by Mark Cardwell

Big oil and commercial shipping are steaming full speed into Canada’s Arctic. In September, several major energy companies led by Imperial Oil applied to the federal government for a permit to drill for crude in the Beaufort Sea, 175 kilometres north of Tuktoyaktuk. The consortium, which includes Exxon Mobil (as in Exxon Valdez) and BP, owners of the Deep Horizon rig that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in May, 2010, creating the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, is targeting an area that would require drilling as far as 1,500 metres below the surface. That would be 20 times deeper than any of the previous 92 oil wells that have been drilled there, the latest in 2005.

Notably, the application was made the same month that the Danish ship Nordic Orion became the first commercial ship to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage. Though the number of ships that sail in Canada’s Arctic remains small, analysts expect that reduced sea ice and a longer sailing season will soon lead to an increase in the exploitation of gas, oil, minerals and fish in the region. That will in turn result in an increase in marine traffic, and spur the development of an Arctic sea trade route between Asia and North America’s Eastern Seaboard that is faster and less costly than via the Panama Canal.

One looming question, however, is whether Canada is ready and able to respond to an oil spill in the region. The answer depends on who you ask. For the Canadian Coast Guard, which is the lead federal agency responsible for ensuring an appropriate response to ship-source spills in waters under Canadian jurisdiction -  including the Arctic – the answer is yes.

“CCG works with federal, provincial and industry partners to ensure an appropriate response to all incidents, and to date has responded to every pollution event of which it was notified,” an anonymous CCG staffer wrote in an email response to the question, ‘How can and would CCG respond to an oil spill above the 60th parallel?’ The person noted that under Canada’s Marine Pollution Preparedness and Response Regime, which is administered by Transport Canada, “the polluter is always responsible for any pollution they have caused.”

That jives with the federal government’s “polluter pays” approach to resource development, which was behind Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s call in June for a $1-billion cap on company liability for environmental and other damage from a blowout or oil spill in the Arctic – a 25-fold increase from the current $40-million cap. That liability approach was endorsed by the Tanker Safety Expert Panel in its review (released in December) of Canada’s current tanker safety system south of the 60th parallel. The panel is now studying tanker study north of 60, and is expected to release its findings in the fall.

Critics of the liability regime, however, point out that the Deepwater Horizon disaster cost more than $40 billion. In the event polluters are unknown, unable or unwilling to respond, the CCG says it “will assume command of the spill response to ensure protection of the marine environment.” To do that, CCG says it maintains 80-plus sites of spill response equipment – everything from environmental response barges and transport vessels to skimmers and booms – “that can be moved to any incident scene north or south of 60 degrees latitude (with) trained and experienced staff.” CCG also works with other federal agencies, including the Canadian Armed Forces, has emergency contracting authority, and maintains “international agreements with other nations who may be called upon for assistance.”

One of those nations would certainly be the United States, which shares sovereignty of the Beaufort Sea with Canada (but contests Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway). When asked during 2011 congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster if his agency could handle a similar event in the Arctic, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp testified that, “If this were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing.  We’re starting from ground zero today.”

To be sure, numerous studies, experiments and exercises are being carried in an effort to prepare for and deal with the inevitable oil spills that will occur with the increase of development and maritime activity in a remote region with some of most extreme weather conditions on Earth.

Last summer, for example, two coast guard vessels – one American, one Canadian – tested a “vessel of opportunity” skimming system in open water near Teller, Alaska.

The system is deployed by local fishing and commercial vessels to help clean up some of the almost daily spills that happen on land or at sea in oil-rich Alaska. “The industry has long maintained that it can clean up spills in hard ice or in open water using traditional booms, skimmers, and burns,” wrote National Geographic’s Joel Bourne Jr. in an article on Arctic oil spills in September ( “But in the shoulder seasons – when ice freezes in the fall and breaks up in the spring – the Arctic Ocean is rife with chunks of ice, and spill response becomes difficult, if not impossible.” Bourne notably refers to the findings of a 2003 National Academy of Sciences panel that concluded, “No current cleanup methods remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters.”

A similar look in 2006 at oil spills in the shipping lanes of Russia’s side of the Barents Sea found “there is no proven response method for the recovery of large-scale oil spills in ice-infested waters.” For its part, CCG says it is “looking at implementing a national training strategy for the environmental response personnel to adequately respond to an oil spill.” In addition to implementing an emergency management system a year ago to better organize people, equipment, operations and communications in the event of a spill, CCG is also relying on spill-prevention work by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, “which is exploring new state-of-the-art technologies as well as partnering opportunities that will expand its ability to chart the Arctic more effectively.”

But critics say the lack of know-how and infrastructure to fight oil spills in the Canadian Arctic is a recipe for disaster. “The environmental conditions that characterize the Arctic – sea ice, subzero temperatures, high winds and seas and poor visibility – influence the effectiveness of clean up strategies and how much oil is recovered,” reads a report on the subject by the scientific lobby group Oceans North ( “The longer the oil remains in the environment, the higher the probability that marine mammals will come in contact with it.” It notes that the 250,000 barrels of crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 killed a quarter-million sea birds and thousands of mammals, including two dozen killer whales. “The oil continue to decrease at a rate of between zero and 4 per cent a year and will likely persist for decades and perhaps even centuries,” continues the report. “More scientific research is needed on the long-term effects of oil in the Arctic environment, as well as adequate spill response.”

Joe Spears agrees. And the B.C.-based Arctic specialist and ocean conservation consultant slams the Canadian government for failing to put a priority on preparing for spills in our Arctic waters. “How do you empower people and create a response capability when you don’t spend money to stockpile equipment in the region (and) build the necessary vessels,” said Spears. “No budget equals no action.” Canadians, he added, need to “get past the sky-is-falling sovereignty issue in the Arctic and wake up to the fact that ships and coming and we need to be ready.”