Oil and the Environment

A major concern surrounding Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil industry is that it may do serious damage to the ocean environment. Most of the oil deposits on which the industry depends are located on the Grand Banks, which is also home to diverse fish, seabird, and marine mammal populations. Scientists, environmental groups, and concerned members of the public have expressed fears that drilling, exploration, and shipping will interfere with the overall health of the marine ecosystem, unless the industry is properly regulated.

Oil spills present one of the industry's gravest environmental hazards. Spills harm marine wildlife both offshore and along adjacent coastlines. Diving birds such as auks and sea ducks are among the species most affected by oil spills. Other risks also exist. Large drilling platforms on the Grand Banks emit dangerous greenhouse gases, encroach on wildlife habitat, alter the migratory patterns of some seabirds, and increase bird mortality rates. As different types of machinery drill the ocean floor to reach petroleum deposits, they produce rock cuttings that contain oil and other chemicals. Exploring offshore areas for oil also places marine wildlife at risk – loud underwater seismic shootings used to find deposits can alter fish and marine mammal behaviour and damage fish physiology.

The Stages of Offshore Oil Production

The exploitation of offshore oil involves three major stages: exploration, production, and shipping. Each stage presents potential environmental risks. Exploration involves the use of seismic surveys to locate potential oil deposits. Underwater airguns send sound pulses down to the seabed, which are then reflected back to the surface. The nature of the reflected sound indicates the likelihood of any oil in the area.

Airguns produce sounds that fall within the hearing range of many fish species that frequent the Grand Banks, including cod and haddock. Seismic booms have the potential to cause ear damage in fish and alter spawning, migration, and other behaviour patterns. Scientific research on the Dutch Continental Shelf during the 1990s found that seismic shooting significantly reduced trawl and longline catches of cod and haddock within 18 nautical miles of the testing area. Catch rates did not return to normal until five days after the shooting ended. Whales, seals, and other marine mammals are also sensitive to sounds generated during seismic surveys.

Once potential oil reserves have been located, exploratory drilling begins, followed by production drilling if sufficient quantities of oil are present. Drilling through the seabed produces rock cuttings that become mixed with oil and drilling chemicals. Regulations governing the oil industry allow companies to dump drill cuttings into the ocean provided the oil content does not account for more than 15 per cent of the cuttings' weight.

Besides introducing oil and other chemicals into the seawater, drill cuttings may smother or interfere with life on the ocean floor. Scientists have expressed concerns that the habitual dumping of cuttings into the ocean may have a more negative effect on marine life than is currently known, especially if the cumulative impacts of the province's three oilfields – Hibernia, White Rose, and Terra Nova – are taken into account.

Shuttle tankers ship the crude oil to land. Much of the oil produced on the Grand Banks is stored at a transshipment facility at Whiffen Head, Placentia Bay, until ocean-going tankers take it elsewhere to be refined. Oil spills are a major environmental concern associated with the shipping of oil, but of course can occur during any stage in the production process.

Oil Spills

Oil spills are the most visible and perhaps most hazardous of all the environmental risks associated with the offshore oil industry. Oil can enter the ocean from drilling platforms, tankers, or floating production, storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs) – large vessels anchored near the drilling platform which process and store oil until it is shipped to land. Spills may occur for a variety of reasons, including equipment failure, human error, tank ruptures, and tanker accidents. The harsh and often unpredictable weather conditions of the North Atlantic may increase the likelihood of accidents at sea or of spills during the transfer of oil from FPSOs to shuttle tankers.

Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore industry experienced its largest spill on 21 November 2004 when mechanical failures caused 1,000 barrels of crude oil (165,000 litres) to flow into the ocean from Petro Canada's Terra Nova FPSO. Although spills of this volume are rare, smaller spills have occurred at all three of the province's active oilfields in recent years. Husky Energy, for example, reported 30 barrels of crude oil (4,470 litres) spilled into the ocean from the White Rose FPSO on 9 September 2008, while 300 litres of crude oil spilled from the Hibernia platform on 29 January 2006.

Oil spills can severely damage the maritime ecosystem. Most types of oil are less dense than water and therefore float to the surface. Wind and waves spread oil into a large, thin layer and can transport it to coastal areas. Seabirds are among the animals most affected by oil spills because they spend much time on the water's surface. Oil can quickly penetrate a bird's feathers and significantly decrease its ability to stay warm, dry, and afloat in the harsh environment of the North Atlantic. Birds may also ingest oil as they clean their feathers or eat prey that has come into contact with oil.

Oiled birds have been washing up on the island's beaches for decades and scientists estimate an average of 300,000 seabirds die each year due to oiling off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Most oil that comes into contact with birds is not from the province's oilfields, but rather from large trans-Atlantic tankers and other vessels that use popular international shipping routes located near Newfoundland and on the Grand Banks; these areas provide important habitat for many seabird species vulnerable to oil pollution. In 1994, Environment Canada recognized the south coast of Newfoundland as an extremely high oiling risk zone for seabirds.

Fish and crustaceans are also at risk from oil spills. Oil is most harmful to fish in their egg, larval, and juvenile stages, and may affect species of commercial value. In addition, oil pollution can undermine commercial fisheries by hurting the reputation of local fish products on the international market.

Oil Platforms

The infrastructure of the oil industry also poses risks to the ocean environment. Large oil platforms on the Grand Banks attract seabirds and can interfere with their behaviour patterns. Platforms discharge human waste into the ocean, which provides food for some seabirds and their prey. Platforms also provide roosting space for birds and emit lights and flares known to attract many birds that are nocturnal or eat plankton, such as storm-petrels, dovekies and shearwaters.

The world's largest colony of Leach's Storm Petrels breeds on the northeast Avalon Peninsula, which is within foraging range of the Hibernia platform. This places the birds at risk of injury or death, as it is not uncommon for storm-petrels to fly directly into an oil platform's lights or flare and die from impact or burning. Some varieties of seabirds have also been known to circle oil platforms for days before dying of starvation. Scientists have suggested that oil companies could reduce bird mortality rates by scheduling maintenance-related flare shutdowns around peak bird migrations.

Oil platforms also emit greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – which contribute to global warming and are emitted during the production and use of oil, gas, and other fossil fuels. In 2008, the province emitted a total of 10,102 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases, of which 24 per cent can be attributed to its oil and mining industries. The production and refining of fossil fuels accounted for 1,594 kilotonnes, while the extraction of oil, gas, and minerals like iron ore accounted for another 852 kilotonnes.

Although Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil developments contribute to the economy, they also stand to do tremendous – and possibly irreparable – damage to the environment. It is therefore important that government and industry officials closely monitor how oil is produced, refined, stored, and delivered to market to reduce the impact on the environment

Article by Jenny Higgins. © 2011 Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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