ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF OIL, GAS MINING FOR NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR: PROGRESS AT THE COST OF NATURE?
Every good thing in life comes at a cost. This adage is all the more true when the benefit gained is at the cost of Mother Nature. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador exploited the bounty of Nature, its rich geological reserves, be it gas, oil, minerals, marine life; but today all the riches that these commodities generated seem to be tainted. Though the natural minerals, oil and gas reserves of the Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada) have changed the fortunes of the province, their extraction has led to changes in the ecosystem, flora and fauna.
Newfoundland and Labrador is an area of intense storm activity and the oil fields are located in some of the most inhospitable environment in the world, chances of icebergs colliding into the drilling platform is high. These collisions can lead to discharge of extremely toxic chemicals, oil and gas into the ocean. Natural resource extraction involves a lot of accidental and operational hazards. Oil and chemical spills, chemical and solid waste dumps, discharge of greenhouse gases, disturbance of ocean floor through drilling to name just a few!
The most profitable of the resources, crude oil, poses the maximum amount of danger to the delicate and vast ecosystem of the province. Newfoundland and Labrador has maritime climate, more than 290,000 KMs of coastline and a unique position on the earth’s map that make it a land of innumerable mammals, fish, marine life, crustaceans, birds, amphibians, whales and harbour seals etc. These creatures of the wild are affected by the processing of oil in the offshore region. Turning the crude oil, excavated deep in the ocean beds, into super profitable commodity like petroleum, natural gas, kerosene is a cumbersome process. It involves three major steps namely, exploration, production and transport. Each of these three stages poses danger of varying degrees and magnitude to the environment.
Exploration of potential oil beds is done using exploration geophysics, which involves use of seismic reflection surveys andunderwaterair guns (specialized seismic source). These air guns can damage the ear drum of fishes. The unnatural sounds caused by the firing of such guns can have behavioral changes in the marine animals. Consequently, such shooting leads to substantial reduction in the amount of fish caught by fishermen.
Once a profitable oil field is located, drilling begins at the designated spot. Drilling involves cutting into the sea bed and creating a hole. Drill cuttings are dumped on the ocean floor. The most hazardous and arguably the most well-known harmful effect of oil transportation and extraction is the occurrence of oil spills. These fatal spills spell doom for the ocean life and the region’s atmosphere. Newfoundland and Labrador has had its share of oil spills (refer to the table in Figure 2). Terra Nova oil field experienced 1000 liters spill in 2004, White Rose had 4470 liters of spill in 2008 and Hibernia reported a spill from their platform in 2006. According to C-NLOPB, the most recent spill at Hibernia, which went unnoticed for a long time, is reportedly estimated at 6000 liters. There are countless other spills which happen every day as a cumulative result of the functioning of the three humungous oil fields: White Rose, Hibernia and Terra Nova.
These ugly black spills are detrimental to the marine flora and fauna. The impact is far more than the sightings of birds with oiled feathers - 300, 000 sea birds like hawks, falcons, ospreys, etc., die each year in the province due to the oil. This is almost equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill each year!
All these fatal side effects buttress one universal fact- Progress is essential but not at the cost of nature and the land’s ecosystem. The need is for responsible resource development, tougher norms, strict regulation of greenhouse gases, harsh penalization for incidents such oil spills and a sincere effort to curb air and water pollution. Turning a blind eye to these problems might have a negative impact on tourism and fishing industry.
The government has been doing its bit to address some of these issues. An agreement signed between the government of Canada, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador has proposed to increase the absolute liability of oil companies in case of spills to $ 1 billion. National Resources Canada which is the ministry of the government of Canada responsible for natural resources and energy has promised to make the “polluter pays” principal prevalent. They intend to introduce high monetary penalties in case of flouting of law and have also promised to make it compulsory for companies to release their environmental and emergency preparedness action plans. How many of these and how effectively these action plans are put into action will decide the future of this province.
In summary, Newfoundland is at a fork in its long illustrious journey. It can take the path of unbridled commercial greed which unfortunately is counterproductive or be a trailblazer and becomes an example of responsible progress. This choice needs to be made by the government, its oil companies and the people and will have far reaching consequences.