Published by Senator Grant Mitchell on 27 July 2010
The recent BP offshore drilling disaster has raised the proverbial red flag on Canadian offshore drilling operations. It has raised the question as to whether our offshore drilling policies, procedures, regulatory regime and technologies are sufficiently better than those in the US. Are the risks of a similar disaster in Canadian waters really less than they are in the US?
I should say at the outset, that the Chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources , Conservative Senator David Angus, brought the idea of studying the offshore drilling issue to me, as Deputy Chair of the Committee, shortly after the BP problem began. Our committee has been involved in a lengthy and in-depth study of the need for an energy strategy in Canada, considering supply and demand questions, security and the impact of climate change. He suggested that we detour, if only slightly, to give a timely look at the offshore drilling situation in Canada.
Senate committees are noted for the excellent work they do, largely in a spirit of non-partisanship. Our committee heard from many witnesses, from industry, government, and environmental groups over about a 4 week period.
One observation that raises the stakes on this issue is that 13% of Canada’s conventional production comes from offshore sites. A concern noted by Senator Angus was that polls were saying that the majority of Canadians want drilling offshore stopped.
On the one hand, there were some reassuring things. Notably, right now, there is only one discovery (as opposed to production) drilling operation in Canada’s waters. It is located far off the coast of Newfoundland. There are none in the north right now. Moreover, I got the impression that the NEB (the National Energy Board) which has a role in the regulation of this drilling has a history of great experience and competence. We have had in Canada a culture of rigorous regulation unlike what some are suggesting may have been the case in the US.
There is no doubt that the companies we heard from care greatly about doing this work properly and have a high degree of professionalism and competence. They are aware of the risks and take great precautions. We learned that the ships that are used for some offshore drilling have three sets of emergency shut-off technologies. That is the case with the one well being drilled offshore in Canada at this time.
Reassuring in a perverse way also is that Canadians now have the chance to study the BP case and see where our approaches have been better and where we might have to improve.
On the other hand, there are questions that have to be answered before Canadians can be reassured that the procedures, policies, regulatory regime and/or technologies are sufficiently different between Canada and the US that we can have some comfort that what happened there will not happen here or, if it does, we can cap the problem quickly. One major issue is the differences incumbent to drilling in the north where very cold water and ice cover makes for problems not encountered in the Gulf case. Another issue is whether there is a clear chain of command amongst the NEB, the two provincial offshore drilling regulatory boards and industry should a worst case scenario happen. This appeared to be a problem with the Gulf case.
We got many sincere answers from witnesses. And, many of these answers were from industry participants. But, in the face of their reassurances that we have nothing to worry about, really, Senator Tommy Banks kept saying: “Yes, but BP probably was saying the same things right up until the blowout.” The real issues are whether we are really different in critical ways. There will always be some risk but how do we assess what risk we are prepared to take?
This summer, the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources released its report on the state of offshore drilling in Canada. Please click here for the report (pdf).