Husky spill in NL: Offshore petroleum boards prove themselves ill-equipped again

Summary:

  • Husky spilled a lot of oil offshore Newfoundland that will never be recovered.
  • There is a clear failure in regulation of offshore drilling; even the government of Newfoundland and Labrador admitted that following the spill.
  • This spill, caused by a company cutting corners in favour of profits and a regulatory system unable to enforce regulation that could keep people and fisheries safe, demonstrates that profits are being prioritized over people and the environment.

On November 16th, Husky Energy spilled 250,000 litres of oil 350 km offshore Newfoundland and Labrador - the largest offshore oil spill in Canada’s history. The sea state conditions included 8.4m (28ft) waves, which made it not only impossible to get to the source of the leak (a subsea connector), but also impossible to contain the spill on the surface. Over two weeks on, it has been deemed “impossible to clean up”. 


Location of White Rose field. photo cred: NL government

The sea state offshore NL at the time Husky decided to attempt to restart operations after a major storm that saw the biggest waves in recent memory. photo cred: The Province

Husky's SeaRose FPSO. photo cred: The Telegram

Husky already holds the record for largest onshore spill in Canada. Their pipeline in Saskatchewan buckled in July 2016, spilling 225,000 litres of crude oil which poured in and around the North Saskatchewan River. An investigation resulted in 10 charges being laid against Husky Energy, including up to a possible $1-million fine.

Husky’s oil refinery in Superior Wisconsin experienced explosions and fires earlier this year, resulting in 11 injuries and a mandatory evacuation of the city.

Beyond Husky’s track record, plans were announced in July to start deepwater exploration offshore Newfoundland in the Bay du Nord area of the Flemish Pass (550 km from St. John’s) in 2020. Bay du Nord is known for its strong currents and unpredictable nature, and the proposal by Equinor includes an emergency response with a capping operation to take 36 days (this is a conservative estimate and includes getting the capping stack onsite, installation and operations). Their capping stack plan is of concern for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and as shown in a Council of Canadians-sanctioned poll, 90% of Nova Scotians support a requirement to have a capping stack within 24 hr transport of offshore drilling sites.

But back to their most recent major spill: Everyone is jumping on the ‘incident review’ bandwagon, from the Feds (via a statement from Natural Resources Canada) to the Province (via Natural Resources Minister Sioban Coady) to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB). No one would argue that investigations are important to ensuring this will never happen again, but let’s talk about the regulatory conditions that allowed this major spill to take place.


An underwater connector like this one is blamed for the leak and resulting spill. photo cred: The Telegram

Regulatory conditions
There is a clear failure in the regulations when it comes to offshore drilling. Current regulations:

  • allow for oil and gas development in marine refuge areas offshore Newfoundland and Labrador and near Marine Protected Areas offshore Nova Scotia to protect important spawning grounds, where fishing isn’t allowed.
  • approve emergency response plans that include: a capping stack over two weeks away, the use of booms to contain a spill in the North Atlantic, and the use of Corexit, a chemical dispersant hazardous to marine and human health.

Who are the regulators? The CNLOPB, or the Canada - Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (counterpart to the CNSOPB for Nova Scotia), is the autonomous joint federal-provincial regulator (mandate and role found here). Like their Nova Scotian counterpart, they have a conflicting mandate of protecting the environment while supporting the industry to allow for maximized production from oil and gas wells. These boards are often stacked with former industry execs who fundamentally believe in the status quo, which in this case means further development of oil and gas.

Oil and gas development versus the climate
We will continue to have these struggles as long as short-term thinking, the economy and capitalism are prioritized in everything we do. Governments will continue to approve offshore drilling, risking sustainable industries that have been the backbone of our East Coast economies for generations in exchange for the pittance the fossil fuel industry has to offer: a handful of high paying jobs and comparatively tiny royalties from dirty industry.

Meanwhile, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will continue to produce reports warning of how little time we have to make dramatic changes. The St. John’s chapter of the Council has been raising concerns with the industry and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador’s commitment to its’ expansion for some time, including in their blog, Global Warming and “The Way Forward” for Newfoundland and Labrador. In Nova Scotia, the Offshore Alliance which includes the South Shore chapter has requested the federal and provincial governments launch a public inquiry into the offshore industry and establish a moratorium in the meantime. Chapters along with the Council and our allies, will continue this important work.

This spill was caused by a major player in oil and gas exploration (who should know better than to restart operations in heavy seas) who was cutting corners to make money for their shareholders, and by a regulatory system impotent to enforce regulation that could keep people and fisheries and the environment safe. Until this stops and people are prioritized over profits, oil and gas development will continue and we will have another major spill and beat this record for quantity spilled offshore Canada before long.


A typical scene offshore the East Coast, this one in Nova Scotia. photo cred: Robert van Waarden