Oil spill loopholes?

As discussions of Arctic drilling continue to swirl a new hiccup emerges. Officials in Canada are reviewing the requirements that Arctic drilling operations have the capacity to drill same season relief wells in the event of a blow-out. This requirement is being reviewed for companies looking to drill in the deep waters of the Beaufort Sea – depths similar to the Macondo well in the infamous Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The request originates from the Imperial Oil Joint Venture, a partnership among Imperial Oil, Exxon Mobil, BP and Chevron. They argue that the 1976 rule should be reviewed to allow for more flexibility in addressing the issue. The number one argument – relief wells could take more than a season to drill in harsh Arctic Climates. A similar request was filed by BP in 2010 to allow the use of blow-out preventers instead of requiring relief wells – one month later the Deep Water Horizon incident took place.

This conversation is of particular weight because the US oil interests are pushing the need to align US drilling requirements with those of Canada.  Drilling proponents continue to urge non-prescriptive rules or mandates for how to deal with an oil spill emergency.

The timing for this discussion is uncanny given that WWF Canada just released a report stating that oil from a well blow-out in Canada could travel 1000km, impacting the ocean and shoreline as far away as Russia.

The report looks at four types of spills:

  • Shipping (from a bulk ore carrier (IFO), tank barge (diesel) and oil tanker (crude);
  • Subsea pipeline;
  • Shallow water blowout from an oil well close to shore on the Beaufort shelf; and
  • A deep water blowout from an oil  well on the Beaufort shelf break

The analysis for a deep water well blow out used a location in the Beaufort approximately 1008m deep with a flow rate of 60,000 barrels (worst case) and 6,000 barrels (probable case) per day based on US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) guidance documents. The deep water scenarios resulted in a higher probability of surface oiling traveling distances from 600-1000km west. Best case scenario response earlier in the year could limit the affected shoreline to 136km – no response would impact 1,860km.

Given the report from the National Academies of Science earlier this year, a full suite of proven oil spill response technologies are still needed to for Arctic response. An unsettling thought given that BOEM announced last week a 45 day comment period on opening 64.8 million acres in the Alaska Beaufort for oil and gas exploration in 2017.


More information on public comment for BOEM is here

More information on the National Energy Board review is here