Arctic Council reviews international offshore oil drilling, shipping regulations

Arctic Council reviews international offshore oil drilling, shipping regulations
Camilla Zoe-Chocolate, a Tlicho member of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, speaks during one of the Arctic Council meetings in Yellowknife in March.Photo: Arctic Athabaskan Council.

It’s a massive task, but the Arctic Council is in the throes of unpacking the international community’s current offshore petroleum drilling and shipping regulations to ensure proper rules exist for a coming wave of drilling and transportation in ice laden Northern waters.

Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington, who attended the plenary sessions of the Arctic Council’s senior officials meeting in Yellowknife late last month, said there is an “enormous” amount of work being undertaken by the council’s working groups, whose main focus right now is marine oil pollution prevention.

“What they’re doing is they’ve created a matrix of regulation, so they’ve examined all the regulations that exist now among different countries, and they’re trying to work that into a hybrid (international) instrument,” Bevington said.

Much of the work came from evaluations of BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the largest marine oil accident in history. Bevington said the mistakes made in that preventable spill were extrapolated by the study into an Arctic environment to consider the complications that could arise if similar events were to transpire in Northern waters with different weather and water conditions.

“It was a pretty revealing document about how difficult it is going to be to do the work in the Arctic, and how incredibly well-trained and well-equipped any of these crews that might be working up there will have to be, how carefully they’ll have to be monitored, and how rigorously they’ll have to follow procedures,” Bevington said.

“They see how in a normal environment these things start to fall apart, and they’re concerned around what would happen in an Arctic environment.”

While Arctic offshore drilling has been done successfully and safely in jurisdictions such as Norway for years, the first drilling in ice-filled waters was just recently done for the first time by Russia.

It is a new frontier that Bevington says is cause for concern because of the added complexities of the terrain.

“No matter how good the rules are, if you can’t obey the rules, they’re no good,” he said.

Apart from pollution prevention, work is underway to complete a polar shipping code under the lead of the International Maritime Organization, which wants to complete the code this year and see it come into force within the next two to three years.

The standards would include ship design and construction, ship systems and equipment, and training for maritime crews.

“In order to do this, they need new technology, they need the shipbuilding industry to upgrade and innovate, so it has to pervade through the industry,” Bevington said. “They identify all these areas where, quite obviously, the standard maritime regulations are not going to be good enough.”

Apart from preparing for an increase in Arctic petroleum production and its accompanying environmental risks, Bevington said working groups of the council are actively working on biodiversity assessments and contributions to climate change, such as black carbon and methane emissions.

He said the Arctic Council has become an important forum for discussing climate change outside of the UN’s Conference of the Parties (COP) process, which he says has not been effectively addressing the issues.

Bevington’s main concern with the council itself is that it is perhaps becoming stretched too thin as it attempts to take on this huge body of research and policymaking. While the council calls on the efforts of a wide network of scientists and policymakers from all of its eight member states, there are only four employees in the secretariat coordinating the workload.

“Some countries were wondering whether we could handle this volume of work,” he said. “There’s a lot of work going on, but for the coordination of all that and making all that come together, I don’t think the structure is anywhere near where it has to be. I think it should be much larger, as engaged as it can be with all of these serious issues that they deal with.”

The next meeting of the senior officials of the Arctic Council is set for this October in Whitehorse.

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