Overblown oil scare: The Terra Nova ‘disaster’ dims to insignificance in terms of oil volume release

November 30th, 2004
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The first victim of last week’s Terra Nova oil spill — we’ll call him “Rusty” pending notification of his next of kin — was med-evaced by helicopter 350 kilometres to St. John’s. The speedy response to Rusty’s perilous condition occurred with greater haste than many emergency surgeries provided your average Newfoundlander.

However, the initial fears that Rusty was an “oily bird” proved false. Careful examination by a Canadian wildlife official and a veterinarian determined that the unfortunate seabird had likely been streaked by rust after hunkering down on the Terra Nova production platform.

The news media had to be disappointed, for they’d been positively salivating to elevate a serious but limited technical glitch into a textbook “icky bird” environmental calamity. They’d already had fun with the numbers. Quickly bored with reporting the spill in mere barrels — 1,000 just sounded too insignificant — they briskly switched to litres, which provided the more alarming figure of 160,000.

But why stop there? Why not indulge our inner gourmet and report the spill as 11 million level tablespoons, or humour scotch drinker, who’d no doubt be in awe contemplating 45 million wee drams. The mind reels imagining how many molecules of oil went floating across the Grand Banks!

Terra Nova is another in a long line of public relations disasters for the much-maligned oil and natural gas industry. Yet the numbers could speak in the industry’s favour, if only the industry would bother rising to its own defence. For when it comes to oil spills, Canada’s naturalists have more to fear from nature herself.

The Smithsonian Institution calculates that natural seabed oil seeps each year release four times as much petroleum as all the spills and other discharges from all offshore oil operations combined. In the Gulf of Mexico alone, natural seeps annually discharge the equivalent of two Exxon Valdez’s, or about 500,000 barrels — never mind how many litres and drams.

Seeps in California’s Santa Barbara area, birthplace of North America’s icky bird meme and, not coincidentally, the first of several offshore drilling moratoria, are estimated at 11 to 160 barrels per day. In a region where it’s illegal for humans to drill, oil pours out of the seabed at a rate equal to a Terra Nova “disaster” in an average month.

Far from being environmental wastelands, recent research has shown natural oil seep sites to harbour complex, vigourous biological communities. They include chemosynthetic micro-organisms, plus clams and mussels that survive by consuming these specialized hydrocarbon-eating bacteria. The invertebrates in turn provide food for young fish. Biologists are now demanding protection of these unique habitats.

But this is more than an academic debate about taxonomic curiosities. Every time the oil and natural gas industry falls into further disrepute, opposition to worthwhile new developments grows. The Terra Nova spill — or rather, the media and environmentalist hysteria it triggered — was particularly ill-timed given the intensifying debate over B.C.’s longstanding offshore drilling moratorium.

B.C.’s offshore energy potential appears vast. One industry expert found oil seeps on the Queen Charlottes, and source rocks so rich “you could burn them in the camp fire.” It’s likely these oily source beds exist offshore, along with natural seeps. Whether environmentalists like it or not, the “pristine” B.C. waters they worship already have natural hydrocarbons leaking into them. If exploration was permitted and economically producible pools found, the additional environmental impact would likely be minimal, as it normally is in First World settings.

But after what went on over the past week, it’s no wonder 75% of the British Columbians (including 100% of the Haida) who submitted their views to a recent commission studying B.C.’s moratorium voiced opposition to an industry that would generate billions in new wealth and support hundreds of long-term, high-paying and interesting jobs.

In fact, we can’t help thinking certain opponents were almost glad to see the Terra Nova spill. Despite the tiny amount spilled, and despite the presence of oil seeps on our east and west coasts, Canadian environmentalists labelled the event a “wake-up call to B.C.”

Perhaps they were half-hoping for something like the epochal Santa Barbara spill of 1969. A drilling malfunction on a Union Oil rig sent 4,500 barrels of oil into the water. The news showed anguished people carting off dead birds for 11 straight days. Union’s president symbolically launched 30 years of abysmal industry P.R. with his ill-considered observation that he was “amazed by the publicity … for the loss of a few birds.” Drilling opponents easily collected 100,000 signatures — about 25 for every icky dead bird.

Today, the oil and gas industry operates under strict, “zero-impact” environmental regulations. Each company has detailed remediation plans in case of accidents such as at Terra Nova. True to the Canadian industry’s form, Petro-Canada last week swung into action, employing state-of-the-art spill mitigation methods. Their arsenal includes floating containment booms that allow the oil to be vacuumed up. Higher seas may have required the use of oil-absorbent materials. Also important is the fact that Terra Nova’s oil is relatively light, and will more easily evaporate and disperse than heavier crudes.

But “Big Oil”, despite its largely clean record in offshore drilling, is a convenient, and often docile whipping boy for environmentalists. Greens and their philosophical confreres rail against outsourcing of domestic manufacturing jobs — but apparently have no problem outsourcing our resource industry. Some of them favour energy self-sufficiency, but oppose the drilling needed to provide it.

They refuse to be distracted by the facts. For the Smithsonian also found that oil discharges from offshore operations are vastly outweighed not only by releases from ships’ bilges, but by oil flowing into the ocean from car engine oil leaking on to city streets or poured into storm sewers.

These numbers actually are big — some 11 million barrels annually from these two sources. The oil in the leaky crankcase of your typical environmentalist’s ’75 Volvo, and the bilgewater sloshing about the ship that imports his favourite espresso beans, is more pernicious than offshore drilling. In fact, environmentalists had long faces when tests on the handful of oily birds washed up in Placentia Bay last week turned out to be covered with bilge oil, not Terra Nova oil.

Whatever the facts surrounding offshore oil and natural gas activity, nothing distracts the environmental movement from its belief that Rusty and his kin must be saved from bad oil. They must survive long enough to be shredded in the wind turbines that the greens intend to place on every breezy Canadian hilltop.

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