Environment

Down East: Russian roulette with a drill bit

Robert Plaskin June 11 1979
Environment

Down East: Russian roulette with a drill bit

Robert Plaskin June 11 1979

Down East: Russian roulette with a drill bit

Environment

"It makes me sad, this impatience of the white man. Because of his impatience there is pollution all over the world.” With these words Titus Allooloo, the mayor of Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, signals the danger of the headlong scramble for new oil reserves taking place around the globe, but especially in his own backyard—along Canada’s East Coast. Many Canadian scientists agree. They fear that the exploratory drilling, from northern Labrador to Nova Scotia, is simply a form of Russian roulette, where a loaded chamber in the revolver—a major oil spill—could wipe out a large part of the environment of the entire area.

The list of companies drilling this year off the East Coast reads like a Who's Who of the petrochemical industry: Esso, BP, Chevron, Mobil, Texaco, Total Eastcan, Aquitaine, Columbia, Kaiser Resources, Petro-Canada, and more. The wells stretch from MobilTexaco-Pex’s Venture D-23 off Nova Scotia, over the Grand Banks, along

Newfoundland’s northeast coast and up Labrador, and on to the Aquitaine and Esso wells, north of 60 degrees latitude, in the Davis Strait. One well in the Flemish Pass area, east of St. John’s, will be the deepest off-shore well drilled anywhere in the world, going down more than 12,000 feet below the sea floor.

The concerns of environmentalists and scientists are focused on the Labrador and Newfoundland wells, and are basically two-fold: that an oil-well blowout could not be brought under control, and that the fragile Arctic ecosystems might be devastated if flooded by vast quantities of crude oil and gas. Industry spokesmen and some government officials say that safety equipment is in place and could snuff out any blowout; and further, that the local plant and animal life would survive the hydrocarbon flood. But there is a body

of environmentalists and scientists who take the antipodal view that, since we don’t know exactly what would happen, it would be most prudent to anticipate the worst possible consequences. Especially since, as Dr. Ernie Reimer, of the Centre for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering told a recent gathering of concerned scientists in St. John’s, “We do not have the technology to cope with a major oil spill off the coast of Labrador.”

Of all the off-shore wells, only two have been subjected, before drill ships began their work, to thorough public hearings on the environmental threat they pose, and on any potential production problems—this because those two wells just happen to be located north of 60 degrees latitude, and therefore fall under a particular set of bureaucratic rules dictated by the department of Indian and northern affairs. The oil companies insist that since these are exploratory wells, not production wells, they carry little ecological danger.

But not all exploratory wells are dry—the companies wouldn’t be drilling if they didn’t suspect the presence of gas or oil—so the possibility of an accident, even of a disaster, cannot be ruled out. And, with only a few exceptions, the consensus among scientists is that nobody yet knows the possible effects of a disaster off Labrador, nor how to cope with one. Scientists know what species of bird and marine

life might be affected, and say the scope of a disaster could be immense. Larry Coady, director of the Arctic Marine Oilspill Program (AMOP) says that Lancaster Sound, the Davis Strait and Labrador coast form one of the major funnels from the eastern Arctic, and that “biologically [it] is perhaps the most delicate spot in the world.”

AMOP, a part of the environmental protection service, was set up little more than a year ago in St. John’s to develop the strategies needed to cope with off-shore oil spills and cleanups, especially in Arctic and Labrador waters. This will involve, over a period of years, testing existing technological systems and possibly developing new ones. “There are only a few companies doing a fair bit of research and development themselves, and there is still so much we don’t know,” says Coady. “If there’s a spill, and it gets in Arctic or floe ice, we still don’t know how ice and oil interact.” However, there are other scientists, like Jerry Payne, from the department of fisheries, who says: “Public attention and environmental concern for marine oil spills are quite understandable [but] some journalists and scientists with a flair for extravagant popularization have distorted to a large degree the postulated effects of oil on marine ecosystems.”

As for the oil companies, they feel that they are prepared to handle any problems that arise during their exploration drilling. Eighteen operators have formed the Eastcoast Petroleum Operators’ Association (EPOA) which in turn has set up an emergency co-op to purchase and manage nearly $3 million of oil-spill cleanup equipment. Tom Melnyk, from Esso Resources, is the manager of the EPOA co-op. With his Stetson, and pointed-toe cowboy boots with the Cuban heels, Melnyk looked a little out of place recently, on the steel plate deck of the C.C.G.S. Skidegate, which was being used as a media observation ship as oil company crews on three other vessels demonstrated the sophisticated equipment to federal government officials. “If you have an oil spill you’re not going to pick it all up,” Melnyk explained. “But you will pick most of it up. And if you can do that, you’re doing all right.”

Whether or not that is, in fact, all right, the companies are drilling, and feel confident that there is little danger, since, they say, there has never been an accident from an exploratory well. The scientists say they don’t know how many years it will take before they feel we are ready to drill off Labrador. If there is an accident, it will be the first in an exploratory well, and if it happens before the scientists have all the answers, it may also be the last.

Robert Plaskin