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Canadians have their own oil worries

It took the BP oil well blowout for most Canadians to give any thought to the potential for a similar catastrophe off their shores.

polar bears by beaufort sea
A polar bear and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Handout/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — A political convention where people shout, “Drill, baby, drill” is not one you’re likely to see in Canada. That kind of rapture better fits our neighbors to the south.

Here, things are done more discreetly.

It took the blowout at the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico before most Canadians gave any thought to the potential for a similar catastrophe off their shores. And when questions were raised, the answers were revealing.

Canadians learned that major oil companies were for months lobbying the National Energy Board to ease safety requirements for offshore drilling in the environmentally sensitive Beaufort Sea — a body of water that includes U.S. and Canadian territorial waters north of Alaska and the Yukon.

Oil companies wanted Canada to relax regulations on its side of the Beaufort that require a relief well to be drilled in the same season a main well is completed. In the event of a blowout, relief wells are used to reduce the pressure and, therefore, the amount of oil that would gush into the sea.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a relief well would have made all the difference. Without one, BP was reduced to using mud, golf balls and rubber tires in a failed bid to tap the geysers of crude killing marine life and the livelihood of fishermen.

Canada’s regulator had set June 3 and 4 to hear the request by Imperial Oil — backed by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and other major oil companies — to ease the same-season relief well rule.

In a pre-hearing submission to the National Energy Board earlier this year, Imperial argued the building season in the Artic is too short for a relief well to be finished in the same season. A main well, it added, takes two or three summers to complete.

Imperial further argued that insisting on a same-season relief well would essentially block deepwater drilling in the energy rich Arctic. It instead called on the board to emphasize measures that prevent spills. The company conceded, however, that a blowout in the Beaufort Sea could spew crude for up to three years before a relief well could be drilled.

BP backed Imperial’s main argument. In its pre-hearing submission to the Canadian regulator in March, it said relief well rules “ought to be rescinded” and replaced by preventive measures that allow more time to drill the relief well.

These lobbying efforts were brought to a halt in mid-May by the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Imperial suddenly called for a postponement of the hearings until after an investigation determines the cause of the Gulf blowout.

The National Energy Board agreed, adding it would now conduct a full review of its offshore drilling regulations.