Sidebar: Independent observers not needed despite calls for them, says official

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Offshore operators must report crude oil spills, but also spills of drilling mud, lubricating oil and other substances.

The 2004 spill at Terra Nova is not the only notable spill incident on record. For example, in 2008, 74,000 litres of synthetic drill mud was spilled at the rig Eirik Raude, during work for Chevron in the Orphan Basin.

The head of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board’s department of environmental affairs, Dave Burley, along with other staff who spoke with The Telegram, pointed to the 2004 oil spill as a positive example of the powers of the board — the shutdown order, paired with the investigation and prosecution.

However, critics of the regulator have pointed to it as an example of why independent observers should be required on offshore installations. This is considering the maintenance issues, the time it took for the operator to discover the spill (at least five hours) and the inability to make a firm determination as to the spill’s impact on local bird populations because required information was not collected.

The latter is a particular concern for Memorial University of Newfoundland professors Bill Montevecchi and Ian Jones. 

Montevecchi is well-known at the board, having been put on the radar through presentations at public consultations for various environmental assessments and review, as well as media interviews. 

Jones, meanwhile, created a webpage voicing concerns specifically about the 2004 spill. 

“Calls for independent observers to be posted on the Terra Nova FPSO have been rejected,” he notes.

Liberal MHA Yvonne Jones has, in the House of Assembly, also asked about using observers “to remove any perception of conflict.” 

Yet Burley said he remains unconvinced such observers are needed, or would even be useful if put in place. 

He points to the size of offshore installations. The Terra Nova production vessel, for example, is one of the largest such vessels built, at about 200 metres long and 45.5 metres wide. It is, according to current operator Suncor, “approximately the size of three football fields laid end to end. From the keel to the helideck, it stands more than 18 storeys high.”

If you’re looking for one litre of hydraulic fluid from that vessel at night and in poor weather, “an independent observer on the helideck wouldn’t see it,” he said. 

Yet, under current regulations, even if unseen, it would be required to be reported by the operator.

In addition, Burley noted environmental observers are not a feature of other industrial operations — operations that are also not required to report spills in the same way as offshore oil and gas industry players.

Asked about the potential for deception or for things to simply go unrecorded, Burley said there has been no evidence of that here. 

“And, at that point, why not pull (the oil company’s) authorization?”


Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Terra Nova FPSO

Geographic location: Terra Nova

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