BP’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is rightly generating serious concerns about drilling offshore in Canada’s arctic. But the media stories addressing those concerns all seem to forget that between 1973 and 1990, Canadian firms safely drilled a total of 59 offshore wells which resulted in 26 significant oil and gas discoveries in arctic waters. One of these, the Amauligak well in the Beaufort Sea made by Gulf Canada in 1983, was prolific enough to warrant a production licence—still held by ConocoPhillips.
Dealing with possible spills was a concern under such harsh conditions, and they knew that back then too. So in the 1980s CANMAR (Canadian Marine Drilling Limited—a subsidiary of arctic explorer Dome Petroleum) got government permission to actually try one, on a small scale, to see how a spill could be dealt with if it happened under the arctic ice. Setting up an elaborate plan with equipment and divers, they took several barrels of arctic-type crude and released it under the ice. Murray Todd, CANMAR’s ex-president told me in an interview four years ago that most people had thought an under-ice spill would be catastrophic but it turned out just the opposite.
The crude apparently didn’t behave like it does in open water where it tends to spread into a microns-thin layer. The under surface of the ice was very rough and CANMAR found the oil didn’t go anywhere. It was a dramatic conclusion for the researchers: that if you had a spill it wasn’t going to spread out all over the Arctic Ocean. A small scale test, but was a telling and valuable test in that it gave drillers some clues as to how an under-ice spill could be contained.