I think it is fair to say that we have benefited tremendously from the development of our offshore oil reserves. The impact on the economy of the Avalon has been in many ways remarkable.
The St. John’s of the 1980s is scarcely recognizable as you drive about town today. This is equally true as you move throughout the surrounding municipalities. And the impact is felt throughout much of the province, with offshore rig and supply ship workers, construction workers and service company workers hailing from practically every bay and peninsula.
It is also fair to say that the environmental cost associated with the development has been fairly low, at least by mega-industrial development standards. Yes, there have been spills, but for the most part, they have been of a relatively minor size, dissipating with the strong wave action of the outer limits of the Grand Banks.
The human cost of the development has been much more real to most of us. Maybe it is because we naturally associate with men and women going down to the sea in ships that our primary focus since the beginning has been on ship, rig and worker safety.
The loss of the Ocean Ranger, two helicopters and at least one supply ship (if my memory serves me correctly) reinforces that in us.
But Harvey Jarvis’s letter to the editor of Dec. 16, “Out of sight, out of mind,” deserves some reflection.
In it he raises concerns about the ability to clean up major spills should they occur off our shores. Will we be able to clean it up? Quite simply, the answer is no.
In the quiet waters of Prince William Sound in southeast Alaska, less than 10 per cent of the estimated 260,000-750,000 barrels of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 was ever recovered. The remainder of the oil dispersed by wave action or remained in the sand of the coastline, much of it to this day.
The remoteness of the area and lack of infrastructure were cited as reasons for the small amount of oil recovery.
Fast-forward to 2010 and the Gulf of Mexico. When the Deepwater Horizon blew up, 4.9 million barrels of oil were estimated to have been spilled. Unlike Alaska, which is considered to be remote and infrastructure deficient, the Gulf of Mexico, home to much of the world’s oil industry giants, had the vessels, personnel and infrastructure to launch a massive recovery effort. Yet, just 810,000 barrels of oil were recovered.
History has shown us that when things go bad offshore, they go real bad. Trevor Taylor
Our waters are neither the quiet Prince William Sound nor the relatively placid Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, we have been extremely fortunate. Maybe it is because our regulatory bodies are doing a good job. Maybe it is because the oil companies are more vigilant in our backyard. Maybe it is because safety really is Job 1. Or maybe we have just been really lucky.
In any event, we should understand that if the regulatory bodies, the vigilance, the safety focus or the luck fails us, there will be no cleaning it up. We do not, and will not, regardless of the government, the company or the agency, have it looked after. As in other locales, Mother Nature will be the one who has to look after it.
On the Grand Banks, fortunately, the drilling is far enough out that the combination of the North Atlantic Drift and the prevailing winds will almost certainly carry any spilled oil toward Europe and away from our shoreline and fishing grounds. But, as exploration moves north, that changes. And, thanks to the Labrador Current, just as sure as pack ice formed off Labrador hits Fogo in the spring, oil spilled off Labrador will hit the northeast coast.
Does this mean that we should stop? No, but …
History has shown us that when things go bad offshore, they go real bad. Recovering oil in a disaster offshore is going to be no more successful than recovering people. Vigilance in safety and prevention can be our only guiding principles. That and a little bit of luck.