In what will be his last environmental audit, the federal government’s environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan, took a hard look at Canadian resource industries.
Among the areas he highlighted? Oil spill response on the Grand Banks, an area that falls under the mandate of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).
“We identified several shortcomings, including insufficient spill response tools across the federal government, inadequately tested capacity, poorly co-ordinated response plans,” Vaughan said.
The CNLOPB has said it will respond to the issues raised in the audit — a marked departure from the impression that the board gave following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“We believe the things that were done in the Gulf of Mexico were not in compliance with the existing regulations, and ... probably not even in compliance with good oilfield practice,” CNLOPB chairman and CEO Max Ruelokke told reporters in June 2010. “Our policies, procedures, training and equipment are such that it will not happen.” Hopefully, the audit and reaction to it will improve things and puncture any misguided belief that we are immune from spills. The reality is far more serious. Regardless of equipment and experience, winter sea states — and summer ones, for that matter — make cleanup of major spills virtually impossible, regardless of best intentions.
Take last week, when it was deemed too dangerous to try and attach a towline to the derelict Russian vessel Lyubov Orlova. How would it be any safer to deploy oil spill booms or any sort of skimmers with wave heights that make attaching a tow line impossible?
Then consider the sea state forecast issued by Environment Canada on Friday for the southwestern Grand Banks: “Seas four to six metres subsiding to two to three this evening then building to three to five Saturday afternoon. Seas building to five to seven Saturday evening.” Add to that the fact that there is both a gale warning and a freezing spray warning in effect for that area.
That’s hardly unusual — but keep in mind, seven metres is equivalent to waves 23 feet high, or roughly roof level on a two-storey house.
Some things that are certainly true from the report? That there is a lot of work to be done, and that oil companies (and other resource companies, for that matter) need to be fully fiscally responsible for any damage their work causes. Right now, the financial liability for spills is capped at a ridiculously low level, given the massive costs of cleanup. The corporate liability for an East Coast oil spill? Just $30 million. The cost of the Deepwater Horizon blowout? Still growing, and more than $40 billion.
Vaughan puts it in terms that even a Conservative government should be able to understand — that there are real economic costs to weak environmental legislation. “If environmental regulations and environmental protection does not keep pace with that level of economic activity, then it puts Canadians at risk in terms of exposure to pollutants, to contaminants — but also exposes them to real economic costs,” he told reporters.
Pay now, or pay much more later. It’s simple math.