As Canada's energy regulator readies its final round of talks on offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, two new reports suggest there's a long way to go before needed safeguards are in place to develop the resource safely and fairly.
"We don't need to go and grab that (oil) right now," said Trevor Taylor of Oceans North, part of the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group. "If we're going to do it, let's get it right before we go there."
Spurred by the massive BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the National Energy Board announced that it would review how it regulates drilling in northern waters.
There is currently no offshore drilling in Canada's Arctic and none has been applied for. But several energy majors have spent billions of dollars on exploration rights in the Beaufort Sea.
Other northern areas around the globe are seeing increasing activity. Drilling has begun off the coast of Greenland, the United States has approved drilling for its part of the Beaufort and ExxonMobil has signed a deal with a Russian company to begin developing that country's Arctic offshore energy.
Starting Monday, the board is to hold a week-long roundtable in Inuvik, N.W.T., with industry, government, aboriginal and environmental organizations to assess Canada's current knowledge and practices. It's the final event before the board releases its report, expected in December.
"They're the only avenue right now for people to have input," said Taylor.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is expected to argue that new regulations should focus on results, not on specific requirements such as the ability to promptly drill a relief well to help stop a blowout.
"Rather than continue to require that operators meet this goal solely by demonstrating the capability of completing a relief well within the same operating season, the NEB could allow operators to propose, and demonstrate the feasibility of any acceptable technology and practices that will permit the flow of hydrocarbons to be halted, and the well to be safely secured, within the same operating season," says the association's submission.
But Oceans North released a report Friday that points out Arctic regulations aren't even keeping pace with rules in other parts of Canada.
"Within Canada, in the offshore, people are engaged from the beginning — except in the Arctic," said Taylor.
Environmental assessment should be conducted on blocks of ocean before they're even offered for sale, as is done in Eastern Canada, the report says. Aboriginals should also be brought into the process much sooner.
Most scientists as well as government departments such as Environment Canada agree that current methods to clean up spills are limited in the stormy, ice-choked, remote and often dark Arctic waters. A report prepared for the board suggests that weather patterns in the Beaufort mean that no spill response at all would be possible as often as one day in five.
An analysis of that report by the World Wildlife Fund suggests that figure is optimistic.
The original report based its calculations for the open-water season. But the WWF says that work would still proceed during periods when the sea was covered by ice. The organization concludes that weather would actually be likely to keep cleanup crews from their work for an average of three to five days each week.
"Because the industry is capable of operating in both open water conditions and in ice-covered conditions, a spill or a blowout could happen in either," said fund spokesman Rob Powell. "A response to a spill would be required in both of those periods."
Aboriginal groups such as the Gwich'In Game Council have also expressed concerns about drilling to the board.
"The Inuvialuit have expressed serious concerns over the possible threats to the Beaufort Sea ecosystem by ... exploration and future development activities," wrote Nellie Cournoyea of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., the land-claim organization in the area.
Mike Peters, who is to address the board on behalf of the petroleum producers, said industry already has plenty of successful Arctic exploration experience.
"There is a history of activity up there dating back to the '70s and '80s. But a history of success doesn't mean we don't need to be careful going forward."
Energy board spokeswoman Sarah Kiley said a wide variety of opinions are expected in Inuvik. A long lineup of speakers has been scheduled and thousands of pages of documents filed.
"This is the last opportunity for everybody to get together. Clearly, this is an issue of great interest to Canadians."