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In Depth

Society
| 02/26/15

Transparency on spill response a must

TCE

Oil spills are the most visible evidence of how environmentally problematic fossil fuel extraction and transport can be, so evidence of a company’s preparedness to prevent or swiftly fix spills may sway public opinion for or against new projects. That’s likely why United States President Barack Obama has called for the first-ever federal regulations on oil spill response for Arctic drilling. While there are no companies drilling in US Arctic waters at present, Royal Dutch Shell has already sunk $6 billion US into the waters off Alaska and plans to return for an additional $1 billion-worth of exploratory drilling in 2015. The proposed regulations would require additional tugboats, a helicopter and an additional rig that could drill relief wells if the first rig loses control, as well as the construction and testing of a containment dome that could hold spilled oil in one place. The Arctic is expected to be ice-free during summer months by 2050, and reserves beneath the seabed have spurred a rush to explore, despite higher costs and greater risks. The much-diminished activity of oil-eating microbes in frigid Arctic water has also been cited as a reason for stricter regulations around spills than in warmer water such as the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless, Obama’s proposed regulations were almost immediately called ‘unnecessarily burdensome’ by the American Petroleum Institute, but they do reflect a commitment to due process and public consultation – a sentiment echoed in Obama’s Tuesday veto of the Keystone Pipeline bill, in which he said Congress was attempting to circumvent the process that will determine if Keystone is in the US’ interests.

In contrast to the open public discussions in the United States, British Columbians are being left in the dark – literally – about the oil spill response plans for Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. Despite the pipeline’s route directly through Metro Vancouver, and requests filed during public consultations, British Columbians were denied access to the company’s spill response plans by Canada’s federal National Energy Board, with the BC government losing a court battle and being left only with an out-of-date version with paragraphs blacked out. Missing information includes spill response times, valve locations and evacuation zone maps. The reasons cited: ‘security concerns’. South of the border where the pipeline will cross into Washington State, the same plans are publicly available. Concern over spills is not going to go away, so companies have a choice—either disclose potential risks openly or expect more costly delays, lawsuits and protests.

In depth

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