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Special Report: Newfoundland Oil Spill Largest in Province's History - Part II
March 2, 2019

a map released by husky energy shows the location of where the oil spill occurred in the white rose oilfield

The location of the SeaRose FPSO (Floating Production Storage and Offloading) vessel, and the site of the oil spill, off the coast of Newfoundland.
credit: Husky Energy

This is an update to Part I of our special report on the spill of 250,000 liters of oil at the SeaRose offshore oil rig in the White Rose oilfield off the coast of Newfoundland on November 16, 2018. We have included information on Husky Energy's plan to retrieve the broken flowline connector that is responsible for the spill, the restarting of oil production in the area and the future of offshore oil development in Newfoundland. The first part of our report can be found here: Special Report: Newfoundland Oil Spill Largest in Province's History - Part I

Husky Energy stated in a preliminary report that the initial release of oil occurred over 20 minutes when crews were troubleshooting a drop in flowline pressure, and a retest led to a second release of oil lasting about 15 minutes. The CBC reports that the C-NLOPB (Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board) has approved Husky's plan to 'plug a flowline and recover a failed connector at the southern extension of the White Rose field after an oil spill in November.' They plan to examine the connector so they can try to figure out why it failed. However, 'doing that comes with the risk of oil escaping into the water, said Trevor Pritchard, Husky's senior vice-president for the Atlantic region.

"As we take those nuts and bolts off, there is a potential for oil to come to surface. ...We've prepared for any size of leak. With the oil boom and the equipment that we have, our expectations are that it will be in the terms of liters, tens of liters, if that, to come out of this component," he said. Husky needs 48 hours of favorable conditions to conduct this operation, and they said in a statement, "We don't have an immediate weather window for this work." CTV News also reports, "Trevor Pritchard said it could be weeks before a two-day weather window appears for the company to retrieve the connector, plug the flowline and flush it with water." "Once we've achieved that, we can then install an engineered solution, whatever that might be," Pritchard said on Wednesday. CTV News also reports, "...the company hasn't yet determined how to repair the connector responsible for November's oil spill."

The fact that it could be weeks before a two-day window of good weather appears is very concerning but not surprising. The Canadian Press reported, '...commissioner Robert Wells in 2010 called Newfoundland's offshore conditions "probably the harshest in the offshore world," citing bitterly cold water, high winds, sea ice, fog, severe sea states and long helicopter flights. Bad weather conditions can be the cause of problems at offshore drilling sites, prevent and complicate the cleanup of oil spills, prevent rescuers from locating and retrieving wildlife harmed by spills and prevent the assessment and repair of any broken equipment.

The November spill at the SeaRose occurred as production was being restarted while there was a massive storm battering Newfoundland. The attempt to clean up the oil was unsuccessful due to the bad weather and just a few days after the spill the oil was already impossible to clean up. The sighting and rescue of injured wildlife was hindered by the bad conditions and now the analysis and repair of the broken flowline is being hindered by bad sea conditions as well. All of this clearly shows that offshore oil production is particularly unsuitable for an area like the east coast of Newfoundland.

The company also mentioned they would be using an oil boom as part of the operation to retrieve the flowline connector but the effective use of oil booms in that region, especially at this time of year, is highly unlikely. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a fact sheet on oil booms[pdf] in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster off the coast of Louisiana in 2010 that stated, "Once the boom is in the water, it is difficult to move. Booming operations are sensitive to wind, wave and currents and need to be tethered and secured to keep from moving; they cannot be put out and forgotten. Rough seas can tear, capsize and shred booms. Currents over 1.5 knots or even a wake from a passing ship can also send oil over or under the boom."

The rough seas in that region are simply not conducive to using an oil boom in an attempt to contain any spills. The forecast for today shows waves at 15-21 feet high in the region and this is not an anomaly, these are regular conditions for this region. If a wake from a passing ship can send oil over oil booms, wave heights of 15-21 feet, or any heights even approaching that kind of height, would be absurd to try to work in. Thankfully, this particular leak only lasted for 35 minutes but in that 35 minutes it still released 250,000 liters of oil, the cleanup was made impossible by the rough conditions and the repair has so far been made impossible because of them as well. The C-NLOPB approved Husky's plan to retrieve the broken connector at the end of January and it has not been done yet which means they have not had a 48 hour window of good weather to conduct the operation at any time during the past month.

If this spill had been even worse or was an ongoing situation where oil was still being released into the ocean, being unable to have the freedom to do the required work to fix it due to bad weather would be absolutely disastrous and completely unacceptable. The continued exploitation of the oil resources in the area is putting sea life and humans alike at risk from the terrible effects of oil spills and putting every living being in the world at risk from the devastating effects of climate change caused by the continued burning of oil that is spewing greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Yet, the C-NLOPB has also approved Husky's plan to restart oil production at a section of the White Rose oil field separate from the area where the spill originated in November. Husky stated, "The first well was restarted on the afternoon of January 30th but 'work is still suspended at the other four drill sites in the oil field, awaiting approval from the regulatory authority to restart."

Even worse, the large spill does not appear to have deterred the Canadian government from seeking to massively and rapidly expand the offshore oil industry. The Canadian Press reports, "Expansion plans include a proposed 100 new exploration wells and over 650,000 barrels of oil per day by the year 2030." They also report, "The expansion will also take the industry into uncharted territory with its first deepwater drilling site at Bay du Nord in the Flemish Pass, after announcing an agreement with Norway's Equinor earlier this summer. The remote Bay du Nord parcel, [about 310 miles (500 kilometers)] east of St. John's, lies in more than 1,100 metres of water [nearly 2/3's of a mile] -- 10 times deeper than the SeaRose [about 360 feet], the current deepest site." If an oil spill, especially a leak at the sea floor, were to occur there then the consequences would be disastrous. The cleanup would be hampered by the deep water, the distance from shore and the nasty weather conditions that regularly occur in that area.

The Canadian Press reported that Premier Dwight Ball said his government 'would consider regulatory changes, including more transparent, public and accessible summaries of operators' safety plans, based on the findings of the SeaRose investigation'. The one change listed there already has a problem with it because although more transparency of their practices is key, oil companies like Husky Energy are 'responsible for following their own internal safety and environmental plans that are approved by the board, which monitors and investigates if things go wrong'.

Making their plans more transparent could help put public pressure on them to strengthen the plans but if they're not enforced by an independent regulatory agency then it leaves significant room for problems and a potential lack of compliance with even their own regulations. The spill at the SeaRose occurred as Husky tried to restart production during a storm - a decision that was up to the company, not the C-NLOPB (Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board). And, a C-NLOPB investigation found that Husky failed to follow its own ice management plan in 2017 when a large iceberg came dangerously close to the rig. The rig was not disconnected as the iceberg approached, with 84 people and upwards of 340,000 barrels of crude oil onboard. It was later found that the decision to not disconnect the rig was due to economic reasons.

Robert Wells, the commissioner who talked about Newfoundland's dangerous offshore conditions in 2010, recommended establishing a stand-alone, independent safety regulator for the province's offshore industry. "The recommendation was echoed by the provincial NDP after the recent SeaRose spill, asking the premier to establish a separate safety and environmental board similar to those in Norway and the United Kingdom."

Federal involvement could also help as it could provide more people with environmental expertise to oversee the oil industry. It could also help keep the climate change crisis and the protection of endangered species like North Atlantic right whales in mind as regulations and laws are crafted. Lana Payne, Atlantic regional director for Unifor, which represents about 700 offshore oil workers on the Hibernia and Terra Nova rigs, said, "There's going to be a lot of pressure on the system to get things done quickly, and when you do that in an environment like the offshore things can go amiss." There is no room for error when it comes to protecting the wildlife of the North Atlantic and although we support stronger regulations on the industry, ultimately the use of oil must be phased out rapidly.

The rest of the world shouldn't have to suffer the grave consequences of the expanded use of fossil fuels just because of the incompetence and lack of forethought of government officials who have refused to move their economies away from fossil fuels. If the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of the world are to truly thrive they need clean air, clean water and a stable, diverse economy that is not chained to the volatile energy markets and continued use of dangerous fossil fuels that is playing Russian roulette with the lives of everyone on this earth every day they are allowed to continue to operate. Clean energy and self-sufficiency are the safest future for the world, especially an island province like Newfoundland. The oil under the sea floor must stay there, for the good of the entire world and all of the species that reside here.

To find out more about what is happening to North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales and how we can all take actions in our everyday lives to protect them, please visit our Facts and Action sections on our website. We also post updates and pictures on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.