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It took the BP oil well blowout for most Canadians to give any thought to the potential for a similar catastrophe off their shores.
Several companies, including Imperial, have leases to drill offshore wells in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, but none have yet received permits from the regulator to do so. (Canada does, however, have offshore rigs in the Atlantic Ocean, producing about 12 percent of the country’s crude oil supply.)
Gaetan Caron, the National Energy Board’s CEO, assured a parliamentary committee May 13 that there will be no drilling in Canada’s portion of the Beaufort until at least 2014.
Still, one committee member suggested Caron may be too soft on the oil industry, noting he once said his regulating agency’s top priority is to “contribute to innovation and economic growth and to reduce the administrative burden on business.”
Oil companies are scrambling to get their hands on the Arctic’s vast and untapped natural resources. The scramble has become more intense as global warming melts the Arctic ice, opening up waterways for tankers and offshore drilling. It’s no small irony that the burning of fossil fuels is melting Arctic ice, thereby allowing for more drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic.
A scientist who used to be a senior official at Environment Canada, William Adams, warned the same parliamentary committee in May that an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea would have a “catastrophic” impact on the ecosystem, which includes the summer breeding grounds for bowhead whales, and accelerate the melting of sea ice.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said there will be no drilling in the Arctic “unless the environment is protected.” Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon later described Arctic oil extraction as “a commercial activity of immense potential.”
There are growing calls for a moratorium on offshore drilling across the Arctic. A recent public opinion poll found 54 percent of Canadians want deep-water oil drilling “suspended until safety can be reasonably assured.” Another 23 percent want it banned outright because it is “not worth the risk.”
One of the problems with oil spills is that they don’t recognize international boundaries.
Greenland has issued offshore exploration licenses in Davis Strait, near Baffin Island on the eastern side of Canada’s Arctic. And President Barack Obama’s administration — while suspending additional sales of offshore oil leases — is allowing Shell Oil to proceed with plans to drill exploratory wells on the American side of the Beaufort Sea and the adjacent Chukchi Sea, near the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee.
Obama seems to have the backing of Americans. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll May 12 found six out of 10 Americans support more offshore drilling, despite the Gulf Coast oil spill. “Drill, baby, drill.”