Photo: If we drill in the arctic, we will spill in the arctic

History tells us that offshore oil drilling will lead to a spill (Credit: Shane Lampman via Flickr).

By Pierre Sadik

There is no offshore drilling region on the planet that has not experienced at least one major drilling-related oil spill. So the law of probabilities says that if we drill in the arctic, we will spill in the arctic.

"Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." These were the fateful words of President Obama a mere 18 days before the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States occurred at the BP site in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama was right about one thing, the Deepwater Horizon was technologically advanced. It was a state of the art drilling platform — a fifth generation, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, column-stabilized, semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit. Yet it failed spectacularly.

Currently, officials believe human error and mechanical failure are both culprits in the unfolding disaster in the Gulf.

These two factors have been with us as long as time itself. Human error and mechanical failure are a given in every human endeavour, including those where failure is not an option, such as space travel, nuclear fission, and biotechnology.

The reality that these two factors can never be removed from the equation must be front and centre as the federal government re-examines the question of offshore drilling in Canada's arctic.

Any review must occur in the full knowledge that the vagaries of drilling under the most extreme and treacherous conditions on Earth only further guarantees the inevitable — that arctic drilling will not be immune from the litany of spills and catastrophes that have plagued every other drilling region.

A tour of drilling disasters around the planet reads like a catalogue of human error and mechanical failure:

North Sea

The Piper Alpha platform went down off the coast of Scotland in 1988, killing 167 men. A high pressure gas leak, caused by poor maintenance protocols, exploded and blew a hole through the control room wall. A crew member managed to press the emergency stop button, closing huge valves in the sea lines and ceasing all oil and gas production. Theoretically, the platform would then have been isolated from the flow of oil and gas and the fire would have burnt out — were it not being fed with oil from another nearby offshore platform. The second platform continued pumping because of the exorbitant cost of a shut down.

Southeast Asia

The Montara oil spill was an oil and gas leak and subsequent spill that took place in the Montara oil field in the Timor Sea. The slick was released from the West Atlas mobile rig which began leaking oil on August 21, 2009 and continued leaking until November 3, 2009, when the leak was stopped by pumping mud into the well. An estimated 9 million gallons spilled into the sea.

South America — Brazil

On March 14, 2001 an explosion on the Petrobras oil and gas drilling platform caused the release of gas-saturated water and oil into the starboard column and caused the platform to list 2 degrees.

This was followed by a second and even larger gas explosion which killed 10 workers. The resulting platform damage caused further flooding in the starboard column, accompanied by seawater entry through the open sea chest valves. The following day the platform continued to list, eventually leading to a loss of the entire rig. Two-thousand barrels of oil leaked from the platform in the first 24 hours.

Middle East — Persian Gulf

In February 1983 a tanker collided with a platform in the Nowruz Oil Field in the Persian Gulf. The platform developed a 45 degree list and was immediately shut down. But wave action and corrosion caused the oil riser to collapse into the wellhead causing a spill of approximately 1,500 barrels per day. The well was not capped for seven months because the field was in the middle of the Iran/Iraq war zone.

West Africa

Oil spills have rendered the Niger Delta region one of the most polluted ecosystems on earth — and that is well known. Reportedly, an amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez disaster is spilled in Nigeria every year. Some of this comes from pipelines, and some is not accidental, nonetheless an enormous amount is spilled annually from offshore drilling.

North America — US Pacific

A platform stationed off the coast of Santa Barbara, California suffered a blowout when the mud used to maintain pressure became dangerously low. An initial attempt to cap the hole was successful, but inadequate protective casing in the drill pipe led to a rapture and a break in an east-west fault on the ocean floor, releasing 200-thousand gallons of oil directly into the sea.

North America — Canada

A major accident occurred on the Terra Nova rig off Newfoundland in 2004, one of only three Canadian rigs in the Atlantic. In what the CEO of the Offshore Petroleum Board characterized as "a large spill'', 1,069 barrels spilled into the Atlantic Ocean covering an estimated 57 square kilometres. Attempts to contain the spill were handicapped by bad weather and seas of up to six metres. Officials said the spill was caused by a mechanical failure, which allowed oil that would normally be separated from expelled water to be pumped directly into the ocean.

The historical record makes one fact abundantly clear, in every region major spills are an inevitable aspect of offshore drilling. That should probably end the matter of drilling in the Canadian arctic. Some disasters are simply not worth incurring, no matter what the return on investment.

Surely parliamentarians recognize that it's not too late to reverse course, and to entirely abandon the notion of drilling in Canada's arctic.

This column was first published in the Hill Times.

July 5, 2010

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Jan 08, 2013
4:29 PM

I totally agree with the author of this article. It is outrageous that the government isn’t doing anything after the accident on the gulf of Mexico. An oil spills effect is HUGE and yet, they still let happen. But what is the David Suzuki foundation doing about it?

Jan 08, 2013
4:28 PM

I totally agree with the author of this article. It is outrageous that the government isn’t doing anything after the accident on the gulf of Mexico. An oil spills effect is HUGE and yet, they still let happen. But what is the David Suzuki foundation doing about it?

Jul 07, 2010
12:53 PM

Despite the fact that this oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should have been a huge wake-up call for our government to look at its policy regarding off-shore drilling, I don’t get the impression that anything important is in the works… After having writen to many members of our government, I received an e-mail from a Parlimentary Secretary to the Minister of Oceans and Fisheries. Here is an excerpt of what he said: “Natural Resources Canada is responsible for ensuring oil drilling platforms have appropriate response plans, and I can assure you that our Government has effective response mechanisms and safeguards in place in the unlikely and unfortunate event of a spill. The Canadian Coast Guard and other government agencies are well equipped to deal with any environmental event in our waters.”I find that VERY hard to believe.

Jun 07, 2010
12:53 PM

Those are great observations and ideas, David. Personally I don’t have a problem with houses IF they’re of the kind seen in the denser portions of Vancouver: tall and narrow on small lots. This is still a vast improvement over the sprawling residential areas in Surrey, for example, where even the smaller lots miss out on the other two-thirds of density: a walkable/bikeable/transitable community with nearby services. The house I lived in out there was one-third the size of the house I live in in North Vancouver, yet the “Walk Score” was abysmal because the nearest grocery store, bank or restaurant was a minimum half-hour walk away. Where I live it’s 5 minutes. I think it’s important to visually sell the advantages of living in a mixed-use urban community — and not necessarily a condo, because realistically it won’t work for everyone — and stop planning communities as dispersed pods of houses far away from the action. And while the personal car makes up a very significant portion of GHG emissions, the transportation of food and other goods has its own impact. That’s not even counting petroleum-based fertilizers. We have a lot of work to do. Acknowledging consequences like oil spills is one way of realising we have to change.

May 07, 2010
12:53 PM

Gasoline is to this century what nicotene was to the last…and that put cars at the same level as cigarettes. So the question is how can our addiction best be cured. That cigarettes caused cancer was part of that, linking the product with graphic evidence and social disapprovalwas part of the soluion. This kind of multi level approach willl also be required in ending our addiction to gasoline. We need sustainable urban living (the equivalent of no smoking spaces) not suburban sprawl. This is best realized by governments activley advancing urbanization. The suburban paradigm can only change when you and I are empowered to choose to leave suburbia, to change my love of a front lawn to a love of a liveable balcony etc etc Cars and houses need to increasingly be seen for what they are, manacles; condos, bikes, walking shoes and dense urban living needs to be increasingly the symbols of empowerment and liberation.

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