it would grant a waiver if the companies can demonstrate they had alternatives that would be as effective.
In anticipation of their drilling applications, WWF Canada commissioned RPS Applied Science Associates Inc. to model the spread and fate of potential oil spills associated with increased ship traffic and offshore petroleum exploration and development in the Beaufort.
The consultants concluded that, in a major blowout, oil would spread rapidly due to currents and high winds, would become trapped in the sea ice, making cleanup virtually impossible, and would have a high probability of reaching the shores of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The use of chemical dispersants could result in toxic concentrations of dissolved oil in the water column along the Beaufort shelf, which is home to species that are critical to the Arctic ecosystem.
WWF Canada worked with the Inuvialuit Game Council on the report, and planned a series of meetings with local communities to review its findings. The spills report will help the local people better understand the impact of oil spills on their environment, said Frank Pokiak, chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council, which participates in those assessments.
"One spill in the Beaufort would be devastating to the Inuvialuit and the marine species and wildlife that we harvest," Mr. Pokiak said in a telephone interview. "We know that there is going to be risk in the offshore activity that is happening. So we're still dealing with those issues and haven't decided on a position."
WWF president David Miller said the spills study demonstrates the enormity of the risk from deep-water drilling.
"It is incumbent upon industry now to show there is a plan to manage the risks, and based on what we've seen to date that's going to be extremely difficult for them to do, particularly in deep-water wells," he said.
In filings on their Arctic plans with the National Energy Board, the companies have acknowledged that a major blowout would have serious consequences, but can be prevented.
"We believe that our proposed approach – using best available technology and applying best safety practices and standards – is consistent with the National Energy Board's stated commitment to goal-based regulation in ensuring the highest levels of protection in offshore Arctic drilling," Imperial Oil spokesman Killeen Kelly said in an e-mail on Friday.
"Procedures will be developed to ensure safe operations in the Arctic offshore environment, including drilling program design, processes, equipment and personnel training. Foremost, our primary approach to well control is prevention of incidents."
In a May letter to the board, Chevron said it is proposing to use new technology that will provide a fail-safe barrier against blowouts, as an alternative to same-season relief wells.