Oil industry too critical to N.L. to suspend deep offshore exploration: minister

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Chevron has started drilling Canada’s deepest-ever offshore oil well off Newfoundland as the province defends the project as economically crucial.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Chevron has started drilling Canada’s deepest-ever offshore oil well off Newfoundland as the province defends the project as economically crucial.

The government of Premier Danny Williams fended off concerns about oil spill technology at deepsea depths — even as it vowed to independently review emergency procedures.

Opposition members asked worst-case questions as engineers scramble to contain a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re not going to shut down our offshore under these circumstances,” Natural Resources Minister Kathy Dunderdale told the legislature Monday.

“We have a degree of security, as much as one can rely on, that the proper measures and countermeasures are in place.”

Exploration is “critical” to the oil industry that helps run Newfoundland and Labrador’s economic engine, Dunderdale said.

“We will endeavour to learn more and do more as best practices evolve. But we do not see a rationale at this point in time for shutting down our offshore.”

The Stena Carron drill ship has started work more than 400 kilometres northeast of St. John’s in an area called the Orphan Basin. It’s expected to take several months to dig a well 2,600 metres below the surface of the North Atlantic where rough seas and ferocious storms are the norm.

That’s 1,000 metres deeper than the well that blew almost three weeks ago in the Gulf after an explosion killed 11 workers. It has been leaking an estimated 750,000 litres a day since.

“We saw over the weekend the enormous difficulty in trying to stop a leak that far underwater,” said Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones.

“How can he give assurances to the people of the province that this can be prevented … when we see what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico today,” she asked Williams in the legislature.

The premier let Dunderdale take all related questions Monday.

She later told reporters that the drilling rig off Newfoundland is equipped with three backup systems — an acoustic switch to close down a blown well, a remotely operated vehicle to help shut down leaks and two ramp stacks that could help block gushing oil.

Failing those, Dunderdale said a relief well could be drilled. She did not dismiss concerns raised by oil industry analysts that it would take more than a week to get a secondary drill rig in place and between one to five months to finish a second well.

She stressed that regulators with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) along with Environment Canada have the lead on offshore safety.

“We have confidence in the plan that the CNLOPB has put forward and the federal government under the Environmental Protection Act,” she told the house.

But Dunderdale stressed that the province is seeking independent input on oil spill procedures as soon as possible.

U.S. President Barack Obama has put future drilling on hold in the Gulf while the catastrophe is investigated. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has also halted future permits off the coastal state.

Dunderdale said her province is acting no differently.

“What they’ve put a moratorium on are new approvals . And we don’t have any new approvals pending. The Orphan Basin well was approved before the accident in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice told reporters last week that an exploration moratorium is not the answer.

“We are all appalled by what we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said last Thursday in Ottawa.

“Everyone is worried about that. Here in Canada, we’ve not had those kinds of incidents and that’s because of the strong regulatory environment that we have had with the National Energy Board.”

Critics say such regulations would be useless if the worst happens and oil spill technology fails at depths never before explored.