Heed the warning

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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.

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Environment Canada, Southwestern Grand Banks

Geographic location: Gulf of Mexico, East Coast

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Recent comments

  • Aunt Lizzie
    February 10, 2013 - 14:28

    The Telegram loses all credibility when it makes nasty partisan comments like "terms that even a Conservative government should be able to understand." Instead of a reasoned critique of Conservative policy, this is an insulting and immature insinuation that all conservatives are stupid, including the roughly 30 percent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who voted Conservative in the last federal election. We all know the Telegram is a highly partisan publication, but why does it have to engage in such a nasty and bullying style of politics?

    • Donna J.
      February 11, 2013 - 11:04

      I thought that the comment: "terms that even a Conservative government should be able to understand" was very generous and a little optomistic. Isn't it horrible when Conservatives are bullied? The poor dears are just misunderstood.

    • Aunt Lizzie
      February 12, 2013 - 11:07

      @Donna: Like I said, I enjoy a reasoned critique of government policy. I just expect the Telegram to keep its editorials a level above the silly schoolyard taunts that politicians toss at each other during question period. The Telegram contributes nothing to the public discourse on any issue when it reduces itself to hyper-partisan mud-flinging.

  • Winston Adams
    February 09, 2013 - 12:45

    I guess it is reasoned that the mess would drift east with our prevailing westerly winds. But that is a risky proposition given that winds are sometimes easterly for weeks. Sea ice , at times,jammed into our harbours attest to that. There seems little concern as long as royalty income form production keeps coming. imagine our shores and beaches blackened for years and the oil companies with a mere 40 million in liability. People are frightened of fracking. Imagine a incident like in the Gulf ? The City of St John's and the Fishery union and others should be screaming about this as shameless carelessness.

  • PHIL C.
    February 09, 2013 - 11:36


  • Corporate Psycho
    February 09, 2013 - 09:15

    Mr. Ruelokke mentions "existing regulations", "equipment", and "procedures". I challenge him to be more specific. Pure smoke and mirrors. Safety on land is more regulated (dirty little secret). If I owned a local construction company I would be asking allot of questions.