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EDITORIAL: Crying over spilled oil

['The Hibernia platform.']
The Hibernia platform. — File photo

It looks like it’s time for a more exhaustive regulatory system.

Over the weekend, just 48 hours after coming back online from its last oil spill, a power failure on the Hibernia production platform caused another spill.

That brings the total in the last 10 months to three self-reported offshore oil spills. The biggest was at Husky’s floating production storage and offloading vessel on the White Rose field, where 250,000 litres of oil spilled as a result of a faulty connector. That rig was shut down for nine months after the incident. Last month, Hibernia had a spill of an estimated 12,000 litres of oil.

The latest spill? Something like 2,200 litres that overflowed from a waste containment drain system.

There has to be clear discussion about what trade-offs we’re willing to make as a province as we continue to reap financial benefits from the oil industry.

Cast this against the provincial government’s stated intention to support dramatically increasing oil exploration — and the province’s ownership stake in many offshore oil fields — and you can see why, when it comes to regulation, the status quo just doesn’t seem to be good enough.

The next question is what that regulation should look like. The province has been campaigning for a more generic system for approving oilfield work, especially exploratory wells. Part of that push is simple competitiveness; a generic system where boxes can be ticked more quickly means less cost, and in order to go ahead, potential oil production here has to not only be financially competitive with Canadian fields, but with oil production worldwide.

On the other hand, even the head of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), Scott Tessier, has expressed concern about the latest spill.

There has to be clear discussion about what trade-offs we’re willing to make as a province as we continue to reap financial benefits from the oil industry.

Provincial Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady seems to be becoming a reluctant convert to the idea of more regulation, telling the CBC on Monday, “There are some that believe it doesn’t have the teeth, I think it does. But is there more that we need to do with the C-NLOPB? And we’ll certainly do that, more.”

Perhaps there’s a need for independent observers and something more proactive than self-reporting of spills by oil companies. Maybe there even has to be an independent environmental regulator. (Perhaps, at the same time, another issue related to the CNLOPB could be dealt with: the creation of a separate, stand-alone offshore safety agency. It’s something that was recommended after the Cougar helicopter crash, but was not acted upon.)

There are too many eggs in a single offshore basket. The provincial government wants the revenues from oil production, oil companies want their revenues, and the CNLOPB not only regulates, but promotes the sale of new offshore oilfield leases.

In 10 months, there have been three spills too many. Something’s not working here.

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