Major Oil Spill: Is Canada Next?

Can Canada handle a Gulf-style oil disaster?

Major Oil Spill: Is Canada Next?

A storm rages at night, about 300 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland. The winds have grounded all flights and 15-metre waves have forced all boats to shore. An iceberg, broken off a floe, drifts through the North Atlantic and smashes into the Hibernia oil-drilling platform. Through a gaping hole, oil begins to spew into the water at a rate of 135,000 barrels a day, continuing for days, with no end in sight.

Does this hypothetical scenario sound outrageous? Not to Michael Klare. “The number of icebergs is going to increase as the Greenland ice shield melts,” says the noted American oil expert, author and academic. “Newfoundland is already an area of intense storm activity. The risk of collision will be great.” And if a monster iceberg (like those now being formed from the melting of the Greenland ice shield) was to collide with the Hibernia platform, says Klare, it could prove to be far more devastating than last year’s BP spill, which dumped almost five million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s because Hibernia-one of the world’s largest drilling platforms, weighing over a million tonnes-is located in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, rife with high waves, fog and violent storms. The disaster would push cleanup crews to the absolute limit; plugging the leak might be nearly impossible.

Are we prepared? Hardly. Most Canadians still don’t see Canada as an oil-producing nation, even though this country is the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the world: We produce 2.8 million barrels a day, a number that is expected to grow to 4.3 million barrels a day by 2025.

As a result of this perception, many are clueless about the risky oil exploration and production activities occurring here every day. And without the drama of a catastrophe or heartbreaking images of oil-covered birds, it’s all too easy for Canadians to remain blissfully unaware.

I know this because until recently, I was one of those Canadians. I consider myself an environmentalist, but also a realist. I recycle and turn off lights, and I drive a car and eat
processed food. I understand that we can’t live without oil-at least not right now. Furthermore, as a researcher studying disasters, vulnerability and risk at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, I thought I was fairly informed about the risks stemming from offshore drilling.

But travelling around New Orleans after last year’s Deepwater Horizon explosion exposed me to the impact that spills can have on land, people and wildlife. It wasn’t pretty, and it inspired me to dig deeper into the dangers back home. What I discovered scared me.

Between 1999 and 2009 there were 156 oil spills (totalling over 2,600 barrels) off the coast of Newfoundland. The Terra Nova platform, 350 kilometres southeast of St. John’s, was responsible for 36 of them, including an incidence of equipment malfunction in 2004 that led to Canada’s worst offshore oil spill to date-1,000 barrels of oil gushed into the Atlantic Ocean, with high waves and bad weather impeding cleanup.

It sounds small when compared, say, with the Exxon Valdez spill, which was estimated at 257,000 barrels, but the impact on seabirds-many already endangered-was enormous. Ian Jones, head of seabird ecology at Memorial University in St. John’s, tallied up the bird deaths to be “possibly in the tens of thousands.” While some deaths are caused by oil ingestion, it takes only a spot of oil the size of a quarter to mat the birds’ feathers, leaving them exposed to the freezing cold and prone to death by hypothermia-and possibly flightless.

The lesson here is that we got off lucky. Some experts worry that these spills are harbingers of greater damages to come. Klare argues that lack of “easy oil” (oil found close to the Earth’s surface or in shallow coastal waters) is now forcing companies to go after what he calls “tough oil,” or oil previously unrecoverable due to weather and geology. Indeed, thanks to incredible technological advances-space-age drill ships and semi-submersibles that can bore thousands of metres beneath the water’s surface-less-conventional sources of oil are now available to us.

This worries Klare. “When you engage in drilling in environmentally hazardous areas,” he says, “disasters are inevitable because we’re operating more and more in places where the geological formations are unfamiliar and unknown-and where the Earth will behave in unexpected, unforeseen ways.”

Orphan Basin is one of those hazardous areas. Located off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, it is currently home to two of Canada’s deepest exploration wells. Drilled in 2,338 metres of water, the Great Barasway F-66 well was completed in 2007. And last May Chevron began drilling an even deeper exploratory well in the Orphan Basin. At 2,600 metres, this second well is in the same depth range as the Deepwater oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico-the depth of which caused cleanup crews significant headaches following the blowout.

The oil industry is, of course, acutely aware of the risks represented by such drilling. A major spill will not only be a wildlife-killer: It will cost money and damage reputations. Companies such as Chevron argue that they work within the strict regulations set by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), the regulatory watchdog established by the federal and provincial governments. According to their website, they have put measures
in place to avoid incidents, and recovery plans exist should anything occur.

But there are three problems. First, C-NLOPB might not be the most impartial group. Many board members are from the petroleum industry, and not one of the members has any expertise in environmental impact assessment or safety. And bear in mind this would be the very board monitoring the cleanup of Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastline.

Second, the government itself hardly inspires confidence. An internal audit recently revealed that the Canadian Coast Guard-the federal agency that would lead the cleanup of any major oil spill-is woefully undertrained and underequipped to carry out a complex, large-scale cleanup.

Third, existing safety and recovery plans were drafted with an easy-oil mindset. That means they were developed for shallow-water wells. At the depths we’re discussing-too deep for humans to withstand-things become infinitely trickier. (The collision involving an undersea robot and the ruptured well during the Gulf spill underscored just how tricky they can be.)

Those plans were also developed with expectations of predictable weather, but weather becomes more volatile as oil exploration moves into deeper water or further north. The United States and Canada are currently competing for offshore drilling rights in the Beaufort Sea, an often frozen-over stretch of the Arctic Ocean. Michael Byers, an Arctic expert, says because of sea ice, a big spill in the Beaufort would be a “nightmare scenario,” where weather would defeat all efforts to drill a relief well to plug a leak. “And the colder the water,” he says, “the more slowly the oil disperses, which is actually a bad thing, because any oil is likely to stay there for decades, if not centuries.”

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that nature can overwhelm the best-laid plans of oil executives and the authorities. On Valentine’s Day in 1982, 84 people were killed when a huge storm, causing 18-metre-high waves, struck the Ocean Ranger rig off the coast of Newfoundland. The rig sank in the early hours the next day. One of the largest rigs at that time, the Ocean Ranger was considered indestructible. Yet the convergence of inadequate system design, human error, lack of safety protocols and poor weather led to its destruction.

Let’s be frank. Clean energy solutions that would reduce our dependence on oil are still a ways away. But being realistic means recognizing that short of imposing a moratorium on offshore drilling (not a bad idea), we need to ensure that our technologies, teams and training are tough enough to prevent a Deepwater Horizon-style spill from happening in Canada. And at the moment, they’re not.

This article was originally titled “My View: Asleep at the Well,” in the May 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!