Oil com­pa­nies and the CNLOPB a scan­dalous re­la­tion­ship

The Compass - - Editorial - Bill Mon­tevec­chi is a Memo­rial Univer­sity of New­found­land re­search pro­fes­sor

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.

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