Arctic oil: Much promise, but to be handled with care – Globe and Mail Editorial (Globe and Mail – February 11, 2013)

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Given the untapped energy potential in the Arctic, an increase in offshore exploration and production is inevitable. It is also in many respects welcome, benefiting the region’s economy. However, it is crucial that it occur in a way that is sensitive to an extremely fragile ecosystem. Canada, as incoming chair of the Arctic Council, can help ensure that necessary safeguards are in place.

Anxieties over the ability to access oil in the region were stoked by recent events, including Shell’s decision last fall to postpone its $4.5-billion effort to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska following problems with sea ice, accidents on its two Arctic drilling rigs, and a malfunction of its environmental-protection equipment. That was in the summer. Imagine what could go wrong in winter, with ice floes and fierce and unpredictable winds.

Meanwhile, Total SA, the French oil producer, recently halted work in the Arctic. Christophe de Margerie, Total’s chief executive, said the risk of an oil spill was too great for the environmentally sensitive area. “Oil on Greenland would be a disaster,” he told the Financial Times, expressing concern a leak would damage the company’s reputation.

The Arctic Council has a unique opportunity to establish best practices and manage the complex risks of drilling in the North. It should consider putting more teeth in its draft agreement on oil-spill preparedness and response, which members are expected to sign in May. The agreement has some laudable provisions. It endorses the general principle of “polluter pays,” sets out the obligation to protect the marine environment and to promote conservation, and the need for each country to have a 24-hour monitoring and response system to reports of oil spills.

But Canada, as incoming council chair, should use its leadership to press for better oil-spill technology given the unique conditions in an area that still sees lots of ice, as well as the legal obligations of polluters.

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