Monday, November 15, 2010

Shoot, Ready, Aim - Madness on the Arctic Seabed

A warning from the Pew Environment Group.  Big Oil is pressing to get Arctic seabed oil drilling underway this summer even though they have no way of effectively dealing with spills or other mishaps.   Think Deepwater Horizon but then factor in sub-zero temperatures, hurricane force winds, 30 foot seas and months of constant darkness.

"There is a lot of pressure by Shell to drill this summer," Marilyn Heiman, director of the US Arctic programme at Pew said. "But the oil companies are just not prepared for the Arctic. The spill plans are thoroughly inadequate."

Trying to clean up a spill in the extreme conditions of the Arctic would be on an entirely different order of magnitude. "The risks, difficulties, and unknowns of oil exploration in the Arctic … are far greater than in any other area," the report said.

The consequences for the Arctic's environment would be dire, it said, wiping out populations of walrus, seal and polar bear and destroying the isolated indigenous communities that depend on hunting to survive.

Getting to the scene of a spill would be a challenge. The nearest major port, Dutch Harbor, is 1,300 nautical miles away from the drilling areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and what few air landing strips exist are not connected to any road system. There are no coast guard vessels in either sea, and the nearest coast guard station is 950 miles by air away in Kodiak Alaska.

Response teams would confront gale-force winds, massive blocks of ice and turbulent seas, total darkness for six weeks of the year, and extreme cold. Cranes would freeze and chemical dispersants, such as those used to break up the BP spill, might not work.

Then there is the ice. Left undetected, a pipeline leak could spread oil beneath the surface of sea ice. Ice floes could carry oil hundreds of miles away from the source. At freeze-up, oil can become trapped within ice within the space of four hours, remaining there until spring. If it becomes trapped within multi-year ice, oil could stay in the environment for years, or even a decade, the report said.

To my mind, if we allow Arctic seabed drilling, without first establishing "worst scenario" precautions, properly deployed, equipped and staffed, we have indeed taken leave of our senses.   That would be a horrid rejection of the imperative that man find ways to live in harmony with our environment.

Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.   Just because we can get at unconventional sources of fossil fuels, doesn't mean that justifies the risks and consequences.  As climate scientist James Hansen puts it, some of this oil should just be left safely in the ground.


LMA said...

"Left undetected, a pipeline leak could spread oil beneath the surface of sea ice"

And who pray tell is going to be monitoring for undetected leaks? If our government is going to leave this up to the oil companies, we will end up with a Deepwater Horizon spill in slow motion in the Arctic.

CBC Edmonton news reports today that a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd./Horizon tailings pond in a remote area 70km north of Fort McMurray is currently leaking toxic sludge into the muskeg from an uncontained western edge. This was reported by the First Nations who seem to be the only ones concerned that local wildlife have free access to the contaminated water. CNR Ltd. & Environment Canada have declined comment on the situation, but Dr. Schindler of the U of A wonders "if the people who approved this have ever gone back for a look".

Our true north strong and free? Not for long.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes I read that unfortunate business in Athabasca. To make sense of it, however, you need to become familiar with Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board that has the conflicting mandates of both regulating the Tar Sands and recovering royalties. The ERCB is the petro-state's environment clown car.

I wonder if Canadians will wake up in time to the fact that the federal and Alberta governments operate the same way as other petro-states, like Saudi Arabia or Iraq. A lust for free, easy money from oil companies inevitably subjugates the public interest. Ever hear any Liberals denouncing the chicanery of Big Oil in Athabasca? Of course not.

By the way, the ERCB holds oil company environmental deposits against tailing pond and other cleanups. The board is holding all of $35-million against a liability that fairly recently stood at $18-billion and is growing steadily.

LMA said...

If this three-sided tailings pond is compliant with regulations, as ERCB is now claiming, I would say the regulations are inadequate. The natural depression in the land may stop direct leakage of the tailings, but the open edge of the "pond" is most certainly endangering wildlife, as well as a First Nations food source. CNR Ltd. is "considering" putting up a fence, but admits the tailing pond "can never have a zero effect".

I'm not sure Canadians want to wake up to what the operations of the oil industry are doing to the North. If they wake up, they will have to live with the guilt, or change their consumption patterns and demand change. So far, the lure of cheap gas and big bucks is winning out over the environment, sad to say.

Anonymous said...

LMA...You are correct. Canadians do not want to wake up to what is going on in our environment or for that matter, what is going on with our government. They are fat cats waiting for the next bowl of milk to be fed to them. All they ever talk about is how drunk they got on their vacation south and their next trip south.

LMA said...

Hi, MoS. Not sure if you will read this, but I noticed that Environment Canada has inspected the tailings pond and found it passes regulations in that it does not violate the Fisheries or Migratory Birds Act. No mention of First Nations concerns that other wildlife have access from the uncontained edge. Also no mention of Schindler's concerns about toxins leaching through the clay.

As you say, the ERCB regulations are bare minimum so as to not affect the oil companies operations and profits.

Don't know if you feel this is important enough for a post, but I am really ticked off. I thought CNR Ltd. was obligated to protect ALL wildlife from contact with the tailings.

The Mound of Sound said...

The question becomes 'what regulations' and what exactly was inspected and how?

LMA said...

Apparently Syncrude was charged under Section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act which requires them to store hazardous material so that it does not come in contact with animals, plants, food or water. CNR Ltd/Horizon is trapping beavers in the area of the pond, clearing brush away from the pond to make the habitat less attractive, and tracking/monitoring animal activity around the area, so they appear to be practising due diligence under this law. Both the ERCB and Environment Canada have inspected the pond and found there is no surface leakage into the watershed.

I have no doubt that Schindler is right and there is leaching through the clay into the groundwater. Hard to believe that Canadians are tolerating the slow poisoning of an area of land the size of England.