Jill Colton, staff writer
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill was the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The magnitude of the catastrophe ultimately begs the question, 'what if this happened in Canada?'
It's a scary thought, “but if we proceed with drilling in deeper and deeper waters, we can expect a spill to occur.” That's according to Craig Stewart, director of the Arctic program for the World Wildlife Fund-Canada.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?
If a Gulf- sized spill happened in our waters, it would be very difficult to contain for a number of reasons. Stewart explains, “firstly, we just don't have the equipment or the training. For example we only have 6 km of boom for the entire country, while 1400 km of boom have been deployed to the U.S. and even with all of that, it's still failed to contain the spill.” Another big issue would be differing regulations across the country in regards to relief wells. “And there's no guarantee how quickly crews would be able to drill a relief well in the case of an epic size leak,” he says.
And that's not all. “Canada allows drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and doesn't conduct environmental assessments the way the United States does. Ultimately the damage could prove to be much more immediate because we have wells located in places where there are high populations of marine life,” notes Stewart.
If a massive spill occurred in the Arctic, everything from seals to bowhead and beluga whales to birds would suffer enormously. And that's just the beginning. “Because we drill on the Continental shelf, that's a major polar bear dwelling,” he explains. And then there's the local communities who would be negatively impacted. Like the Inuit -- who rely heavily on wildlife for sustenance and their livelihoods. Not to mention oil likely washing up on Arctic shores in their communities.
“If there was a leak off the coast of Newfoundland, the Orphan Basin (where Chevron is currently drilling) is one of the last viable areas for cod to recover. This would have a lasting impact on fisherman working in the area who depend on cod catching.”
WHAT WOULD MAKE THE CLEAN-UP SO DIFFICULT?
It would be next to impossible to eliminate the crude from glacier ice notes Stewart. In the 1970's Environment Canada conducted a number of studies where they spilled oil in ice-covered waters and tried to clean it up. The results were hardly positive. “The booms/skimmers were clogged with ice and burning the oil off was even more difficult, plus the smog is bad for the environment.”
Meanwhile, other factors play a significant role when trying to extract oil from glacier-packed areas. He continues, “soot from the fire darkens the ice and increases ice melt which then has a negative effect on ice-dependant systems. Chemical dispersants are not as effective in ice water either. And then there's the choppy waters of the North Atlantic, which can make it very difficult to contain spreading crude,” he explains.
WHAT ROLE DOES WEATHER PLAY?
“It would have a tremendous impact,” he suggests. The weather could turn the spill into an even bigger mess in Canada than in the U.S. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, which hasn't really seen any major storms yet, and where the temperatures are much warmer -- Canadian weather is an entirely new ballgame.
“The oil would be much more difficult to contain and clean up a spill, given the storms that ravage the north Atlantic, the fog and of course the ice that's prevalent in the western Atlantic.” When it comes right down to it Stewart says, “in Canada the weather would have a major impact on our ability to reduce damage from a potential spill.”
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF A SPILL?
For Stewart, the likelihood of an oil disaster is a definite reality. “A blowout and spill has occurred in every region around the world where offshore drilling has taken place in the last 20 years. If we keep challenging deeper and deeper waters, we can expect, at some point, something to occur.”
Even with the latest technologies, Stewart remains skeptical. “It's a high risk effort, and you can't discount human error. We can always be counted upon to cause an accident over the course of time.”