Faith, Hope, and Spin

Canada’s preparedness for oil spill crisis sadly lacking
September 1, 2010

For Canadians wondering about our preparedness for a major oil spill, an item in The Montreal Gazette (June 6) was not reassuring. It stated that Canada was sending “half of its stock of oil containment boom – some 3,000 meters (1.8 miles) of material” to help with BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. As one environmentalist told me, “That’s hardly enough boom to protect one of the Toronto islands. If that’s our stock, we’re in deep trouble.” 

     By July 16, more than 3,218 kilometres (2,000 miles) of boom had been used on the Gulf spill. The Deepwater Horizon well was temporarily capped in mid-July after gushing an estimated 5.1 million barrels of oil for 86 days.

     Nonetheless, on June 17, as Canadian Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea watched Canada’s Coast Guard practise spreading boom on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick during its annual oil spill response practice procedures, she told the CBC that a major oil spill is “something Canada could handle.”

     Marine spill expert Stafford Reid, two years ago, wrote an extensive report for Vancouver’s Living Oceans Society in which he called Canada’s marine emergency preparedness “faith-based.”  This may seem appropriate for the Harper Conservatives, but, as Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, recently stated: “Blind faith in modern technology is often misplaced: only 18 days before the Gulf Coast disaster, in justifying his position on offshore drilling, President Barack Obama claimed that ‘oil rigs today don’t generally cause spills, as they are technologically very advanced’.”


Who’s In Charge?

Stafford Reid recently told the press that the federal standards of oil spill response “are very, very lean when it comes to shoreline cleanup, oil waste management, and wildlife response.” His 2008 report also cites numerous other problems, including “managing a large oil spill workforce, rescue tug capability, and alternative response methods.”

     These standards were written in 1995, when Canada’s oil spill response preparedness became a public-private partnership (P3), with a reduction in the role of government and the creation of a system of certification for a privately-owned response organization (RO) for each region. Critics say there is a resulting lack of coordination and communication among agencies that are to respond in the event of a spill.

      Transport Canada is now the lead federal agency responsible for Canada’s Marine Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime, having taken over from Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) in 2003.  DFO/CCG remains responsible for managing responses to ship-source oil spills and for ensuring that the response is appropriate. As Transport Canada’s website explains, “The regime is built upon a partnership between government and industry.”

     Reid is a member of the Pacific Regional Advisory Council on Oil Spill Response (Pacific RAC), one of six such regional bodies, or RACs, across Canada for the Arctic, Maritimes, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Pacific, and Quebec. These are independent panels composed of local experts and mandated under the Canada Shipping Act to advise the Federal Minister of Transport on spill preparedness and promote public understanding of preparedness issues. Reid told The Tyee (May 31) that the Pacific RAC has “only two meetings a year and no budget.” 

     Each region has one designated private-sector RO. On the West Coast, for example, the RO is Burrard Clean Operations.  Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, told me in a recent phone interview that shippers have to “submit a plan” naming the RO for their region and paying a $600 fee to the RO, but “there is no mandated use of the RO” in the event of a spill.

     Moreover, according to Reid, “The amount of planning that is required for a response organization in Canada is for a 10,000-tonne spill – that’s one quarter of the [1989] Exxon Valdez spill.” 

     The large Aframax tankers that are now used to transport oil carry 120,000 tonnes. Transport Canada’s website says, “There are approximately 20,000 oil tanker passages off the coasts of Canada each year. Of these, a total of approximately 17,000 are on the east coast of Canada.” Just where the other 3,000 tanker passages occur is not explained. 

     Transport Canada’s website also states that Canada’s P3 spill response regime operates “upon the polluter-pay principle, which makes the polluter liable for all response costs associated with an oil pollution incident... to a certain limit.”

    According to Will Amos, director of the University of Ottawa’s Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic, if a disastrous oil spill struck in Canada, “The oil company responsible for the spill could find itself liable for a mere $40 million, and, in some cases, even less,” with Canadian taxpayers “the ones most likely to foot the remainder of the staggering clean-up costs.”  Amos says these liability caps amount to a “public subsidy” to the oil industry, but also “make it economically attractive for industry to take risks.”


Arctic Drilling

Both BP and ExxonMobil have licences for drilling in the Beaufort Sea, and are eager to begin drilling in the Arctic as early as 2014. In July, the Department of Indian and Northern Development, which manages Arctic development, called for bids on new exploration acreage offshore.

     Gerald Butts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada, says:  “We know how ill-prepared we are to deal with Arctic spills. Environment Canada spent millions in the 1970s on test spills in the Beaufort. Officials lost track of the oil plume beneath the ice cover and concluded that none of the conventional approaches – dispersants, booms, burning – would work in Arctic waters.” 

     Even more significant, the Arctic’s frigid waters don’t have the natural abundance of oil-spill-eating micro-organisms that are helping break down oil in the Gulf. As Arctic marine scientist Rick Steiner told The Rolling Stone (July 8-22), “If you put [a spill of] a million barrels of oil in the Arctic Ocean, it would be there for decades.”

     In the worst-case scenario, a blow-out in autumn, when the seas are freezing over, would flow unabated until relief wells could be drilled the following summer. During that time, oil would spread under the sea ice, killing off fish and marine mammals and fouling coastlines in a massive “circumpolar event.”

      Lash says, “The people up there have the right to make their own decision about drilling, but the ability to respond to a spill there is far worse, and the consequences would be devastating.” 


Relief Wells

Offshore drilling rigs are technologically very advanced, but the same can’t be said for the clean-up. As Lash told me, “They’ve improved the drilling technology” to drill deeper and deeper, “but have made no improvements in oil-spill prevention and clean-up technology in 30 years.”   

     Citing the Mexican Ixtoc I well/rig blowout and spill of June, 1979, in which more than 3.3 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Bay of Campeche, Lash said, “They [Pemex] had no relief well either, and it took nine months for them to drill one then. Relief wells should absolutely be mandatory for offshore drilling.”

     Canadian regulators relaxed offshore drilling regulations in 2009, giving the industry more flexibility when putting in place safeguards against oil spills and no longer requiring equipment such as safety valves and blow-out preventers.  Regulators denied reports at the time that they were prepared to also ditch the relief-well requirements, but oil companies have been arguing that drilling a relief well in the same season is impossible in the Arctic.

     However, according to Senator Colin Kenny (a former executive with Dome Petroleum), “Relief wells need to be drilled before working wells. If that had been done in the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum wouldn’t be wasting months of precious time trying to staunch the blowout.”  

     In his opinion piece for the Ottawa Citizen (June 14), Kenny continues: “Advance relief wells would not be drilled right into the oil pocket, but far enough down that crews could move quickly to complete the drill in the event of a blowout.  The oil industry has been pushing the National Energy Board to relax safety regulations for proposed drilling in the fragile Beaufort Sea... In fact, the government should be stiffening regulations in this problematic area.”

      As an Ottawa Citizen editorial in the same edition points out, the Canadian rules “never required oil companies to drill an actual (relief) well. They just forced companies to draw up a plan.” 


East Coast

Currently, Canadian offshore oil and gas activity is occurring near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland/Labrador, with three active production rigs: Hibernia, Terra Nova, and White Rose.  

    On May 9, a consortium of companies led by Chevron Canada began drilling an exploration well in the Orphan Basin, about 430 kilometres northeast of St. John’s. At 2,600 metres below sea level, the Lona O-55 project is the deepest underwater well in Canadian history and about a kilometre deeper than BP’s blow-out well in the Gulf.   

     Chevron has told regulators it would take about 11 days for a drill-ship from the Gulf of Mexico to reach the Orphan Basin to drill a relief well in the event of a blow-out or spill, and

has said it could clean up only about “2 to 12%” of a spill under typical wind and wave conditions.

     Memorial University professor Bill Montevecchi, who has advised the federal government on oil-spill response for more than a decade, told the press in June that Canada should put a moratorium on offshore drilling and said of Chevron’s drilling in the Orphan Basin that, “if there was a spill out there, there’s no containment, there’s no response you can make” except “to pray and to hope for the best.” 

     Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams promised a full, independent review of the province’s regulatory, safety, and spill-response regime, including the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), by the end of August. Scientists and environmentalists argue that the CNLOPB is too cozy with industry, running offshore land sales as well as regulating offshore drilling – a dual role that leads to charges of a conflict of interest. Provincial NDP leader Lorraine Michael has been pushing for the creation of an independent agency to monitor health, safety, and environmental issues of offshore drilling.

     This summer, the CNLOPB instituted new regulations that require drillers to submit daily reports, meet bimonthly with regulators, and field monthly rig inspections. Max Ruelokke, CEO of CNLOPB, says the regulator has now also mandated a dual barrier rule, which means that a well has to be sealed off by using both a concrete plug and a blow-out preventer.

    But Premier Williams has said that demanding a relief well for projects would threaten exploration and potentially cost his province billions in lost revenues. Williams’s government reportedly holds a 4.9% equity stake in the Orphan Basin project and, in addition, stands to reap $16 billion in royalties. 

     In July, the CNLOPB issued a call for bids on three parcels of undersea land in the Flemish Pass basin, which potentially holds 1.7 billion barrels of undiscovered oil.


West Coast

According to Andrew Mayeda of Canwest News Services (June 2), “The Harper government has quietly affirmed that it isn’t legally bound to maintain a moratorium on oil drilling off the coast of British Columbia. The government has also determined that the ban doesn’t apply to oil-tanker traffic, despite the widely held view that such vessels are prohibited from plying the waters along B.C.’s northern coast.”

     That fits with the energy game plan of the B.C. Liberal government of Premier Gordon Campbell, which is in favour of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline project to link Alberta tar sands crude with Kitimat, B.C. (see The CCPA Monitor, May 2010), which would see 200 tankers per year plying the dangerous waters of the area. The B.C. Liberals also want to have offshore drilling rigs in Hecate Strait.

     The existing Kinder Morgan pipeline, which extends from Haines, Alberta to the Westridge terminal in Burrard Inlet, already ships Alberta crude via some 65 large Aframax tankers per year, with plans to expand pipeline capacity to 700,000 barrels per day. The resulting increase of oil tanker traffic through the southern Gulf Islands could reach 150 tankers per year.

      Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs told The Tyee (July 9) that the volume of oil in these large tankers (120,000 tonnes) is 700 times the rated clean-up capacity available in Burrard Inlet. “The economic impact of a spill would be at least as bad as what is happening in the Gulf.”

     “Our ability to respond to a spill is very limited,” says Jennifer Lash. “If ships lose power, which is a cause of tanker spills, we have no rescue tugs. There’s only one designated rescue/assist tug and it’s based in Washington State” at Neah Bay. “We operate under what’s called ‘vessel of opportunity,’ and that could mean a tug pulling logs,” which would have to find a place to park its load before it could respond. 

“In the 2007 Robson Bight spill,” she says, “it took 14 hours” for a response. In his 2008 report, Stafford Reid recommends that a dedicated rescue tug “should be considered for the central coast” of B.C.

     Lash says that the effectiveness of containment boom “depends on the wind and waves,” and she questions the use of dispersants like Corexit, which contains the neurotoxin 2-Butoxyethanol, arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, and mercury.  “Dispersants have a toxic impact on the people doing the clean-up,” she told me, and the oil itself is toxic. “Nearly everyone who worked on the Exxon Valdez clean-up [which involved 44,000 people] has now died.” Dispersants and surface oil also evaporate to form toxic rain, which reportedly fell in Texas in July.  

     Nonetheless, according to Reid’s report, neither Eastern Canada nor B.C. has dispersant capability, “even after 24 years of debate.”


Federal Spin

Bill C-9, the Budget Implementation Act passed in the House on June 8, contains provisions that will gut environmental assessment rules, including giving the Environment Minister power to shift responsibility for oil industry assessments to the oil-friendly National Energy Board (NEB). At the same time, the House of Commons unanimously passed an NDP motion calling for a review of federal laws, regulations, and policies governing the development of “unconventional” sources of oil and natural gas, including the tar sands, shale gas, Arctic and offshore drilling. But by early August, the Harper government had given no indication that it plans to do anything beyond a review of the spill prevention/response standards of the NEB.

     Meanwhile, since June 2009, the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources (see sidebar) has been developing a massive “road map” for Canada’s energy future from coast to coast to coast, with its final report due in June 2011. Its recent interim report, Attention Canada! Preparing for Our Energy Future, ends on a folksy note: “Like Wayne Gretzky, we must skate where the puck is going and not where the puck has been. The committee is looking forward to meeting Canadians across the country to listen, discuss, and exchange ideas on the best path forward towards Canada’s energy future.”

     In early May, however, Committee Chair Senator W. David Angus was reportedly “shocked” by a CBC/Ekos poll that revealed 52% of Canadians want offshore drilling either stopped permanently (13%) or “paused” (39%) until after a government review of risks. Apparently, this is not a view the Senate Committee is looking forward to hearing from Canadians.  

     The Committee interrupted its wider study to hold emergency hearings in May/June to deal with “misinformation or disinformation among the public about offshore drilling occurring in Canada currently and the imminent danger, if any.” 

     After hearing from the NEB, British Petroleum, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and at least four other oil and gas companies, as well as from the Inuvialuit Game Council, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., WWF-Canada, and a former scientist at Environment Canada, the Senate Standing Committee will release its report on offshore drilling safety within weeks.

     Craig Stewart, director of the WWF Canada’s Arctic program, warns that the Feds have “shifted away from a prescriptive regulatory framework to one that encourages industry to meet soft regulatory outcomes. The shift is a leap of faith that industry will put the public interest before self-interest and shareholder profits. It didn’t work in the financial services industry.”

    With faith, hope, and spin the apparent basis for spill preparedness, Canadians are right to be concerned.

(Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.)