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The Canadian Press: Conference debates cleaning up oil spills in ice-choked Arctic waters

October 08, 2007

Climate change may make Canada’s Arctic energy resources easier to reach but it could also make them harder to exploit, a U.S. scientist will tell an international conference this week.

“With significant changes to (sea) ice cover, we’re going to have to pay very close attention to how that’s changing,” said Hajo Eicken of the University of Alaska.

Eicken is one of the presenters from at least five countries scheduled to speak at a workshop on oil spills in ice-choked waters. The conference in Anchorage, Alaska, starts Wednesday and is organized by Ottawa-based SL Ross Environmental Research Ltd.

It comes as multinational energy companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to drill in the cold, dark waters off Canada’s northern coast.

“With the price of oil and where people are looking for oil, it is very timely,” said Stephen Potter of SL Ross. “There’s talk of going back to the Canadian Beaufort Sea (to drill).”

There’s more than just talk.

Last July, Imperial Oil Ltd. (TSX:IMO) and its sister company ExxonMobil Canada bid $585 million for work rights on the floor of the frigid Arctic sea off the Yukon and Northwest Territories coast.

As well, ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) has bid $12 million and Chevron Canada has spent $1 million for seabeds in less attractive exploration zones.

Even though Devon Energy pulled back from its Beaufort drilling program after becoming the first company to drill an offshore well in 15 years, the company has said it still believes the Arctic offshore will eventually become a profitable play.

There are more than two dozen “significant discovery” leases across Canadian Arctic waters. The National Energy Board estimates there are 52 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Beaufort Sea, four times the reserves onshore.

The existence of a pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley, now being considered by regulators, would also stimulate development by giving Arctic gas a route to markets.

But Eicken points out that climate change is rewriting the rules for Arctic sea ice and becoming a crucial consideration in any offshore drilling. He says drillers will have to be aware that the old certainties of shore-bound ice – where much of the current exploration will take place – have changed.

“You have a longer time period on either end of the shoulder seasons where conditions are more variable, less predictable. Even in winter, when normally you would expect to see the landfast ice to be stable and locked in place, we’re starting to see … larger tracts of landfast ice detach from shore and drift out to sea.”

As well, environmentalists have long pointed out that the consequences of an industrial accident would take much longer to fade in Arctic waters than in the south.

Arctic marine species tend to concentrate in certain areas at certain times of the year. An accident in one of those places during the short summer growing season – also the easiest time of year for exploration – could be catastrophic.

Environmental concerns recently delayed Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill in the Beaufort on the American side.

Techniques for cleaning up Arctic oil spills have improved over the last few years, acknowledged Potter. Equipment such as ground-penetrating radar is starting to be used to track oil under ice cover. Chemicals that break up large pools of oil into more easily absorbed small droplets have also been developed.

But Potter said the best method remains simply burning off the oil, although that depends on having a fairly thick slick floating on water that isn’t broken up by too much ice.

Any Arctic oil spill is going to be a tough challenge, he said.

“It’s remote. Any oil spill is going to be far from any existing operations base. Traditional oil spill equipment has not been developed for this, so we’ve had to look at new techniques. And they’re still evolving.”

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