Oil companies and the CNLOPB a scandalous relationship
Premier Dwight Ball, the federal and provincial natural resources ministers, and the head of Noia (Newfoundland Offshore Industry Association) are singing from the same hymnbook.
They want more rapid environmental assessments of offshore developments. They’re concerned about the role of the federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency adding an additional, unnecessary layer of assessment given the assessment by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).
This would be reasonable if the CNLOPB initiated, executed and acted on rigorous environmental assessments in the offshore that met the highest standards of environmental protection and vigilance.
Let’s consider the evidence. From the outset of offshore oil development, seabirds have been the focal group with which to gauge environmental impacts, because seabirds are the most visible marine animals, and also the most vulnerable to ocean pollution.
Well aware of this, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers commissioned a study, Seabird Attraction to Offshore Platforms and Seabird Monitoring from Offshore Support Vessels and Other Ships: Literature Review and Monitoring Designs (1999).
In this report, I and five seabird biologists proposed having dedicated observers on platforms monitoring birds throughout the year to provide scientifically rigorous data on seabird occurrences and mortality.
During the past two decades, under CNLOPB’s auspices, there have been no scientifically justifiable seabird monitoring programs on any offshore platform. Consequently, there are no credible data with which to assess the occurrences and mortality of seabirds due to flaring, oiling or collisions offshore.
This is by corporate design, not logistical difficulty. We don’t see what is happening offshore, so we tend to interpret no information as meaning no problem. From a logical or scientific point of view, there is simply no information. I’m fortunate to know rig workers and support vessel crews.
The excuses for not having dedicated observers on offshore platforms have been numerous. The most common one, stated time and again by the CNLOPB, but provided here by Geoff Parker, vicepresident, Exxon-Mobil Canada, is that the presence of an independent observer “poses a safety hazard to have untrained personnel on the platform.”
This is simply not true. Seabird biologists work in circumstances often much more risky than an offshore platform, and we are trainable.
So, what important information is missing during the two decades that the CNLOPB has not required comprehensive seabird monitoring offshore?
Hibernia and other platforms are massive novel light sources in the formerly opaque ocean environment. Seabirds are attracted to light. The species most vulnerable to light on the Grand Banks are Leach’s storm-petrels, or Carey chicks, as fishermen know them.
From tracking data, we know storm-petrels forage near the platforms during the summer breeding season and the fall migration period. The largest colony of Leach’s storm-petrels in the world is on the Baccalieu Island Seabird Ecological Reserve. During the past 20 years, the population has plummeted. What analyzable data do we have about storm-petrel occurrences and mortality at offshore platforms? None.
This lack of adequate of environmental monitoring is scientifically unjustifiable, unethical, unnecessary, and yet - under the auspices of the CNLOPB - legitimate.
During the 2006 Terra Nova platform oil spill, initial press releases from Petro-Canada indicated a small spill and no oiled seabirds. Without any observers on site and with no other information, the CNLOPB repeated that message. As was subsequently learned, information about the spill was grossly underestimated and many tens of thousands of seabirds may have been killed.
Owing to jurisdictional constraints associated with the Atlantic Accord, Environment Canada did not even get observers on site until a week or more after the spill.
We are hampered by a system of environmental self-reporting by oil companies that are also liable for spills, accidents, environmental damage and wildlife mortality. Such self-regulation is ineffective and cannot substitute for appropriate environmental regulation.
In other jurisdictions, to reduce inherent conflicts of interest, regulatory responsibilities are partitioned among development and environment and safety.
While we want the economic benefits of offshore oil, we cannot sanction the cavalier corporate approach to environmental vigilance and protection. We mustn’t buy into the political spin about the adequacy of environmental regulation by the CNLOPB - it is just dishonest.
We must insist on an adequate offshore regulatory process for our province, ocean and country.