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Offshore drilling still a long way off
Drilling not likely to start for at least five years in Beaufort Sea

Samantha Stokell
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, September 22, 2011

Despite the frank conversations last week at the National Energy Board of Canada roundtable in Inuvik, off-shore drilling in the Beaufort Sea likely won't happen for at least another five years.

Oil and gas companies currently have exploratory licences only in the Beaufort Sea, but they estimate drilling won't take place until at least 2017. Before drilling can start, the company must fill out an application that meets the filing requirements, which will be determined by the NEB.

If the company doesn't meet all the requirements of the NEB, then the company could not start drilling.

"(Drilling) is not a given. They can drill if we give them the authorization and only if we're properly satisfied they can do it safely, can drill a same-season relief well and have the financial means (for a cleanup)," said Bharat Dixit, technical leader of exploration and productions with the NEB. "With the final report, companies will learn what are the expectations and 'How safe do we have to be?' The projects should contain A, B, C, D. They need to convince us it will be safe."

While the NEB will have its own set of standards, approval for projects drilled in the Beaufort Sea will also have to receive the approval of the Environmental Impact Screening Committee, part of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement.

The committee screens development activities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Its guidelines ensure the Inuvialuit have a role in determining what goes on in their region. Any other interested parties can have their say during that process.

"If someone in, say, Sachs Harbour thinks the application should include 'XYZ', then companies would need to consider that," Dixit said. "If a resident of Inuvik didn't address their concerns, they can contact the survey committee of the (Canadian Environmental Assessment Act)."

All parties agree that before deep-water drilling can start, work needs to be done to accomplish this safely: rigs need to be tested for Arctic conditions; ships that can handle the environment need to be constructed and purchased; local people should have training that will allow them to benefit from the jobs; and funding needs to be provided to increase the amount of spill-response preparedness in the region.

Nellie Cournoyea, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Council, stated that in previous years, training and mentor programs paid for by the federal government helped people take advantage of the jobs available in the oil and gas industry. Who could pay for those programs now, however, remains a question.

"They never want to be seen to give money to the oil and gas industry any longer because it's called dirty money, or whatever it is, because the opposition groups have really established that you shouldn't give money to oil and gas industry," Cournoyea said. "Organizations such as ours, we have to work, you know, with everybody that we can to secure funding so people can get trained. So, this may be an area where it can be addressed maybe earlier rather than later so people are ready when the time comes, rather than scrambling and being told that they're not qualified."

Risk assessment

The Canadian Coastguard has recently gone through an audit and has plans for improvement on its risk-assessment methodology and how to develop emergency plans. The coastguard has focused on the Arctic since the early 2000s and has identified three tiers of response, with both regional and international approaches.

"We see that in major spills, countries as bis as the United States, which is some 10 times more populous than ours, requires international and multi-level support. This is a fact of the nature of the business we're in," said Larry Trigatti of the Canadian Coast Guard Central and Arctic Region. "The question about where you get the backbone and the personnel to make these things work is a complicated one."

Although the Coast Guard has provided opportunities within the communities, it has not met with much success. Trigatti noted that, like any other industry in the North, it's difficult to keep employees.

"It's important that from a first response that we keep plugging away, so to speak, at trying to increase the rates of knowledge, background, and training," Trigatti said. "It's also about maintaining a capacity in the exercising that's part of it. These are challenges in the remote, not just the remote Arctic. These are challenges with access to personnel. These are challenges across the board."

These concerns, among others, were heard by industry representatives and will be taken into account while they complete their project descriptions. The majority of participants expressed gratitude at the amount of respect shown during discussions, and that some ground was gained in working together on drilling.

"The other objective, of course, was to look at future drilling operations within the Arctic offshore and how can we make those operations safer and without harm to the environment, again, by sharing the collective knowledge of the group," said Rod Maier of Chevron. "I believe we've commenced a journey there, in moving forward to being able to achieve that goal by getting all of the input from all of the parties."

The NEB will release a report with filing requirements before the end of the year. The review of offshore Arctic Drilling was initiated after the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010. The roundtable was the final stage after community information sessions and calls for information from concerned citizens.

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