Despite not yet receiving a final approval for drilling, BP Canada is in the process of moving an offshore drilling rig to the southeast coast of Nova Scotia for a project that local environmental and fishery groups have condemned for its potentially catastrophic impacts if a blowout occurs.
BP plans to drill seven exploration wells in four adjacent leases on the Scotian Shelf, with the deepest drilling occurring at depths of over 3,000 metres — twice the depth of the well that BP was conducting exploratory drilling on when the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe happened.
The federal government gave its formal blessing to the project in February and referred it to the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) for creating a spill response plan and granting the final approval.
That still hasn’t happened. Yet BP is moving the drilling rig anyways.
A spokesperson for the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board assured in a statement that an “Approval to Drill a Well” (ADW) will only be granted to BP if it demonstrates that drilling will be “conducted in accordance with the legislation and regulations and to the satisfaction of the CNSOPB.”
“BP is aware of all the risks of beginning preparatory work without receiving authorization to begin drilling operations,” the statement read.
But critics aren’t nearly as confident in the board approaching it in an impartial manner.
“The fix is in,” John Davis, director of the fishery lobby group Clean Ocean Action Committee, said in an interview with DeSmog Canada.
“You don’t spend $260,000 a day moving a rig of that size and complexity unless you know that you’re going to receive approval. It’s like building a house on land you don’t own: it’s not a good plan unless you know you’re going to get the land. And they know they’re going to get the land.”
Angela Giles of the Council of Canadians agrees.
“BP clearly was anticipating an approval from the CNSOPB, or they wouldn’t have to start moving their rig in the first place.”
Consultation consisted of 45-minute ‘sharing circle’ with up to dozen stakeholders
This past weekend, following criticism of the moving of the drilling rig prior to final approval, the offshore board announced that it was authorizing BP to bring the drilling unit into Nova Scotian waters.
But Davis said that he thinks the announcement was made to provide cover for the board as there’s no legal requirement to grant such a permission to a company.
“There’s no real interim ‘you now have the right to move your rig’ in the regulations that I can find,” he said. “They just thought they’d try to make it official by making some kind of a statement.”
According to critics, the CNSOPB didn’t conduct any public hearings that justify the allowing of the drilling rig to begin setting up. In fact, the main attempt at consultation by the offshore board appeared to be a 90-minute feedback session with between eight and 12 stakeholder groups and only 45 minutes in a “sharing circle” to “discuss and share feedback and concerns.”
In response to being invited to the feedback session, the Offshore Alliance — a consortium of 25 organizations including the Clean Ocean Action Committee, a number of fishermen unions and the Council of Canadians — wrote in a March 2 letter to the offshore board that they weren’t going to attend.
“This meeting seems to be an effort of CNSOPB to tick off another box, pretend that consultation has taken place and then to carry out their appointed task of promoting hydrocarbon development on the Scotian Shelf.”
‘We’re not prepared’ for a spill, critics worry
There are a few major concerns about BP’s project, which Environment and Climate Change minister Catherine McKenna described as “not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”
First up is the storing of a capping stack in Norway, requiring between 12 and 19 days to get it to the drilling rig and putting nearby fisheries at significant risk. Capping stacks serve as a critical piece of equipment used in the case of a uncontrollable blowout.
Then there’s the proposed use of chemical dispersant if a spill occurs, which was heavily deployed in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster and has been found since to have toxic impacts on plankton, coral and humans.
“According to McKenna’s approval, they’re supposed to be talking about spill response, which is one of the major concerns that ourselves and the fishing groups have raised for years now,” Gretchen Fitzgerald with Sierra Club Canada told DeSmog Canada.
“We’re not prepared.”
Critics also suggest that booms would be extremely ineffective in containing oil due to the potential severity of storms and waves. Even regular operations may have major impacts, including noise interfering with the ability for marine mammals to communicate and polluting of nearby waters with drilling fluid and plastics.
As recently reported by the Globe and Mail, marine scientists have major concerns that such activities may put critically endangered North Atlantic right whales at even further risk.
Last summer, 15 right whales died off the Atlantic Coast of Canada and the U.S., a staggering number given only 500 right whales are believed to exist.
Concerns over regulatory capture
Compounding the issue is alleged regulatory capture of the two offshore petroleum boards that help oversee operations in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador — which the federal government is currently working to increase the responsibilities of in its new impact assessment regime.
Many board members of the offshore boards have previous experience with industry. The Nova Scotia board’s chair, Keith MacLeod, previously served as the CEO and chair of Sproule, a petroleum consulting company. Another board member, Barbara Pike, was the founding CEO of the Maritimes Energy Association.
They have contradictory or competing mandates, Giles said, adding the boards have a history of approving requests and leases for oil exploration.
“They’re supposed to be protecting the marine environment while at the same time overseeing and regulating the offshore industry and granting approvals.”
BP may be ready to commence drilling within a week
Timelines for next steps are a bit up in the air, but Fitzgerald said that BP could be ready to drill within a week to 10 days.
On Wednesday, the Council of Canadians will be hosting a preemptive “unwelcoming party” for the drilling rig outside BP headquarters in Halifax. Following that, it’ll be a matter of waiting and watching for critics.
Some had hoped that Fisheries and Oceans Canada would require that BP obtain a Fisheries Act authorization or Species at Risk Act permit before proceeding with the project.
But senior communications advisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the project won’t require permits under those pieces of legislation.
“Fisheries and Oceans Canada is of the view that the project will not result in serious harm to fish or prohibited effects on listed aquatic species at risk. As such, the Department determined that an authorization under the Fisheries Act or a permit under the Species at Risk Act are not required for the project,” the communications advisor told DeSmog Canada.
“It’s very alarming,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s hard to watch the rig approach, because you can see it online. There’s the feeling that this really hasn’t been given the review it should have been given.”