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The 90 Day Plan

Friday, June 11, 2010

Facing a freeze

WHEN BP's Macondo well began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the
firm was in the midst of an effort to persuade Canada's energy
regulator that safety standards for offshore drilling in the Canadian
Arctic were expensive, impractical and should be relaxed. Hearings on
the subject were promptly suspended and the regulator declared that no
new drilling permits would be issued pending a review of existing
rules. "We have a duty to pause, to take stock of the incident," says
Gaétan Caron, head of the National Energy Board.

For a time it looked as though the Arctic would be the next frontier
for Western oil firms, which have only limited access to the most
promising prospects in sunnier climes. The retreat of the polar ice
cap is making the region easier to work in, and there is thought to be
lots of oil and gas to tap. But Canada is not the only country now
thinking twice: America, Norway and even Russia are all contemplating
tighter rules for drilling.

Canada's stay on drilling, like a similar one imposed in America, is
temporary. But environmental groups and some indigenous people
advocate more lasting restrictions, on the ground that the Arctic is
particularly ecologically fragile, far from clean-up crews and
blanketed for much of the year in oil-trapping ice.

A vigorous argument about whether to open pristine bits of coastline
to drilling had already been under way in Norway. The spill has made a
big impression in the country, says Kristin Halvorsen, who leads one
of the parties in the governing coalition and opposes the expansion,
"because it shows that even with a lot of security measures and top
modern technology, you can't insure against accidents when you are
working with oil." The row is threatening to undermine the coalition,
with the prime minister refusing to rule out further drilling.

Russia's parliament, too, has begun debating updated environmental
laws to address offshore spills—a move the government supports. Only
Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory with high hopes for an
oil-fuelled bonanza, is pressing ahead undaunted with plans to expand
oil exploration. Its government has approved drilling this summer in
Baffin Bay, close to its maritime boundary with Canada. That decision
has alarmed Jim Prentice, Canada's environment minister, who wants the
highest environmental standards to be applied.

Mr Prentice and his counterparts from other Arctic states met in
Greenland this week, to discuss offshore drilling among other topics.
The oil industry is relatively confident that their response to events
farther south will not be too restrictive. After all, if the Arctic
does not provide new supplies of oil, they will have to be obtained
somewhere else. As Benoit Beauchamp of the Arctic Institute of North
America, a Canadian research outfit, notes: "That somewhere else might
be the oil sands, which have their own environmental problems, or it
could be coming from places where you have to deal with warlords and
terrorists, like Africa, or the Middle East, where we pretty much have
to send armies to protect the oil and gas."

The Economist Newspaper | Business

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