What are we putting in the water?

Exposure to even small amounts of oil can kill diving seabirds in cold-water regions.

Greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sand developments, including emissions from related facilities, totalled 38.4 megatonnes in 2007; about five per cent of Canada’s overall emissions.

By comparison, Newfoundland and Labrador’s (albeit much smaller) offshore petroleum industry has mostly escaped the scorn of environmentalists and the media.

Like the in oil sands, offshore oil and gas production creates greenhouse gases, though there are greater environmental impacts of producing heavy oil than of extracting light crude. But what are the potential environmental hazards of extracting offshore oil?

by Kerri Breen

Believe it or not, seabirds like hanging around oil rigs, which occasionally doesn’t work out very well for them. In cold-water regions such as the Grand Banks, exposure to very small amounts of oil can affect a diving bird’s ability to protect itself from the elements.

Hundreds of thousands of oiled birds from the Grand Banks have died annually, according to local researchers Francis Wiese and Gregory Robertson, who created the first scientific model to assess seabird deaths due to chronic oil spills.

In 2004, they concluded that the annual mortality of Newfoundland and Labrador seabirds due to oil spills is on the same scale as that caused by the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.

These findings were presented in the Journal of Wildlife Management two years before this province’s recorded oil industry spillage would peak in 2006. Just over 274,000 litres of various types of petroleum were reportedly leaked into the ocean that year.

The trend is, however, changing. In 2009, fewer than 300 litres of oil were reportedly spilled off the coast of Newfoundland between the three mega-projects, Hibernia, White Rose, and Terra Nova. Frequency, or number of spills—another way of considering the impact—has fluctuated between years, however.

This reduction in the quantity of spillage cannot be chalked up to decreased oil production either, as current levels are less than three times what they were in late 1997, when the province was producing just about a quarter of a million barrels of oil a month, compared to today’s roughly 8-million barrels per month.

Ken Taylor, environmental compliance officer with the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board, explains this improvement is a function of how the industry is working to reduce incidents.

“From the board’s point of view … for the number of spills, the target is zero,” he says.

Taylor, a civil engineer by training, “deals with the nuts and bolts of environmental protection” in his role as an environmental compliance officer. It’s his job to assess environmental protection plans submitted by the oil operators, and to make sure they stick to them over the period for which they are approved—and he’s bringing this environmental expertise to the public.

On Earth Day, April 22, Taylor will give a presentation on the potential environmental hazards of offshore petroleum activities from the preliminary stages through the development phase. His presentation will include information about seismic exploration, exploratory environmental risks, and protection for each stage of offshore oil development.

“There are a number of environmental issues that come up during the whole lifecycle of a petroleum project and those issues are dealt with in different ways,” Taylor says.

In the offshore, there are more environmental considerations than accidental spills, however. Some waste is discharged from platforms as a matter of regular operation.

For example, the offshore drilling process uses drilling fluids (water-, synthetic-, or oil-based mud) that is circulated in wells to clean and condition the hole. Oil-based muds are not allowed to be ejected into the sea, according to the Offshore Waste Treatment Guidelines.

This document outlines recommended minimum standards for the treatment and disposal of wastes from petroleum drilling and production operations in Canada’s offshore, and for the sampling and analysis of waste streams to ensure compliance with these standards.

“If things are discharged within the targets set out in those guidelines, they don’t generally pose significant risk to the environment that we’re operating in,” he says.

Drilling also generates drill solids (cuttings from the holes). In the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore, cuttings are only allowed to be released into the sea if a non-oil based drilling mud has been used.

As well, the thousands of litres of wastewater discharged through offshore petroleum activities each day may have negative effects on marine ecosystems. “Produced water” can contain contaminants: trace heavy metals, radionuclides, sulfates, treatment chemicals, produced solids, and hydrocarbons.

The guidelines state that produced water should be tested twice yearly for various metals and hydrocarbons, and annually for aquatic toxicity. The concentration of oil in produced water that is discharged is supposed to be measured every 12 hours, and should only contain minimum quantities of oil.

An essential tool for identifying a project’s impact is the environmental assessment.
The C-NLOPB, the body that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry, evaluates proposals for all offshore activity to identify their potential effects on the natural environment and other users of that environment.

It also evaluates measures proposed to prevent or mitigate these effects.

The Earth Day presentation–Environmental Aspects of Petroleum Offshore Development is presented by the Natural History Society of NL and CPAWS-NL. It’s happening on Thursday, April 22 at 8:00 p.m, at SN-2067 at Memorial University. The lecture is free and all are welcome.

One comment

St. John’s city council live blog for January 28, 2013

Nathan Downey, live from the bunker on Gower.

28 January 2013

  1. Elling Lien · January 28, 2013

    This article was printed before the severity of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico came to light, but it’s easy to imagine something similar up this way…