Environment

Drilling ahead with no slick solutions

Merilyn Read July 21 1980
Environment

Drilling ahead with no slick solutions

Merilyn Read July 21 1980

Drilling ahead with no slick solutions

Environment

Merilyn Read

From his house in St. John’s, Alastair Allan can watch, even as he talks on the telephone, the Atlantic Ocean roll in and out in all its full-blown indifference, an erratic roar and tumble for novice observers of froth, swell and tide, a clockwork grey to a marine scientist such as Allan. “I’d rather die if I couldn’t see it every day,” he says. Yet Allan, assistant director of the Centre for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering at Memorial University, has trouble bringing himself to say out loud what he and a lot of scientists know full well: that Canada’s plunge into off-shore oil exploration could well be environmental madness. “I find myself playing devil’s advocate,” admits Allan, after poking holes in some of the worst scenarios, one of which is a runaway well gushing oil freely for a year under Arctic ice. “But, yes, it’s absolutely true. What it all boils down to is that if there were a total blowout, say in the next six months, we’d be powerless to do anything. We simply don’t have the technology to clean up a large coldwater spill. I’m sorry to see it, but we’ve put the cart before the horse.”

Although the federal government’s decision to put the cart before the horse is irrevocable—it’s not about to tell the oil industry to stop drilling after spending $1.5 billion on frontier exploration—the question until now has been

almost academic. Not a drop of commercial oil has gushed from the 160 wells that 17 oil companies have drilled since 1976, when the off-shore hunt began in the Beaufort Sea, Lancaster Sound and off the east coast of Labrador in what is known as Iceberg Alley. However, earlier this month Dome Petroleum announced that its Kopanoar well in the Beaufort Sea had definite commercial possibilities. A week earlier Gulf Canada tickled the stock market by announcing encouraging test results from its Hibernia drilling off the East Coast. What has the government’s own scientists worried is that it now appears more certain than ever that pay dirt will be struck long before either industry or government is prepared for the environmental consequences.

Late last month the federal government gave the go-ahead to a series of experimental oil spills in Arctic waters off the northern tip of Baffin Island, a five-year, $4-million project financed by three countries and various multinational oil companies. “It’s a small step in the right direction,” concedes Allan. However, only one month earlier, despite serious objections made in a report by its own environmental experts, the government approved an expanded $200-million drilling program by Dome in the Beaufort. The study, done for the department of Indian and northern affairs, echoed the same plea as one made as early as 1973 by the environment

department when it asked the federal cabinet not to allow drilling to proceed in the Beaufort until a proper environmental assessment was made.

Scores of studies have been done in the past seven years. Yet, as Don Gamble, director of policy studies for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee (CARC), puts it: “It’s irresponsible to claim that we have any kind of capability for cleaning up oil in Arctic waters.” While Canada has the strictest environmental guidelines in the world, it is also cursed with the most formidable environment.

The essence of the problem in the Beaufort Sea and eastern Arctic is that there is only an all-too-brief eight-week period during which the weather permits an effective clean-up operation to be conducted. If, during that period, a blowout can’t be capped or a relief well drilled, oil can flow uninterrupted until the next drilling season. Says Gamble: “We don’t even know what will happen to the oil in many circumstances.”

Canada’s most recent opportunity to find out what it doesn’t know about cleaning up oil spills was in March, 1979, when the British tanker Kurdistan broke in two after encountering heavy ice off Cape Breton, spilling 8,000 tons of bunker oil. The coast guard and a hardy team of Cape Bretoners cleaned

up about 50 per cent of the shoreline with pails, shovels and plastic garbage bags, equipment about as effective in the North as a planeload of paper towels.

Although the unknowns outnumber the knowns, numerous experiments have been conducted and more are under way this summer to determine exactly what would happen to the oil from a tanker spill or a blowout under the ice. In the meantime, conventional clean-up procedures deployed in southern waters—burning off oil, using chemical dispersants, sweeping oil away with booms and skimmers dragged by

boats—are now being adapted for the North. Experiments are being conducted to test the effectiveness of dropping igniters from planes to burn off oil collected in surface pools. New combinations of chemical dispersants are also being tested, although the most promising ones still react more slowly with oil in cold waters. Even devices to cap the well under the seabed are under consideration. “We have one estimate from Lockheed Petroleum,” says Ken Meikle, acting chief of research and development of the emergency branch of Environment Canada, “that to cap the oil and bring it to the surface would cost $5 million and take three years just for one well.” Yet the stark reality is that all these methods, most of them still unproven, are good only for attempting to remove oil during the u short open-water season.

While industry gropes for the technology to clean up a major spill or1 blowout, scientists are still in the early stages of understanding what effect oil will have on birds and sea life. Just how little is known was illustrated in February when a government-sponsored study on the effects of oil on polar bears turned into a horror show when two of the three bears involved in the experiment died from ingested oil. The result not only shocked the public but also the scientists who conducted the tests.

When seals were tested at the University of Guelph in 1975, they thrashed around in a simulated slick for 71 minutes before expiring. This time their deaths were attributed to the stress of being transported from the North rather than poisoning from ingested oil. It was discovered, however, that oil caused damage to the eyes, liver and kidneys. Even less is known about the effects of oil on whales. “The highest risk,” says Cal Ross, head of the oilspill-effects unit of Environment Canada, “would be eastern Arctic seabirds, geese and ducks. Some species would become extinct.”

So far, Dome Petroleum and its drilling subsidiary, Canmar, have led the industry in environmental research. This year it has spent about $6 million, and since drilling began in 1976, the company says it has spent about $20 million on environmental research out of a total capital investment of more than $300 million. Although the industry is responsible for cleaning up its own mess, a major spill could land at least part of the bill in the laps of taxpayers. Dome has a $20-million bond for the Alaska shoreline and more than $60 million in insurance coverage for the Beaufort. “I think we could clean up a lot of it,” says Vice-President Gordon Harrison. “But I think a major spill could be disastrous to us and prove a major setback to our drilling operations.”

In spite of its government-approved contingency plan for the Beaufort, Dome has been caught for failing to report 22 minor oil spills in 1979—in other words, for failing to follow its own carefully charted guidelines. In fact, Dome has suffered a number of accidents since 1976, including three highpressure water and gas blowouts and two ship spills involving 65,000 gallons of fuel from damaged icebreaking support vessels. Only a small proportion of the spilled fuel could even be located, says Dave Pease, environmental supervisor for the company. “We covered thousands of miles with planes and detection equipment. We speculated that a large amount of it evaporated.”

Full-scale production for Dome is targeted for 1990, when the company foresees a fleet of up to 20 icebreaking tankers, each capable of carrying one million barrels of oil from the Beaufort through the Northwest Passage to the East Coast. When tankers carry oil to the Newfoundland mainland they pass directly over the Grand Banks, where 11 exploratory wells are already located. Fishermen are anxious about their future, says Gus Etchegary, president of Fishery Products Ltd. of St. John’s. “A spill would be catastrophic.... We just don’t know.”

And, with minor accidents already happening at the early exploratory stage of the game, the probability of more serious ones will increase when commercial production begins. Says Don Gamble of CARC: “We’re being warned in the gentlest way possible that things are not as easy as certain people in the government and Dome like to think. Things are going wrong.” Yet, even if technology soon does take a great leap, there may still be plenty more to worry about. A 1978 government study concluded that 78 per cent of the cause of oil spills is related to human error. Says Gamble: “We may be dealing with a problem to which there is no immediate solution.”