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Politicians, activists raise alarm over Greenland's ambitious drilling program

Next month, when the great pan of ice covering Davis Strait flushes south toward Labrador, two leased drilling vessels will steam across the slushy waters and begin boring into the region's sea floor for the first time in a decade.

What the Cairn Energy ships will find is a matter of intense speculation. Some geologists believe Davis Strait, the frosty waters between Greenland and Baffin Island, is one of the richest untapped frontiers in the hydrocarbon world.

But one thing is undeniable: A spill in the region - even a minor one - would be catastrophic. Dozens of Canadian towns along iceberg alley in Nunavut and Labrador would be coated, their paltry defences overwhelmed.

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"The clear and present danger is Greenland," said Larry Bagnell, the Liberal critic for northern affairs.

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, some Canadian politicians and environmentalists are warning that Greenland's ambitious Arctic drilling program is moving too quickly and too haphazardly to be safe.

During a meeting with Arctic colleagues early next month, Environment Minister Jim Prentice intends to seek assurances that Greenland is properly regulating its drilling program. "I will make it clear that all Arctic nations have a responsibility in upholding the highest standards and regulations in terms of energy development in our northern waters," he said in an interview. "And I will urge our northern neighbours to follow Canada's lead by ensuring strict regulations that will protect the environment."

In Greenland, the stakes are high. For years, the island - an autonomous province under Danish sovereignty - has asserted its independence on the strength of its oil reserves. A 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 50 billion barrels - more than OPEC heavyweights Nigeria or Libya - lies offshore of Greenland.

Earlier this month, 12 oil companies bid on 14 oil and gas licences in Baffin Bay, an "overwhelming" level of interest that would help Greenland assert its financial and political independence from Denmark, according to Ove Karl Berthelsen, Minister for Industry and Mineral Resources.

But Cairn Energy has a jump on the competition. The Edinburgh-based company began buying into licences in 2007. This summer, during the five-month window when the strait is ice-free, Cairn's two leased ships will spud four wells - pending a few approvals from Greenland. The company says it has a 1 in 10 chance of striking hydrocarbons and has passed all environmental hurdles.

"We take on board all that is going on in the Gulf of Mexico," assured David Nisbet, head of corporate affairs for Cairn. "But let's be clear, we have to find the oil first."

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Ottawa has been preparing the North for a massive spill for years. In 2007, it began shipping spill kits to northern communities, each containing more than 300 metres of containment boom. Last year, Ottawa agreed to a series of international Arctic Council guidelines governing oil and gas development in the circumpolar North, with some conditions.

But troubling questions surround drilling operations in the region.

"We do know that this drilling in Greenland was approved and green-lighted in a very short period - roughly 18 months - and that gives us concern," said Craig Stewart, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic program.

Heavy ice conditions can devastate rig operations, and any response to spills must be done with limited resources in a limited time frame.

"There has never been a successful spill response in broken ice," said Dennis Takahashi -Kelso, executive vice-president of advocacy group Ocean Conservancy and Alaska commissioner of environmental conservation during the Exxon Valdez spill. "The ability to respond effectively seems like a basic prerequisite to exploration and subsequent production in the Arctic."

And sudden autumn freeze-ups could scuttle any attempt to drill a relief well within one season, "leaving oil to spew beneath the ice, all over the Arctic, for months and months," Mr. Bagnell warned.

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What's more, Canada doesn't seem to have a clear strategy in dealing with a spill emanating from Greenland. Questions to the federal government regarding a hypothetical spill in Greenland bounced among several departments and elicited no clear answers. That could be because Canada has signed a Joint Marine Pollution Contingency plan with the United States and France, but not Denmark or Greenland.

Cairn Energy has modelled potential spills, placed a dozen response vessels in the area and instituted a two-rig system that can begin drilling relief for a blown-out well in three to four days. "But it's tricky," said Cairn spokeswoman Ellie Goss. "We could not tell you how long it could take to complete that kind of well."

Greenland requires only that operators demonstrate they can start drilling a relief well before the winter freeze-up, but not that they can complete it.

In some ways, the Baffin region also compares favourably with the Gulf of Mexico. For one, the seabed is far shallower - just 300 to 700 metres compared with 1,500 in the gulf. The seasonal nature means that Cairn would be adept at sealing off its wells at a moment's notice.

Still, Mr. Takahashi-Kelso says the significant questions raised in the Gulf of Mexico warrant a timeout on all new drilling. "There's no need to assume incompetence or bad faith on the part of oil companies," he said. "The probability of any incident is small, but the consequences are huge."

With a report from Shawn McCarthy

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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