WWF-Canada Blog:
Arctic


Failure not an option for Arctic offshore drilling

The Arctic is a challenging place to live and work in the best of times.  And an oil spill from an offshore drilling rig is far from the best.  That’s the risk we’re facing, and one WWF has explored thoroughly for the Beaufort Sea.  That’s why WWF, with our legal counsel Ecojustice, is calling on the National Energy Board (NEB) to uphold the Same Season Relief Well (SSRW) Capacity requirement – the best available safety measure to stop a blowout – for any drilling in the region.

Sea ice near the shore, Beaufort Sea, near Herschel Island, Yukon, Canada. © Monte HUMMEL / WWF-Canada

Sea ice near the shore, Beaufort Sea, near Herschel Island, Yukon, Canada. © Monte HUMMEL / WWF-Canada

Since the 1970s, any company wanting to drill offshore in Canada’s north had to show it could drill a relief well to stop a blowout before the onset of the Arctic winter.  Why?  Because everyone understood two things:

  1. That attempts to regain well control by other means might not work.  A timely relief well is the backstop behind the catcher.  It’s the fallback that doesn’t fail.  And in the Arctic, a pristine and fragile ecosystem, failure cannot be an option.
  2. That it would be devastating to the people, wildlife and ecosystems of the region if a blowout could not be stopped before the winter, when the Arctic Ocean freezes over.  Oil could spew under the ice all winter and into the next year.

That’s why Canada’s NEB, tasked with regulating Arctic offshore drilling, insisted on the SSRW Capacity requirement – to prevent just such a catastrophe.

But now, some of the biggest oil companies in the world want to drill deep under Canada’s Beaufort Sea without this critical backstop.  They want to be exempted from the SSRW Capacity requirement, to use unproven technology instead, claiming it is “equivalent”.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) swimming in the water in front of an iceberg, Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean, Alaska © naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) swimming in the water in front of an iceberg, Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean, Alaska © naturepl.com / Steven Kazlowski / WWF-Canon

It isn’t hard to see why.   It’s very expensive to drill a deep well offshore in a remote location, and these companies don’t want to have to pay to drill a second well, a safety measure they may never need. But should they be allowed to drill without the proven backstop?  We don’t think so.

A Beaufort Sea blowout, even one that doesn’t last through a winter, could contaminate hundreds of kilometers of ocean and the northern coast.  It could wash ashore in communities from Alaska to Nunavut.  It could affect migrating whales and birds, as well as polar bears.  The potential consequences and costs – human, ecological and financial – are unacceptable.

The NEB will receive two proposals from major oil companies – Imperial Oil and Chevron – seeking exemptions for drilling sites in the Beaufort Sea.  WWF will review those proposals critically and will ask the NEB to decline those requests if we are not convinced that they afford the same level of protection currently provided by timely relief wells.

The first step in that process has begun: recently, Ecojustice submitted our comment to the NEB explaining why “WWF-Canada is opposed to any exemption to the SSRW requirement that would erode the level of protection afforded to the Arctic environment.”  It may sound like a technicality that can be ignored, but actually it is one of the most important ways we can protect the future of the Arctic.

Learn more about the process on Ecojustice’s blog.