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The Northwest Passage: crude oil's next toilet?

By L. D. CROSS, The Hill Times, May 17, 2010

Whether it is the Northwest Passage or, the Canadian Arctic Passage, an oil spill on the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster would permanently contaminate the top of the world.

OTTAWA, ONT.—The 1989 Exxon Valdez supertanker spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound was our benchmark for environmental contamination. That has now been eclipsed by the potential of BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

 We've long advocated that the Arctic should be an international conservation region, off-limits to resource extraction and industrial activities. Like the Antarctic. But greed, national and corporate, is clearly winning the day in Arctic regions. An Arctic Deepwater Horizon disaster is a matter of time. Each government with a bit of Arctic land it can claim as its own could be the one that allowsd the rig or the tanker that unleashes its terror on the region. But chances are good that it'll be Canada that gets there first. Oh, Canada.

What's next? The Northwest Passage as a toilet for crude oil?

Blowout technology can stop a well from gushing but in the Gulf disaster that equipment failed. The rig also lacked a $500,000 remote-control shutoff switch, which is mandatory in Brazil and Norway but voluntary in the U.S.

More than 750,000 litres a day of crude oil have been spilling into Gulf waters since the April 20th incident that killed 11 people. Who knows how much oil will continue to spew out of the undersea reservoir, for how long or, how far it will travel. Initial placement of a dome to cap the well failed or, in the words of a BP official, "has not worked." Will black, gooey sludge wash up on shores or, will it sink back down to the ocean floor—out of sight, out of mind, until the next man-made disaster? Or, since the Gulf oil is lighter, will the 'dilution ratio' significantly decrease the environmental impact? Really, who cares?

Enough is enough.

But now a consortium led by Chevron Canada Ltd. will build Lona O-55, the deepest oil well ever drilled in Canadian waters and one of the deepest in the world, some 400 kilometres off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. At 2,600 metres (1.6 mi) below the waves it would be one kilometre deeper than the well that blew apart off the Louisiana coast. Nor does Canada have rigs that could be moved in fast enough or drill deep enough to create an emergency relief well to reduce pressure and flow from a rupture. A deepwater rig would have to be moved from someplace else on the planet. Is Newfoundland prepared for a major oil spill? Is anybody?

U.S. President Barack Obama has suspended Gulf drilling until an investigation determines what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, as has Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for drilling off the coast of California. Canadian regulators are not changing their plans.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board oversees coastal drilling in that province like the National Energy Board does in the Arctic. A federal policy review will determine whether drilling a relief well at the same time as a main well is constructed must be done in the Arctic.

All deep water projects present unique challenges: damage cannot be easily seen, remote manipulation is difficult, and machinery must work at great depths, handle high pressures and, cope with extreme cold. These difficulties are only exacerbated in frigid Arctic waters. Saying that icy water and thicker crude in the Northwest Passage would cause any oil to sink rather than coat the shore is, quite literally, cold comfort.

Less sea ice in the Arctic Archipelago will allow more commercial vessels and intensified extraction of oil, gas and minerals. This escalation of activity in Canada's Arctic will incite new sovereignty, security, social, cultural, and environmental concerns. Even more problematic is who owns what. There is international agreement that the land area belongs to Canada but the Northwest Passage, its associated straits and channels do not engender the same agreement. Canada regards them as internal waters and requires all non-Canadian vessels to request permission to pass. The U.S. views them as international waters and has sent vessels like the oil tanker Manhattan (1969) and the icebreaker Polar Sea (1985) into Canada's Arctic without permission.

In 1969, the huge American tanker sought to prove the Northwest Passage was a viable commercial oil route. Escorted by the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCGS John A. Macdonald, the Manhattan broke through and one symbolic barrel of oil was loaded on board at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, before the return trip. However, the Manhattan experienced a lot of damage and the Passage was full of winter pack ice. The voyages sparked controversy over who owned the icy route and the possibility of environmental damage. The Passage project was cancelled and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System built to Valdez, Alaska. Even today, competition over who owns the right to use the Northwest Passage is far from finished and Canada's sovereignty is far from affirmed.

On Aug. 2, 2007, Russia claimed a large chunk of Arctic territory thought to be rich in oil and ore when their mini-sub Mir-1 planted a titanium flag on the seabed 4,261 metres (2.65 mi) below the North Pole. That claim is challenged by Arctic neighbours the U.S., Canada and Denmark. Russia's claim is based on an underwater feature, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, as an extension of its continental shelf. Denmark claims a mini rock pile known as Hans Island. The North Pole is not currently regarded as part of any single country's territory and is therefore administered by the International Seabed Authority.

But whether it is the Northwest Passage or, the Canadian Arctic Passage, an oil spill on the scale of the Gulf of Mexico disaster would permanently contaminate the top of the world. Sourcing oil closer to home is a necessary, and profitable, strategic move but not if (more likely when) we harm our own interests by fouling our nest in the process.

L. D. Cross of Ottawa is the author of The Quest for the Northwest Passage: exploring the elusive route through Canada's Arctic waters, published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto.

The Hill Times

©Copyright 2010 Hill Times Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.


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