Op-ed: Time to strengthen offshore oil and gas regulations

February 6, 2017

*Printed in the Tri-County Vanguard on Monday, February 6*

This op-ed was submitted by NDP Leader Gary Burrill and Queens Shelburne MLA Sterling Belliveau.

As Shell concludes its recent drilling program in the Shelburne Basin, there are clearly ongoing concerns about the risks associated with offshore oil and gas activities.

People are worried about potential incidents that could cause irreparable harm to our marine environment and threaten a multimillion-dollar fishing industry that has been the backbone of coastal communities for generations.

After considering current rules in place, we believe there are ways to improve regulations designed to both prevent oil from ending up in our waters, and mitigate against its effects in the event it does.

First, we must work towards ensuring that an adequate buffer zone exists between offshore oil and gas activities and the important spawning grounds of Georges Bank and Browns Bank. While we of course agree with a moratorium on drilling on Georges Bank, we are also concerned that an oil spill in close proximity could cause irreparable harm. Oil spilled will not respect bureaucratic boundaries. We therefore call for the permanent removal of parcels three and four, as they existed in the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board’s (CNSOPB) 2015 call for bids, from further auction.

Second, under current legislation, in the event of an oil spill companies may be permitted to use chemical dispersants if they can demonstrate that a “net environmental benefit” will be achieved. In other words, if the regulator (the CNSOPB) is convinced that these dispersants will not do more harm than good.

At this point, we fail to see how the CNSOPB could approve use of the dispersant Corexit, given that its effects are uncertain at best. Many credible voices claim that using Corexit can have negative consequences, including increasing the surface area of the oil and adding to its toxicity.

Furthermore, if industry’s best practice is to sink spilled oil deeper into the water column where it will eventually settle on the ocean floor, as dispersants aim to do, then the industry needs to develop a new best practice. Oil and gas companies need to develop better technologies that can remove oil from our waters.

Third, the current lack of technology for removing oil from our waters should mean there is a steadfast commitment to preventing oil from ever ending up there. However, in the event of a blowout, Shell’s recent drilling program only committed to having a capping stack on site within 12 to 13 days. When discussing how long oil could potentially flow into our waters after a blowout, we should be talking hours, not days.

Regulators in Alaska require a capping stack to be on site within 24 hours. Nova Scotians are being told that Alaska is a unique situation where ice could move in following a blowout, preventing mitigative actions. However, a unique situation also exists here, created by the ecological value of the unique marine environment, the economic value of the fishery and the potential far-reaching effects of any oil that is picked up by the tidal flow of the Bay of Fundy.

We feel this combination of factors warrants the requirement of a capping stack to be on site within hours, not days.

We are aware of the blowout preventer technology that is designed, as its name suggests, to prevent blowouts. However, incidents can happen when performing deepwater drilling in a harsh offshore environment. We were recently reminded of this when the drillship hired by Shell lost its riser tensioner system, which fell to the ocean floor near the wellhead.

There is an inherent level of risk when drilling in deep water in close proximity to lucrative fishing grounds. To effectively manage this risk, we need to improve current regulations. The offshore oil and gas industry can co-exist with the fishing industry. Governments can aid this co-existence by ensuring a regulatory framework that sufficiently prevents and mitigates risks associated with offshore oil and gas activities.