Friday, June 04, 2010

Conservatives chip away at offshore moratoriums

It certainly looks like the federal government is making it a lot easier for offshore oil and gas drilling and tanker traffic in B.C.'s coastal waters.
And each image of oil-soaked seabirds along the Gulf of Mexico coast is going to make that position more and more controversial.
Most people believe there is a moratorium on both tanker traffic and offshore oil and gas development off the coast.
Not just the public or environmental groups. Former federal environment minister David Anderson says the bans are in place. So does the B.C. government; in 2004 it asked the federal government to review the need for the moratoriums.
The Chr├ętien government appointed a panel. Those members all thought bans on drilling and tankers had been imposed in the 1970s and remained in place. So did the thousands of people and organizations presenting to the panel.
And at the end of the process, the panel recommended continuing the moratoriums.
But the Harper government disagrees.
Andrew Mayeda of Canwest News Service reported that the government had quietly issued a policy statement saying there is no tanker moratorium. The governments and the panel were wrong. Presto, it was gone.
Why does it matter?
Because Enbridge has a plan, now undergoing environmental assessment, to build a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat. There it would be pumped into tankers; about 220 a year would sail to Asia through waters that had been off limits.
And if there were a moratorium, the federal government would have to make a decision to lift it to allow the project, sparking public debate and controversy.
This way, it can just stand back and let the process unfold.
It's not a simple issue.
Tankers have a good safety record. The environmental assessment process now under way includes public input.
And it would be pretty hypocritical for most of us, who rely heavily on petroleum products in all their forms, to maintain we want oil and gas, but don't want to have anything to do with producing or transporting it.
But the offshore oil and gas industry had a pretty good safety record too. The companies and the government regulators offered assurances about safety and recovery plans and the great technical advances.
And now we're into week seven of the BP oil disaster.
The Conservative government hasn't gone quite so far on offshore oil and gas. Vancouver Island MP Gary Lunn offered assurances that the moratorium remains in place.
But not in a particularly firm way. The policy statement, Mayeda reported, also set out the new government's assessment of the offshore oil and gas moratorium.
There is no law imposing the moratorium, the government noted. The cabinet orders putting it in place have lapsed.
And so allowing drilling offshore is simply a "pure policy decision" that can be made at any time. There is no statutory impediment.
It's all remarkably loosey-goosey and fuzzy for such a huge issue.
What is clear is that the Conservative government has a different understanding of both issues than past federal governments and the public.
And its view means that tankers could sail the coastal waters and drilling rigs pop up off the coast with a much less thorough public debate than would be required before lifting a real moratorium. A cabinet order, or even bureaucratic directive, could be enough.
That won't likely be well received. There are arguments for allowing increased tanker traffic and offshore oil and gas development. Energy royalties - shared between the federal and provincial governments - could be in the billions. There are construction jobs and operating jobs and economic growth.
But what's unclear is who benefits and who bears the risks. How much risk should British Columbians accept - especially tourism operators and the fisheries sector - to allow expansion of Alberta's oilsands?
It's a debate that has become much more urgent with each day that oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's well.
Footnote: The B.C. government supports both the Enbridge proposal and offshore drilling, subject to appropriate environmental reviews. One problem is that the Gulf drilling program went through those same reviews. Another is that Canada has not yet shown how safety standards here differ from those in place in the U.S.


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DPL said...

Sure we all want oil, but the sludge being talked about here is not for local consumption. So should this province allow the stuff from Alberta be piped across the province and into tankers for China's use. I think not. As for tanker safety, well the more of them hanging around the better the chance of a big spill. The Valdez was long ago but the results are still here. In this case neither the seller or the buyer is taking the risk. The folks in the middle are the ones. If there is a buck to be made certain governments are willing to risk everything to get it. Off shore oil wells are supposed to be safe, but just check out the gulf of Mexico. There have been lots of accidents including one on our east coast that killed a lot of folks

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