Offshore anxiety

Northern aboriginals have asked Canada’s energy regulator to stop oil drilling and energy development in the Beaufort Sea until the health of the region’s delicate ecosystem can be guaranteed.

INUVIK, N.W.T. — Northern aboriginals have asked Canada’s energy regulator to stop oil drilling and energy development in the Beaufort Sea until the health of the region’s delicate ecosystem can be guaranteed.

“The (Inuvialuit Regional Corp.) cannot support any hydrocarbon drilling activities in those areas of the Beaufort Sea beyond land-fast ice zones,” said the group in a letter sent Wednesday to the National Energy Board.

The board is planning a review of its regulations for Arctic offshore drilling in which it will examine its requirement that companies be ready to bore relief wells. Such wells help contain oil spills in the event of a blowout in the same season the original wells are drilled.

Since the Arctic environment only allows for two or three months of offshore drilling each year, the companies have been pressing the energy board to relax its same-season rule.

But Nellie Cournoyea, a longtime leader of the Inuvialuit who live in Canada’s northwest corner, said the massive blowout and oil spill from a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico has thrown serious doubt on promises that new methods to prevent blowouts will work.

“I really believe what happened in the Gulf of Mexico shows that (methods) we’ve been exploring are not going to be effective,” Cournoyea said. “The blowout preventer which they assured is fail-safe is obviously not.”

As well, she said the Inuvialuit aren’t happy with Canada’s current ability to clean up any problems that did occur. There remains no effective way to clean oil out of ice-choked water, or of getting it from underneath sea ice or even of tracking it once it gets there.

Nor is there enough equipment and infrastructure in the area to be able to mount a cleanup.

The Inuvialuit have made those points to the government and industry, Cournoyea said, but to no effect.

“We’ve finished the processes. We’ve made the recommendations and very little has been done. There’s no ability for cleanup here in the Beaufort.”

Inuvialuit-owned businesses have long taken part in energy development in the Mackenzie Delta and the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. has been one of the strongest backers of the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline.

But Cournoyea said exploration and drilling in the Beaufort is an entirely different matter.

“It’s got to be a balanced approach. We’re supportive that they find a way to prevent a blowout and find ways to stop an uncontrolled blowout and contain and clean up hydrocarbons.

“We just want to encourage companies that they have to take a serious look at this.”

No companies have immediate plans to drill in the Canadian Beaufort, but there are many offshore exploration leases in the area.

On the American side, Shell plans to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea east of the Beaufort on leases as far as 225 kilometres off shore, plus two more wells in the Beaufort Sea east of Prudhoe Bay.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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