BP Canada plans to drill up to seven exploratory wells off the southeast coast of Nova Scotia that are at least 3.5 times the distance from land and up to twice the depth of the well beneath the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig.
The Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 after the Macondo well, located 1.5 kilometres below surface, blew out — resulting in the deaths of 11 men and the largest marine oil spill in history.*
The company’s proposed solution if a catastrophic blowout happens in Canadian waters relies on shipping a capping device from Norway, a process that is estimated to take between 12 to 19 days — but it could take between 13 and 25 days total to actually cap the well with the device.
In the meantime, two critical fisheries and countless marine species would be seriously endangered. The Sable Island National Park Reserve is less than 50 kilometres away.
“When you’re drilling that deep, you better know exactly what you’re doing,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, Atlantic director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, in an interview with DeSmog Canada. “With the poor regulations and industry oversight that we perceive out there, we’re not reassured that’s happening. They’re very far from emergency and spill response.”
BP Canada declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article.
Scotian shelf currently a ‘remarkably productive area’
The company’s four leases cover 1,398,180 hectares — about a quarter the size of Nova Scotia. Almost all of the leased area falls within an “Offshore Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area.”
It’s the specific location that is of concern to many.
The 700 kilometre Scotian Shelf, which effectively divides the Continental Shelf and the deeper Atlantic Ocean, serves as the site of remarkable biodiversity, including whales, seals, sea turtles, fish, corals and birds. That contributes to highly successful fisheries such as the nearby Georges Bank.
“The edge of the Scotian Shelf is a remarkably productive area and important for a lot of animals,” Hal Whitehead, professor of biology at Dalhousie University, told DeSmog Canada.
“It’s that the drilling is actually on and near the shelf that worries me most.”
BP proposes use of booms and dispersants after blowout
One proposed solution that BP mentioned in its environmental impact statement is using “booming and skimming operations” which help to physically contain oil within a particular area.
Fitzgerald called such a proposal “kind of laughable” given the incredibly large waves, sometimes as high as 10 metres during storms, that can occur off the coast.
In a 2010 interview with New Orleans’ Times-Picayune following the Deepwater Horizon spill, civil engineering professor Robert Bea said a boom’s rate of effectiveness in choppy saltwater is around 10 per cent: “In open turbulent water, you can’t catch the oil,” he said.
Then there’s the use of chemical dispersants, which break apart oil into smaller droplets and allow it to more easily mix with water. Almost seven million litres of a dispersant called Corexit was used following the Deepwater Horizon spill.
In the years since, a plethora of research has been published suggesting that the impacts of dispersants are far from harmless — and is actually toxic to coral and many microorganisms, including plankton. A recently published study by the National Institutes of Health also linked human exposure to Corexit with symptoms including coughing, wheezing and chest tightness.
“The efforts by the oil industry to convince our regulators that dispersant is a good idea are highly suspect,” said John Davis, director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, in an interview with DeSmog Canada.
“Given the fact that it’s in major dispute from the scientific community, you should use the precautionary principle and not use the stuff until you understand its real impact.”
Shell drillboat dropped two kilometres of pipe during rough weather
Critics point to yet another major reason for concern — this time, a lot closer to home.
In 2016, a Shell Canada ship encountered harsh weather off the coast of Nova Scotia while attempting to drill an exploratory well. Two kilometres of pipe were lost, landing a mere 12 metres from the wellhead.
“If they had hit their own wellhead and if they had been at an oil-bearing site in terms of their drilling activity, they would have had a major disaster,” Davis told DeSmog Canada. “Nothing more than the luck of the draw allowed them to escape that. Nothing to do with their technical capabilities, nothing to do with their safety mechanisms: just plain luck.”
“This is the kind of thing that terrifies us,” Davis said.
Davis has a personal connection to the region: he’s been a fisher for almost half a century and his organization currently represents about 9,000 people involved in the fishery on the Scotian Shelf and nearby Georges Bank.
He said that a worst-case scenario — losing control of the wellhead during the middle of the winter with high northeasterly winds — would push oil and dispersant into the very successful fishing grounds within a week or two thanks to the strong, consistent Labrador Current.
He said that his group was very open to working with the oil and gas industry in the early stages of the process. But after encountering little success with regulators or industry to improve spill mitigation, they now oppose any oil and gas development in the region.
“We are working carefully to protect the sustainable resources that we have and to use them in a sustainable fashion,” he said. “We can demand that the oil and gas industry, if they’re going to try to function on the Scotian Shelf, have the same high level of regulatory process that we work under. That’s not the case.”
Offshore drilling produces drilling fluids, plastics, noise
Even if a catastrophic blowout doesn’t happen, the oil and gas activity from the exploratory wells may still have significant impacts on marine species that reside on the highly biodiverse Scotian Shelf.
Whitehead of Dalhousie University said that offshore oil and gas operations can produce toxic drilling fluids and plastics that are blown or dumped overboard, potentially having hazardous impacts on local whale populations.
The industry’s “very, very noisy methods” of drilling also impede the vital ability of whales and dolphins to sense and communicate.
“It can deafen them at the worst, drive them away from areas which are important to them and affect their ability to use natural sounds for things like avoiding predators and finding mates and social relationships,” he said.
BP plans to begin drilling by mid-2018, following approvals
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency released its draft environmental assessment report on November 22.
A month-long window followed allowing for public comment on the draft. Following the finalization of the report, it will be submitted to Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna who will then provide BP Canada will an environmental assessment decision statement with a series of conditions.
Notably, the draft environmental assessment report included a recommended condition that in the case of a blowout, BP Canada should “begin the immediate mobilization of at least one capping stack and associated equipment to the project area to stop the spill,” seemingly endorsing the company’s plan.
BP Canada has indicated that it seeks to start drilling its first exploratory well in mid-2018. Each well takes 120 days to complete. It has committed to spending $1 billion in the exploratory process.
Environmental critics appear to be pessimistic about the situation, especially given the decisive role that the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board — which some describe as a captured regulator — plays in the approval and regulatory process. Fitzgerald added that now is not the time to approving new offshore processes given the deaths of 16 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in 2017.
“It’s one thing to say that we’re going to be improving our environmental regulation in Canada and tackle climate change and protect the right whales,” she said.
“But if you’re not going to deal with some of these issues in the offshore, you’re not going to see much progress in those areas. The stakes are high. It could have huge implications if there was a disaster out there.”
*Correction made Feb. 2, 2018, at 9 p.m. The article originally incorrectly stated the depth of the Macondo well.