Offshore oil development draws questions over safety

by Charles Mandel

BP's quest for oil off of Nova Scotia's South Shore has once again drawn debate over environmental safety and the speed with which critical equipment to contain a well blowout could be transported to the drilling site.

The giant energy company is currently drilling one deep-water exploration well, approximately 330 kilometres from Halifax to a depth of some 2,800 metres in the Scotian Basin.

The latest questioning over preventing a potentially catastrophic blowout comes from the online publication, National Observer. (A link to the story by reporter Joel Ballard may be found here: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/05/08/has-canada-made-itself-vulnerable-disaster-deepwater-horizon)

"It brings a chill to my blood," Dr. Robert Bea, leader of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group and co-founder of the Centre for Catastrophic Risk Management, told National Observer.

"If there's a blowout in the wintertime with the North Sea blowing and going, are we going to be able to get a capping stack from Norway to Halifax in 30 days? Hell, no."

At issue, is a specialized piece of equipment known as a capping stack, which is used to seal underwater oil spills.

The problem is the nearest capping stack is maintained in Stavanger, Norway, one of four around the world that a consortium called Oil Response Limited maintains on behalf of most of the world's major oil and gas companies.

But National Observer obtained documents stating that it would take BP Canada anywhere from 13 to 165 days to stop a well from leaking 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil per day into the ocean with the capping stack located in Norway.

National Observer noted that the Nova Scotia well will be twice as deep as Deepwater Horizon's.

The explosion and subsequent oil spill on the offshore oil well drilling platform Deepwater Horizon Macodo - 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico - took place on April 20, 2010.

Besides being the largest oil spill in U.S. waters, it has been called the most expensive spill in history, the largest clean-up, the most studied and the most litigious, according to Charlie Henry, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

Ultimately, 11 men died in the explosion.

Some 650-million litres of oil spilled into the water; BP, which operated the well, has spent some $42-billion in clean-up and compensation; and the company is subject up to $13.7 billion in fines. The spill impacted approximately 25,000 kilometres of coastline in five states.

It's not the first time oil drilling and capping stacks have spurred debate in Nova Scotia.

In 2015, Shell drilled two exploratory wells, some 250 kilometres off the South Shore. Like BP, Shell proposed to use the capping stack maintained in Norway.

At the time, Scott Jardine, Shell Canada's health, safety and environment manager, told the Nova Scotia legislature's Standing Committee on Resource's that the company didn't believe the risk of a blowout warranted or justified a capping stack for the N.S. operation.

But environmentalists noted that on the U.S. West Coast regulators told Shell they had to have a capping stack ready to be put in place within 24 hours.

Shell ultimately abandoned its two N.S. wells in early 2017 after concluding they would not yield enough oil to make them worth commercial development.

In regards to BP's current operation, the Canadian Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board told National Observer that it takes into consideration "global industry standards used in similar operating environments."

Even before BP received approval to drill, the well has attracted acrimony and opposition from environmentalists and fishers who, respectively, are concerned about a major well blowout similar to BP's Deepwater Horizon and impact on the region's fishery.

Shortly after the energy company received approval to drill off the N.S. coast, the NDP's spokesperson for Natural Resources, Lisa Roberts expressed significant concern about the plan.

"The Liberal government should be working to ensure that the risk to our province's fisheries is mitigated, including by requiring a capping stack be on site within hours, not days, in the event of a blowout," Roberts said.

She also pointed out that the fishing industry is worth $1.8 billion annually in exports.

"We must make sure that indigenous and coastal communities, the tourism sector, and fishers are heard when approving drilling off our coasts."

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil believes offshore development and the fishery can co-exist. In a statement, the premier said: "It is critical that we allow all of our sectors to coexist off our coast. The Sable project is a good example of how responsible offshore development can coexist with the fishery.

"We also need to ensure the fishery and aquaculture industries - which support thousands of jobs in communities across our province - can continue to grow and thrive. We will work with the federal government on the objective of more marine protected areas, but it has to be done in a way that allows Nova Scotians to maximize the value of our resources off our coast."

On page four of this paper, readers will find an open letter to MP Bernadette Jordan, which is deeply critical of the federal government's approval of the drilling.

"So, we ask you, given the clear advantage to investment in the fishery over investment in dirty energy sources offshore, why are you and your government embracing the plans of one of the world's most notorious polluters, the British oil giant, BP, to drill exploratory oil wells so close to our critically important fishery?" the letter writer, Peter Puxley, questions.

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