Sunday, May 2, 2010

Canada's Response to the BP Blowout

On today's CTV Question Period, an interesting subject was peripherally discussed by Jack Layton when he was asked a question about the BP underwater blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Layton mentioned that the National Energy Board (NEB) is holding hearings on the issue of drilling same season relief wells (SSRW) by operators in the Beaufort Sea. The same season relief well requirement forces operators of offshore wells to have the capability to drill a relief well in the same drilling season as the original well is drilled. Since drilling in the offshore Acrtic is usually halted in the winter months, oil from a blowout could flow under the ice for months or even years, resulting in massive ecological damage.

Here's a quote from the NEB website from a press release dated the 5th of February, 2010:

"Same season relief well capability (SSRW) is the ability to drill a relief well in the same season in which the original well was drilled. The practice is intended to help control a blowout and reduce the impact of hydrocarbons being released into the Arctic Ocean. The NEB regulates these drilling activities under the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act.

Imperial Oil Resources Ventures Limited (Imperial) applied to the NEB on 23 October 2009 for an advance ruling on its plan for well control for future drilling in the Beaufort Sea. However, the NEB cannot predetermine whether, or on what terms, it will grant an approval to drill a well. Therefore, the NEB has decided to conduct a generic review of its policy for same season relief well capability calling it "an issue of significant public concern."

"The NEB believes that gathering more information about this issue, including the views of the public, will be beneficial to both potential applicants and to the National Energy Board when deciding whether or not to require same season relief well capability," said presiding Panel Member Georgette Habib." (my bold)

It's interesting how these sort of things never really enter the public consciousness until it's too late.

For those of you who are unaware of the existence and purpose of the National Energy Board, they are an independent (of Parliament and industry) government agency that regulates portions of Canada's energy industry including environmental protection, safety, pipelines and energy development.

Imperial Oil Resource Ventures Ltd. (better known to the Canadian general public as Esso) has applied to the NEB in October 2009 for an advance ruling on whether or not they are required to have SSRW capability for their Ajurak well to be spudded in 2013 and drilled over 3 open water seasons. If you look through the distribution list for the Hearing Order found here, you will find that Imperial is not the only oil company listed. As I suspected, other oil companies are included in the process: Chevron Canada, BP Canada Energy Company, ConocoPhillips Canada Limited, Encana, ExxonMobil Canada, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, MGM Energy, Apache Canada and Shell Canada Limited are listed as recipients, primarily because they have vested interests in further Beaufort/Arctic exploration. From what I have read, Imperial Oil is suggesting that advancements in mechanical means of controlling blowouts (i.e. improved blowout preventer (BOP) technology) would be sufficient to negate the need for SSRW capabilities. As well, they claim that SSRW drilling is not possible in deeper water areas where wells will take 2 to 3 drilling seasons to complete. As we've seen this past week in BP's Gulf of Mexico well, BOPs are subject to mechanical failure and these failures can lead to environmental catastrophe.

In light of BP's recent efforts to adequately address the issue of well safety in the Gulf of Mexico, this issue takes on greater importance to Canadians. Our Arctic and East Coast shorelines would be devastated by a spill of oil, especially since climatic conditions could make it extremely difficult to control the movement of oil on the surface of the ocean. As well, there is a movement afoot to end the moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the west coast of Canada. The issue was reported by the CBC in November 2009 here and if you are interested in further information, geologist Henry Lyatsky addresses this issue of opening up the west coast with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on the CPAC website here. An added risk to drilling on the west coast of Canada is the dramatically increased risk of seismic activity which could disrupt drilling activity.

If you have any interest in pursuing this issue, unfortunately, the deadline for registering as a participant with the NEB for the written hearing passed on February 22, 2010. However, I would suggest that you contact Robert Nicholson, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada (, Jim Prentice, Minister of the Environment ( and Lisa Raitt, Minister of Natural Resources ( I would suggest that, until otherwise proven, existing regulations regarding SSRW capability should remain in place and that the oil industry has not proven that technological advancements in blowout control are completely reliable.

If sufficient grassroots political pressure is brought to bear on the Harper government while they are vulnerable, they may pressure the NEB to maintain their current stand on drilling safety.


  1. Thanks for the information. We should all be concerned about the propsects of such catastrophies given the recent events.

  2. Thanks very much for alerting us to this issue. While I would like to presume that the catastrophe will put paid to the oil companies' "don't worry, we're safe" rhetoric, perhaps I will send Jim Prentice a quick email to remind him that this stuff matters.