A team of environmental researchers is trying fill some of the knowledge gaps in exploring for oil and gas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the preliminary results give some idea of how vulnerable western Newfoundland’s coastline might be to a spill.
The team is made up of three researchers from the University of Quebec at Rimouski’s ocean sciences institute and Angela Carter of the University of Waterloo.
Carter is a former faculty member of the environmental studies program at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University in Corner Brook. The study was headed up by Daniel Bourgault, who taught in the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography at Memorial University’s main campus in St. John’s from 2003 to 2009.
Their study focused on Old Harry, a site in the southeastern section of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that has been targeted for development by the oil and gas industry.
The study involved a computer simulation of where water from Old Harry tends to flow and could be a preliminary indication of where contaminants would drift if there was a spill at Old Harry.
Using surface water current data provided by Environment Canada, the digital models show that the surface water from Old Harry primarily flows in two directions. It will likely flow up the coast of western Newfoundland or out towards the Atlantic Ocean via the Cabot Strait.
The study includes animations of the expected flow for contaminants being released for different numbers of days, from a one-day release to a 100-day release.
“If there was some oil and that oil persisted for many days or weeks, it’s very likely it would hit the west coast of Newfoundland,” Bourgault said in a phone interview to discuss the report.
The research does not account for other important variables, including factors such as the different consistency of contaminated water, salinity, water temperature or the effects of sub-sea currents. Bourgault hopes to collect information regarding those other details and further develop the model they have so far.
Some of that additional work has already begun.
Last fall, Bourgault and his team collaborated with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Quebec to deploy a mooring at the Old Harry site. That line is anchored to the bottom of the sea and contains a series of instruments spread throughout the water column to collect other variables relevant to further developing the study.
“Those instruments will be recovered next fall and then we’ll start looking at the data,” said Bourgault.
While the information collected so far is limiting, Bourgault hopes to secure funding for a ship to eventually go to the Old Harry site and conduct field tests. That would involve deploying a series of surface drifters equipped with global positioning systems so they can be tracked over a period of time.
With just a theory based on physical oceanography so far, Bourgault wants to enlist experts in biology and chemistry to help develop a better idea of the risk to the Gulf of St. Lawrence should there be contamination from a developed Old Harry site.
“We need to bring together a big group of people, which we’ve started to do,” he said. “It will take quite a long time to make a multidisciplinary study and to synthesize all those results.”
With the Gulf of St Lawrence under immediate pressure for oil and gas exploration, particularly at the Old Harry prospect, Bourgault and his team says the region’s complex environment has not yet been studied enough. The abstract statement from the report says there is a lack of independent oceanographic research and having that information could help the debate about the development between the oil and gas industry, government and environmental groups.
“Given the criticisms of existing industry, government and non-governmental studies on the impact of oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St Lawrence, as well as the preliminary nature of current scientific studies, this study indicates that there is a clear need for comprehensive, independent, field-based scientific research on this project,” concluded the report.