Newfoundland Regulator Takes Notice as Latest Offshore Oil Spill Points to Continuing Risk
The latest in a series of offshore oil spills has roused the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) to express some displeasure at fossils’ ability to meet their obligations for environmental protection.
In the latest incident August 17, The Canadian Press reports, an offshore oil rig spilled an estimated 2,200 litres of oil into the ocean southeast of St. John’s during a power outage, according to rig operator Hibernia Management and Development Company. It happened just two days after the drilling platform reopened, after being shut down in the wake of a 12,000-litre spill last month.
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CP lists ExxonMobil as the largest of partner in the consortium that owns the platform.
Both incidents paled in comparison to last year’s 250,000-litre spill at Husky Energy’s SeaRose platform, the region’s worst ever, an incident the left seabirds at risk of an “agonizing death” after the toxic spill dispersed and became impossible to clean up.
“I’m certainly unhappy with industry performance,” CNLOPB Chair and CEO Scott Tessier said in response to the latest and smallest spill in the series. “What I can assure the public is that we’re on top of it.”
“Investigations into the July 17 and August 17 spills are ongoing, as is the board’s investigation into last November’s 250,000-litre spill at Husky Energy’s SeaRose platform,” CP writes, in a story republished by National Observer. “Tessier said he has confidence in the process that allows production to proceed while a spill is being investigated, but he said a company’s track record plays a role when enforcement measures and future oversight are being considered.”
“It’s not a zero-risk activity that we regulate,” Tessier said.
“Observers are concerned, meanwhile, about information gaps from previous incidents—such as the quantity of oil recovered from the water after the July spill and the exact count of seabirds and other wildlife killed in the aftermath of spills,” CP says.
Newfoundland and Labrador Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady said the province is “very concerned” about the latest incident, adding in a statement that “this is the third incident of an oil spill in our offshore over the past year and is not to be tolerated”. Last year, Newfoundland announced a 12-year push to double its offshore oil production to 650,000 barrels per day.
“Newfoundland and Labrador has tremendous opportunity in offshore oil and gas,” Coady said in October. “By focusing on our competitiveness, driving exploration, ensuring innovation, and working together, we will achieve the vision we all want of a thriving, growing oil and gas industry.”
Earlier this year, Memorial University professor Sean McGrath pointed to climate change as a threat to the entire North Atlantic ecosystem and said Newfoundland and Labrador won’t be able to do its part to confront the crisis without abandoning its plans to double production.
“From ocean acidification, to the loss of plankton, to the migration of fish to colder waters, to the loss of ice coverage in Labrador…there is no aspect of the North Atlantic ecosystem that is not currently being affected by climate change,” said McGrath, a philosophy professor and director of the non-profit For a New Earth (FANE). “And if trends continue, the effects will be far, far more devastating for us in the future.”
In the wake of this month’s spill, Sierra Club of Canada Foundation spokesperson Gretchen Fitzgerald said it’s a conflict of interest for the CNLOPB to regulate the industry’s development and simultaneously oversee its safety and environmental performance. With the province’s development plans taking shape, “the stakes are getting higher and higher, so we’re going to see more consequences,” she told CP.
Later in the week, marine Scientist Donald Boesch, who served on the seven-member national commission that looked into BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, warned of the “fairly interesting and striking comparisons” he saw between the offshore management regime in Newfoundland and Labrador and the conditions that led to the devastating spill he investigated.
“Some of the recommendations we had in our commission report are appropriate—make sure you’re putting sufficient space between the economic decisions to advance oil production, and so on, from those that have to manage safety and protect the environment,” Boesch told CBC News. “Finding some way to provide some space and protection [for] true, earnest attention to safety and environmental protection is critical.”
He added that similar forces were at work when the Piper Alpha drilling platform exploded in the North Sea in 1988, killing 167 crew members. “In each case, and usually often following these major accidents, investigations led to the identification of that need for a clear separation of responsibility and the independence of the mission to ensure safety and to protect the environment,” he said.Last year, National Observer ran a scathing investigative report that pointed to the risk of a Deepwater Horizon-style blowout in the Scotia Basin, 300 kilometres off the Nova Scotia coast, after the federal government approved oil drilling plans from BP—the company behind the 2010 calamity