Evidence of oil leaking into Port au Port Bay on Newfoundland’s west coast has intensified ongoing debate surrounding controversial oil development in this province and how it is impacting vulnerable ecosystems like the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Instead of spending World Oceans Day admiring the beauty of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, west coast residents Bob Diamond and Bill O’Gorman escorted a Department of Environment and Conservation employee to an abandoned oil well on the Port au Port Peninsula Monday evening where petroleum was found seeping out of the ground last week.
On June 4 pictures surfaced on Facebook of the oil emerging from the ground next to an abandoned oil well in a tidal zone on Shoal Point. One photo depicts Stephenville resident Wayne Hounsell’s hand covered in oil, revealing the consistency of the dark brown substance. Another shows a sheen on top of the mud and sand extending toward the water. Others illustrate the state of the old wells — rusted, deteriorating, one of them even cracked off.
The provincial Department of Environment and Conservation learned of the photos last week and sent an official to inspect the site Friday evening at low tide, department spokesperson Jennifer Collingwood told The Independent in an email.
“The official noted that all of the wells were out of the water and sheen was only detected while digging around the well casings of two wells. There was no odor detected at any of the wells nor was there any free oil or crude oil coming from any of the wells,” she said, adding the department planned to report the results of the site inspection to Environment Canada “and discuss practical options.”
O’Gorman and Diamond told The Independent last week that the oil they found was “bubbling” out of the ground, that the smell was “pungent”, and that they didn’t have to dig to find it. They weren’t aware of the oil around the other two wells the department official discovered on his visit to the site.
Following an email from The Independent to Environment and Conservation suggesting the department official might not have encountered the same site documented in the photos, Collingwood confirmed this was likely the case and said the department would send the official to Shoal Point again on Monday.
On Monday evening the official, Department of Environment and Conservation Senior Engineer Troy Duffy, accompanied Diamond and O’Gorman to the oil they had found, at which time Duffy confirmed a third location of seepage near an abandoned well.
“When I went down it was a higher tide, so the area was under probably a foot of water,” he told The Independent on Wednesday. “But you could definitely tell the oil was originating from that area because there was a slick and you could see the oil forming on the surface.”
On Tuesday Department of Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell said that in spite of the fact petroleum had been found by three abandoned wells, there is no conclusive evidence yet as to the nature of the oil seepage, but that if it is indeed coming from abandoned wells the government will act to remediate the pollution.
“One of the things that you need to be cognizant of is that while we’re trying to determine what’s happening, we’re also trying to determine if it is actually a natural occurrence, or if it’s seepage coming from old wells,” he said.
“That area in question,” Crummell continued, “the reason people have drilled there over the years is because oil was seen to be seeping into the natural landscape there right back to 1874…and drilling first occurred in the area in 1898 for the very reason seepage was occurring on a regular basis,” he said.
“So that’s been going on for a very long time, so we need to find out what’s happening and if it can be traced to an abandoned well. And when we know more we’re going to have to discuss cleanup, site assessment, and these types of things.”
Collingwood said in the emailed statement that a 1995 government survey “reported 60 historic wells were drilled in the onshore Western Newfoundland region from 1867 to 1977, but that “record keeping was limited…and as a result, comprehensive and detailed documentation of operations does not exist.”
Duffy said he has seen reports indicating the existence of 11 to 13 historical wells on Shoal Point, but that the department is only aware of the location of three of them.
“So it’s quite possible that there’s other wells in the area,” he said.
More recently, Shoal Point has been a focal point for oil companies looking to drill deeper than their predecessors into the Green Point Shale Formation.
In 1999 PanCanadian Petroleum Ltd.—now EnCana Corporation following a 2002 merger with Alberta Energy Company Ltd.—and its partners drilled a well on the point that did not turn up any significant oil discoveries but did, according to a Feb. 8 press release that year from the Department of Mines and Energy, “contribute to a better understanding of the area’s geology.”
The release noted seismic data gathered in 1996 indicated a “large structure beneath Port au Port Bay that could be drilled by a land-based rig from Shoal Point” to a depth of about 2,400 meters.”
According to a May 2002 press release from PanCanadian, the companies had drilled to a depth of 3,035 meters and encountered “one zone of potential interest” but noted “no significant hydrocarbons were encountered.
“While we had high hopes for this well, it has obviously fallen short of our expectations,” said PanCanadian Executive Vice President Gerry Macey. “The results of this and previous wells along Newfoundland’s west coast indicate the high-risk nature of exploration in this frontier region.”
In 2002 Shoal Point Energy Ltd. and partner Enegi Oil Inc. obtained a license from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) to do more exploratory drilling.
That license resulted in two wells drilled at Shoal Point—in 2008 and 2011—that have “led to further recognition of the Green Point oil-in-shale play as a potential major oil-producing area,” according to a statement on the company’s website.
The second well, 3K-39, rendered promising results, prompting then-CEO George Langdon to tell the Financial Post in 2012 that “just the sheer number of what could be in place there makes it, to me, one of the significant resources in North America, right up there with the big ones.”
But Shoal Point Energy would need to use hydraulic fracturing to continue its exploration of the Green Point Shale, so in January 2013 it submitted an Amendment to the Environmental Assessment of the Port au Port Bay Exploration Drilling Program to the province and said in a subsequent press release that it expected the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador would move fast to introduce regulations on fracking so the company could continue its work.
“The timing is not specified at this time, but the board of SHP believes that these regulations are likely to be in place to permit the drilling campaign to commence in the second half of 2013,” the release said, before detailing how a rig “acquired to support the drilling campaign, is currently being modified to satisfy regulatory and operational requirements and is scheduled for delivery to Newfoundland prior to the regulatory approvals being obtained.”
As soon as the public caught wind of the potential for fracking to take place on the Island’s west coast, efforts were launched to research and oppose the controversial practice, which is banned in a growing number of jurisdictions in Canada, the United States and Europe. Since April 2013 ad hoc community organizations such as the Port au Port/Bay St. George Fracking Awareness Group and the Newfoundland and Labrador Fracking Awareness Network have hosted guest speakers, held panel discussions and and organized rallies in various west coast communities, including Stephenville and Corner Brook.
Under pressure from residents province-wide, in October 2013 the provincial government placed a moratorium on fracking pending an internal review.
Then, in August 2014, Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley announced the government was commissioning an external review panel—the five panelists all chosen by Dalley—to consider the risks and benefits of fracking and then report back to the government. The review panel is currently accepting submissions from the public and will hold public hearings in Stephenville and Corner Brook sometime after July 15. A final decision on fracking is expected in the fall.
Land-to-sub-water fracking is not common practice in the industry and was concern enough in 2013 for the Quebec government to place a moratorium on drilling in the St. Lawrence River lowlands despite the fact it had granted an exploration license to American company Lone Pine Resources, which is now suing Canada for $250 million under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over lost profit potential.
Provincial Department of Natural Resources geologist Larry Hicks explained to The Independent Thursday that natural oil seeps on the west coast have been recorded as far back as 1812, and that the rocks under Shoal Point are “deep water sedimentary rock that contain a lot of organic matter, so when those rocks are buried at depth this organic matter gets converted into petroleum.
“What we’re seeing today is the petroleum that seeps out of those rocks, over millions and millions of years, being exposed at surface due to erosion. And within those rocks of course there are cracks and fractures, and if there’s any oil circulating in the subsurface, that stuff is making its way to the surface.”
Hicks added that “the fact that the Green Point shale is highly fractured right now, it could be quite possible that—if say they did go ahead with trying to develop these unconventional shale oil resources—it’s quite possible that you would not have to fracture the Green Point shale whatsoever. So you would not have to do hydraulic fracturing. The well may be able to flow oil just based on the natural fractures that are there.”
Last week was not the first time local residents reported that petroleum may be leaking into the environment from the abandoned wells on Shoal Point, however.
In September 2013 The Western Star reported that seasonal residents in the area were concerned about oil leaking from abandoned wells near their cabin on the point. Karen Smith told the Corner Brook newspaper three pipes sticking out of the water were “rusted out, only one is capped and they are leaking some type of petroleum, which can easily be smelled. A slick can be seen on the surface in calm water, depending on tide and wind conditions.”
The Independent learned on Tuesday that Boswarlos resident Katherine Hoskins wrote a letter on behalf of the Port au Port Fishery Committee to former environment minister Joan Shea on April 21, 2014 requesting that the province recommend that the abandoned drilling sites in the Shoal Point area be referred to the federal government’s National Inventory of Contaminated Sites requiring remediation, which Canada earmarked $4.9 billion for in 2013.
“We stated in the letter that we were aware of at least thirteen (13) abandoned oil-drilling sites on Shoal Point,” the Port au Port Fishery Committee said in a press release issued on Tuesday. “Several of these sites were once on land but due to coastal erosion are now located offshore in coastal waters and some are leaking oily substances into the surrounding bay.”
In a June 2, 2014 letter responding to Hoskins, the environment minister noted that an official with the department “inspected the area in August 2013 and observed three pipes in the water and while an oil sheen was observed, a subsequent visit by Environment Canada did not observe any oil sheen. It is also known that oil naturally seeps out of the ground in this area.”
The minister went on to say that if Hoskins could “provide pictures and detailed locations of any other sites with visible contamination or abandoned oil tanks, officials will be pleased to undertake inspections and where on provincial lands, take appropriate measures.”
Hoskins told The Independent on Thursday that she didn’t follow up with the government because she was disheartened by the fact they had placed the onus on her to further prove the pollution was happening.
“What’s the point,” she said. “It’s like back in school — you have one person saying they saw it and the other saying they didn’t.”
Environment Canada confirmed that it sent an official to inspect the site in 2014, but “did not find evidence of violations of the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act.
“Unless additional information comes to light to indicate a potential violation, no further action will be taken,” Environment Canada spokesperson Natalie Huneault said in a written statement.
“When Environment Canada enforcement officers inspected the site, they did not observe any sheen on the water,” she said in a follow-up email. “We would welcome any additional relevant information.”
Duffy was the official who inspected the site in August 2013 for the Department of Environment and Conservation, he told The Independent on Wednesday.
“It was in the same general area [as the new sheens that have been observed],” he said. “There was an oil sheen that you couldn’t really tell where it was originating but it was in the area of one of the old wells.
“It was a light kind of oil sheen that was probably going for a couple hundred feet for sure,” he said, explaining the tide was in so he couldn’t investigate precisely where the petroleum was coming from.
Crummell indicated the Department of Environment and Conservation would remediate the site and take “a lead role in this,” but that the federal government is “going to have to play a role.
“We are responsible as a province [for] any pollution that happens on land. They’re responsible for anything that’s at high water mark. But both agencies—both our department and Environment Canada—work closely together on these types of issues,” he said.
“Responsibility, right now, I’m not concerned about. I’m concerned about—this is a problem, let’s find out what’s going on, let’s find a way to remediate this problem.”
But the Port au Port Bay Fishery Committee is not satisfied with the provincial government’s response so far, saying the province has known about the oil leaking from abandoned oil wells for at least two years now.
“How can our fishery committee, our neighbours and friends, and the general public have confidence in the ability and commitment of the provincial and federal government to provide responsible regulatory oversight for proposed oil exploration and development using high risk hydraulic fracturing technology when they have not provided responsible oversight for conventional lower risk drilling which has already occurred in our region?” O’Gorman, chairperson of the committee, said in the release.
Nor are the provincial opposition parties pleased about the situation.
“It’s very concerning that we’re seeing what appears to be a leak from an old well, and that these wells would be allowed to deteriorate without any sort of monitoring it seems by the provincial or federal government,” said Liberal MHA for St. George’s–Stephenville East, Scott Reid. “And it has to give you concerns about future developments as well, and what type of oversight would be given for those wells.”
Orphaned wells will be an issue in the future, like they are today. — NDP Environment Critic George Murphy
Both Reid and NDP environment critic George Murphy grilled Crummell in the House of Assembly this week, asking repeatedly for an explanation as to why the government did not address the situation last year when it learned for the second time in as many years that petroleum was leaking into Port au Port Bay.
“Mr. Speaker, according to last year’s inaction on the spill report, the fracking review panel already has an answer of whether or not to allow fracking now in the Province,” Murphy said Thursday in the legislature. “Orphaned wells will be an issue in the future, like they are today.
“I ask the minister – there is obviously cleanup needed but the companies have long gone. We do not have a company to point the finger at, Mr. Speaker. The question for this government is: Who pays, and when does the cleanup happen?”
Crummell responded by explaining the provincial and federal governments are working together on the matter.
“We are going to find out what the problem is, Mr. Speaker, and we will fix this,” he said.
Judy Foote, MP for the district of Random–Burin–St. George’s, sent a letter to federal environment minister Leona Aglukkaq on Wednesday asking her to make Environment Canada’s “initial inspection reports public so those who are concerned with what they are witnessing can avail themselves of the report,” the letter reads. “I would also appreciate a follow-up investigation based on the most recent report from the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation.”
Foote said she also submitted an Order Paper Question on Wednesday, to which Aglukkaq is obligated to respond within 45 days.
World Oceans Day has been celebrated every year on June 8 since 1992, when Canada proposed the international day at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as a means to observe and honour the world’s oceans, without which life on Earth would not be possible.
Speaking to a packed lecture hall at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook last February, Prince Edward Island-based marine ecologist Irene Novaczek said the Gulf of St. Lawrence is home to more than 2,000 identified marine species, it has been recognized since the 1970s as the “most productive marine ecosystem in all of Canada,” and is “one of the top estuary ecosystems globally, as spawning and nursing and feeding grounds for many species…including a fairly lengthy list of species that are at risk or endangered.”
It is “already under serious threat from an array of manmade forces, including pollution, previous overfishing, excess nutrients in the water” and climate change, which make the Gulf a “totally dangerous and inappropriate place to be putting oil and gas development.”
Novaczek said that beyond the obvious devastating impacts to the fisheries and tourism industries of all five provinces bordering the Gulf, an oil spill or even the standard impacts of fossil fuel development offshore or along the shores of the Gulf could accelerate “profound and disturbing changes going on out there” that are leading the Gulf toward joining a list of 450 other marine ecosystems around the world as a “dead zone”.
“In the very depths of the gulf, the deepest portion, the oxygen levels are so low that areas that used to be the spawning grounds for the Northern cod can no longer sustain living codfish,” she explained. “There’s not enough oxygen in the water and scientists are still grappling with what that means and why it’s happening — and it has to do with climate change, and it has to do with inputs from land. As you know, the oceans are getting more acidic, but the acidity in the Gulf is increasing much, much more rapidly than in the main Atlantic Ocean, because it is a semi-enclosed body of water; it flushes only once a year, and the water tends to circulate around and around in circles.”
Novaczek said she became involved with Save Our Seas and Shores (SOS2), a coalition of First Nations, fishery groups, environmental and tourism groups and coastal landowners, in 2001, when junior resource company Corridor Resources was granted a license by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board to drill in the Gulf near the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Following a Public Review Commission and three years of intense lobbying by SOS2 and other organizations Corridor did not continue with its exploration in the Gulf.
In the public commission report, said Novaczek, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “identified the gulf, once again, as a globally significant and highly productive and diverse ecosystem — and further went on to describe is as extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable to oil pollution and related industrial activities.”
In light of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009, SOS2’s current campaign calls for a moratorium on oil development in the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In 2008 Corridor Resources shifted its focus to Newfoundland, where it was granted a five-year lease by the C-NLOPB to do exploratory drilling in the Old Harry prospect under the Laurentian Trench in the Gulf.
That lease has been extended twice and after a lot of back-and-forth between the company and the regulator Corridor awaits the C-NLOPB’s next move.
In its 2012 environmental assessment submission, compiled by S.L. Ross Environmental Research Ltd. out of Ottawa, the company claimed the impacts of an oil spill at Old Harry would be minimal and much of the oil would likely disperse before reaching the shores of bordering provinces.
However, in 2013 the David Suzuki Foundation developed models and video simulations of what an oil spill at Old Harry would look like in each of the four seasons. The videos show oil reaching various coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime provinces, and Quebec.
Another simulation was conducted last year, when Radio Canada-CBC and the Institut des Sciences de la Mer de Rimouski teamed up to run an experiment that monitored three buoys deployed from a boat at the Old Harry site. It took 12 days for the buoys to arrive on the shores of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, indicating a flow rate much faster than previously reported.
Typically, if you you look at oil spills elsewhere, they get maybe 2 to 10 per cent of what gets spilled, and the rest is just left in the environment. — Marine ecologist Irene Novaczek
MUN oceaographer Len Zedell told the CBC last year that the conclusions reached in the S.L. Ross report are “dangerous”.
“Dangerous, in the sense that if the oil is heavier than expected, [and] you had more escape than you would like, it’s going to end up on the shorelines all around Newfoundland, potentially Quebec, P.E.I., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia — they’re all potentially exposed to that risk,” he said.
C-NLOPB spokesperson Sean Kelly told The Independent this week in an emailed statement that the board is “considering the terms and conditions of the licence held by Corridor Resources for Exploration Licence 1105 [Old Harry], including the option of surrender and reissuance of portions thereof, as per the Atlantic Accord Implementation Acts. This is in recognition of associated environmental assessment processes that have been extraordinary and prolonged, and the fact that public and Aboriginal consultations remain incomplete with respect to proposed exploratory drilling on EL 1105. Any such decision by the Board would be a Fundamental Decision, requiring ratification by the federal and Newfoundland and Labrador Ministers of Natural Resources.
“The Board remains committed to transparency and public consultation in its work, and it recognizes and is prepared to assist in the Crown’s Duty to Consult,” the statement continued. “As always, no petroleum-related activities will be authorized or approved by the Board unless they can be conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”
In light of the oil leaks on Shoal Point, Kelly said there have been “no reports of leaks from any wells drilled under the jurisdiction of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) since the Board was created in 1985,” explaining that by law all wells drilled under the board’s jurisdiction are subject to “detailed plugging and abandonment requirements” and that “all well termination programs are reviewed by one of the Board’s Well Operations Engineers who confirm that the program design is in accordance with the requirements,” he said.
He said operators like Corridor Resources “must demonstrate in their well termination application that they can plug and abandon a well safely, without waste and without pollution, in compliance with the regulations. It is the responsibility of the Operator to ensure compliance with the regulations.”
Though there have been no oil spills from the province’s existing three offshore drilling platforms, a report on the C-NLOPB website indicates approximately 477,790 litres of synthetic-based drilling fluids and “other hydrocarbons” have been spilled into the ocean since operations on the Hibernia platform began in 1997.
Such activities would have devastating consequences in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Novaczek said in her February presentation in Corner Brook.
“Fisheries and Oceans noted back in 2001 that the impacts of any kind of spills, small or large, any kind of accident inside of the Gulf will be amplified because of its nature — because of its currents, because of its depth, because of the fact that there is no safe time to do either seismic testing or drilling because there’s always something spawning or migrating or feeding in these waters,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to be a massive oil spill,” she continued. “Chronic exposure to very minute amounts of toxic petroleum products and radioactive isotopes and the other stuff that comes up when you do this kind of activity is enough to alter the behaviour of things, so they die more easily — they can’t defend themselves, they get cancer, they get immune diseases, they have premature mortality. There’s a lot that goes on that we don’t see with our eyes, from our vantage point on shore.”
O’Gorman said he has been diving for scallops in the Port au Port Bay since the 1980s and has watched the population dwindle in recent years. Though there’s no scientific evidence yet, he believes the decline in scallops may be linked to petroleum leaking into the bay.
“The last three years it’s been devastating in this bay, and last year was the worst for scallops — there’s no scallops to be found,” he said. “They’re all dead and there’s empty shells, what they call coppers — no meat in the shell.”
Even with the best mitigation measures in place for an oil spill, Novaczek said governments in the Atlantic region “have a capacity that we might be able to pick up 15,000 tons [of oil].
“Typically, if you you look at oil spills elsewhere, they get maybe 2 to 10 per cent of what gets spilled, and the rest is just left in the environment. That is the international record, the best possible efforts under calm sea conditions. And we have nothing — we have no capacity, no cooperation among departments, obsolete equipment, very poor coordination,” she continued.
From a climate change perspective alone, there ought to be a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf, Novaczek explained.
“Eighty per cent of all known reserves of fossil fuels — be that coal or oil or gas — have to remain in the ground,” she said.
“We can’t afford to burn them, so which will we leave behind? We know we have to extract some until we can transition into a more rational energy economy. So which 80 per cent should we leave in the ground? Well, the stuff that’s the most remote, that’s the deepest, that’s the most high-risk, that’s sitting in areas that are of huge economic and cultural importance where you have no social sanction to put those values at risk, and the most sensitive types of environments…and the Gulf scores high on all those criteria.”
Asked what he thought of the possibility that—in light of Novaczek’s warning coupled with the fact petroleum has been found to be leaking into the water on Shoal Point—the Gulf cannot handle any further development, Crummell said he was aware of Novaczek’s presentation and that he “certainly respects what she has to say,” but that “we are a province that has an abundance of natural resources and resource extraction is not unusual in this province, and to do it in an environmentally friendly way is not impossible.
We are just here for a short time, and we have to protect the land for seven generations of our people. — Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe
“We’re doing it in the offshore of Newfoundland and Labrador right now, we’re doing it onshore with mining and other aspects of resource extraction, and taking advantage of that for the benefit of the people of the province. And Labrador as well. So it would be remiss for me to say to you—I can’t say that we’re looking at recluding the Gulf of St. Lawrence from any further activity. I can’t be on record saying that.”
At the same event Novaczek spoke at in Corner Brook last February, Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe told the packed room of about 100 that “we as Aboriginal people look at this land a little differently. We are just here for a short time, and we have to protect the land for seven generations of our people. If we don’t start protecting and doing our duty as Aboriginal people, there will be nothing here to protect for our children and our children’s children. I have a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren, and I would imagine there are many people in this audience today that have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What are we leaving for them? What are we gonna give them?
“I can remember when I could drink from any brook in Newfoundland — it was clean and clear water. What do we do today? We have to buy water,” he continued. “And where did that pollution come from? It come from the kind of things that we’re talking about today, about the fracking and oil development, and pollution flown in from other parts of the world. That’s what we have to give to our children.
“The government will not stop doing what it’s doing, because they know that all they have to do is talk about jobs, the economy, bringing people home from the oil patch in Alberta. They will not stop until the people of this province take [the Ode to Newfoundland] that was just read, and all stood to, and say we love you — but we don’t. At least I don’t think so. How can we stand and say we [love Newfoundland] and let the things happen that’s happening in this province right now?”
The C-NLOPB has said a proper environmental assessment will be carried out, including public consultations, before any green light is given to drill at Old Harry.
Since the licensing process was initiated prior to the Harper Government’s repealing of Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act in its 2012 omnibus budget bill, C-38, Corridor’s proposal “was grandfathered to the rules that existed before the current government said you no longer have to do comprehensive reviews on any petroleum exploration in marine waters of Canada,” Novaczek explained.
“We get possibly the last public consultation in Canada on the issue of drilling in marine waters in Canada. So watch out for that one because we really need to be loud and proud and very, very determined to stop it.”