Environment featured

The truth about offshore drilling for oil: What’s missing?

This is a detailed response to the CNSOPB’s “Fact Sheets” on offshore drilling by the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia (CPONS). Republished on the Nova Scotia Advocate with permission.


In the winter of 2018, Nova Scotians in the western and south-western regions of the province were treated to a disturbing sight. The supposedly impartial, arms-length regulatory agency responsible for deciding if, when, where, and under what conditions the oil industry can explore for oil and gas offshore, hosted a “roadshow” to make the case for a drilling program proposed by the oil giant BP. It was a program the agency had not even approved yet.

Unfortunately, it was not such a surprise to those familiar with the agency – the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board – and its practices. The Board is a classic example of a “captured” regulator, whose members virtually all have backgrounds in the industry they are charged with regulating, and share a perspective marinated in the industry’s entitled culture.

In the absence of an independent, robust environmental and social impact assessment process at either the federal or provincial levels, the CNSOPB has had to wear hats ill-fitted to its narrow purview. A regulatory agency is not suited to go beyond regulation to define the context and the limits within which regulation takes place. We have expected too much of the CNSOPB, and it has failed spectacularly to defend the public interest.

During its 2018 roadshow, the CNSOPB handed out a series of what it called, “Fact Sheets” – hopelessly biased descriptions of both its practice and those of the offshore oil industry. In the absence of counter-arguments, many were impressed, unaware of the facts they were missing.

The CNSOPB’s pro-industry propaganda fosters a dangerously complacent attitude to the risks inherent in deep water exploratory drilling in the North Atlantic offshore Nova Scotia. In the absence of other perspectives it amounts to a public disservice from a public agency.

What we present here is another side to the story, demonstrating that there is much missing in the CNSOPB version of the “facts”.

The following pages take the CNSOPB “fact sheets” one at a time, employ the same headings as the CNSOPB originals. They paint a more complicated picture than the one the agency paints. The agency opts for the simplistic and misleading by choice, we should add, since it is well aware that its presentation ignores the scientific controversies in its field and downplays the risks.

Our counterarguments are to be read in conjunction with the CNSOPB originals. (See the hot link at the end of each CPONS critique.) If at the end of reading the full story you are left mistrusting this putative arbiter of the public interest, then we will have achieved our goal – to portray the CNSOPB in all its naked glory, as a captured, unrepresentative agency whose decisions lack both scientific and democratic legitimacy.

Read on!

About CNSOPB “Fact Sheet“(1)– Some Observations


It is interesting to note the CNSOPB’s “mission” involves “enabling safe and responsible development of Canada-Nova Scotia’s offshore petroleum resources.” Therein lies a fundamental conflict of interest between the CNSOPB’s regulatory responsibilities, including the possibility of rejecting a proposed project in the offshore, and its responsibility to “enable” oil and gas developments. In practice, the CNSOPB hasn’t seen an oil industry proposal it hasn’t liked. What’s more, the agency often conducts roadshows promoting industry projects.

Given this reality, its claim to being an arbiter of the public interest is hardly credible.

“The safety of personnel and protection of the environment are paramount in every decision we make.” If this were true, and given the lack of precedent for drilling (as both Shell and BP projects entail) in 10,000 feet of water in the stormy North Atlantic, and the known risks to our sustainable fishery grounds and spawning beds, and other marine resources, the “precautionary principle” would apply.

Precautionary Principle: The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision

The making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.

Source: National Institutes of Health, Kriebel, Tickner et al, “The precautionary principle in environmental science”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol 109 (9), Sept. 2001.

CNSOPB has not observed a single one of the four components required by the precautionary principle. Some would regard its practice as reckless as a result.

What We Do:

Its enabling legislation provides the CNSOPB with the power to hold public hearings and fund public interest intervenors and independent experts. However, this section makes no mention of the agency’s responsibility to ensure public participation in its deliberations. It would seem the fact that it has not done so traditionally has allowed this critical responsibility to slip its mind.

Nor is there in the description of what the CNSOPB does a recognition that it might have to rule against offshore oil and gas developments. The promotional tone permeates all its utterances.

What We Don’t Do:

Conveniently, and surprisingly, the CNSOPB says here it “does not guarantee the protection of the environment”. It merely holds operators responsible for that aspect of its mission. This statement is in direct opposition to its claim that “the protection of the environment is paramount” in all its decisions.

Apart from this denial of its responsibilities, the statement also overlooks the potential catastrophic effects of a deep well blow-out or leak. “Holding operators responsible” means nothing in that event, when the effects could be felt over thousands of square miles and the cost of clean-up, never mind restitution, could far exceed liability assessed under Canadian law. (The costs of the BP spill at its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico 8 years ago, are now expected to reach $65 billion, while the harm to traditional industries far exceeds that.)

The CNSOPB also claims in this section that it “does not promote the industry”. This is a falsehood anyone who has attended one of their promotional roadshows, justifying their approval of another questionable offshore project, will attest. The organization not only depends on industry-sponsored research, but ignores non-industry research that might interfere with its predilection to approve industry projects.

How Does the CNSOPB Look After My Interests?:

Here the CNSOPB makes one of its most transparently false claims: “We strongly believe in getting feedback from any person or community who could be impacted by offshore oil and gas activity. Feedback is taken into account in our decision-making processes……….”

Apart from belittling of public stakeholder input as mere “feedback”, as opposed to essential evidence, to be considered on an equal footing with oil industry submissions, the suggestion that the CNSOPB invites public participation is mischievous at best.

Fisheries, environmental and community organizations have made many efforts to submit evidence before the CNSOPB, only to have their concerns handled by communications and public relations specialists. The thought that the CNSOPB might have to hear contrary evidence and then be accountable for its disposal of that evidence is obviously too frightening to contemplate.

Once again, the CNSOPB demonstrates its incapacity to act as an arbiter of the public interest. (1) About CNSOPB by CNSOPB

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (2): Call for Bids – CPONS Response

How are the Call For Bids areas chosen?

The only criteria the CNSOPB cites that help determine which marine areas it chooses for exploratory activity have to do with potential for oil and gas reserves.

In Norway, by contrast, all areas are off the table until the industry makes a case for their exploration, a case that must take into account alternative uses – for fishing or conservation goals, for example. The Norwegian parliament has the final say.

The CNSOPB doesn’t even reference alternative uses as a factor. So much for the precautionary principle, not to mention the agency’s claim to give protection of the environment “paramount” value in its decisions.

Paramountcy suggests that in certain cases the fishery interest, or the conservation of species might negate the oil industry interest in development. The CNSOPB makes no such admission.

How do we know the environment is being protected?

The CNSOPB says that both a strategic environmental assessment and a project-specific environmental assessment must take place. The strategic assessment ostensibly takes into account the broader environmental issues to be considered. All well and good, and, in fact, the new federal Impact Assessment Act (Bill C-69), if passed, will also add the possibility of “regional assessments” that will deal with such questions as the possible cumulative effect of projects, linkages among regions and between species potentially affected by oil and gas exploration, tides, climate, etc.

As for “strategic environmental assessments”, would this not be the logical place to examine the potential contribution of a project to the goal of meeting Canada’s global commitments to combat catastrophic climate change by reducing fossil fuel emissions? Of course, but the CNSOPB never addresses that concern.

Perhaps, we shouldn’t fault the agency for not being the right vehicle to carry out environmental assessments at any scale. CPONS has long argued that the CNSOPB should simply be the regulator, not the body that decides on the advisability of a project from the perspective of impact assessment.

What’s more, without a process in place to ensure funded public participation, and the participation of independent expert witnesses, duly recorded and transparently considered with reasons provided for acceptance or rejection of evidence rendered, the CNSOPB’s process is neither credible nor legitimate.

Is there an opportunity for public input in the Call for Bids process?

The CNSOPB claims indigenous groups and the general public “have an opportunity to provide public input” during strategic environmental assessments. However, that opportunity is virtually never provided by way of an impartial and equitable process, like that of a public hearing with funding support. Nor is there any commitment by the CNSOPB to grapple with public evidence transparently, nor to provide reasons for its disposal of that evidence. Once again, the lack of such a process undermines the legitimacy of the CNSOPB’s decisions.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (3): Authorizations – CPONS Response

The CNSOPB lists all they require of oil companies wishing to obtain authorization to carry out an exploratory program in the offshore – environmental assessment, environmental protection plan, safety plan, emergency response, spill response and Certificate of Fitness covering the equipment employed. Again, all well and good.

The assumption throughout is that there are satisfactory answers in all these areas. Unfortunately, that is the big lie. Drilling in exceptionally deep waters in the stormy North Atlantic is virtually without precedent, and those in the know will tell you that the risks of catastrophic events increases rapidly the deeper the well and the rarer the precedent.

The precautionary principle would require exceptional guarantees that the risks are manageable and acceptable, the kind of guarantee that cannot be given at this time for drilling on the edge of the Scotian Shelf. The precautionary principle would dictate that without that guarantee no project should go ahead.

The possibility that a project proposal might be rejected because environmental protection is truly a “paramount” consideration is nowhere mentioned in the CNSOPB “fact” sheet.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (4): Seismic Surveys – CPONS Response

What is a Seismic Survey?

While the CNSOPB briefly describes the nature and purpose of a seismic survey, it says nothing about its amplitude, frequency and range.

Dr. Lindy Weilgart, a Dalhousie University expert on whales and seismic surveys, describes seismic surveys in this way: “the loudest human-produced noise right after nuclear and chemical explosions. Airguns are shot every 10 seconds around the clock for usually months at a time…..The noise travels through sometimes thousands of meters of ocean before penetrating into the sea floor. Further, the airgun shots are so intense, they can penetrate into the ocean bottom for over 100 kilometers. The entire marine ecosystem is degraded by this noise, which can form the loudest part of the background noise even 4,000 kilometers away. Airguns are so powerful they can take your arm off if fired close by. An airgun array can cover 26 square kilometers of sea surface at any one moment, which is about twice the size of the peninsula of Halifax.”

The CNSOPB refers to none of this evidence, while playing down the threat to marine wildlife. The agency refers to the federal government’s Statement of Practice for Seismic Surveys dating from 2004, without referring to scientific research since that time. The CNSOPB puts great faith in timing and seasonal avoidance. It betrays woeful ignorance when it argues that trained observers on board a seismic ship could identify marine mammals in the vicinity of a survey and could then take steps to mitigate its negative impact.

We leave it to Dr. Weilgart to paint a more accurate picture:

“Almost all marine animals are highly dependent on sound for all of their life functions like mating, feeding, orienting, communicating, and detecting predators, hazards, and overall, sensing their environment. They use their hearing like we use sight, so degrading their environment with noise is like blinding us with light.

With seismic noise, whales stop calling, which means they likely cannot find mates nor food anymore, cannot orient, or can’t stay in touch with their calves or group members. They try and avoid the seismic survey and as such, are chased out of important habitat or their migration is altered, putting them in harm’s way. Some become entrapped in ice and die. Seismic noise can produce signs of stress which interferes with reproduction and immunity. Sounds of importance to them are “masked” or obliterated. Models of seismic noise show that for the critically endangered right whales in particular, their calls are masked nearly entirely. Masking can also cause whales to blunder into fishing gear or in the paths of ships, killing them. These are the main contributors of right whale deaths. This is why, in 2016, 28 right whale experts declared that “The additional stress of widespread seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of this endangered whale, contributing significantly to a decline towards extinction.” Seismic noise has also been found to kill whales and dolphins outright, either by stranding or deaths at sea.

In lobsters, seismic noise interferes with their ability to avoid predators. It causes permanent damage to their sense organs and their immunity suffers. Scallop larvae do not develop normally and show body malformations. Their death rate is dramatically higher, 60%, rising even higher the longer the seismic survey goes on. Most alarmingly, even plankton, the base of the whole food web, are killed by seismic noise. Death rates are 3 times higher with seismic noise. Squid fatally strand, their organs unrecognizable with massive injuries. Snow crabs exhibit stress and abnormal development. Fish also show stress responses and deafness, and fisheries catch rates drop by 50-85%.

Incredibly, Canada offers only guidelines for seismic surveys, no real prohibitions. The guidelines use words such as “encourages” to promote better practices, rather than laws to prevent damage. To expect marine life to withstand such an assault on their environment, along with the many other threats the ocean is facing, is folly. Canada needs to stop catering to an industry that can cause such devastation in our oceans, and the marine life and human livelihoods that depend on it. And improving, not weakening, the Environmental Assessment process is a crucial step toward that end. (October, 2017)”

As Dr. Weilgart points out, Canada does not seriously regulate seismic surveys. It is not surprising that the CNSOPB reflects that unjustifiable complacency, but it is not excusable.

CPONS, amongst other public interest organizations has called on the federal government to ensure that its new Impact Assessment Act requires an independent environmental panel study of any proposed seismic survey project in the offshore. Only a thorough airing of the latest scientific findings will lead to credible decisions. The CNSOPB should play at best an advisory role in such a study.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (5): Exploration – CPONS Response

There is an honest admission in this “fact” sheet that the geology of Nova Scotia’s offshore is not well-known. This is an important observation not simply because it points to the challenges of discovering oil and gas in relatively unknown structures. It is also a crucial observation in terms of the potential for a catastrophic event should drilling go ahead. BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizons disaster in the Gulf of Mexico took place not far from where hundreds of other wells had been drilled and geological structures and challenges were relatively well-known. Nevertheless, unpredictable pressures led to that disastrous blow-out, the impact of which was then magnified by incompetence.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of major spills happen at the exploratory stage of development, the stage at which the least is known and precedents are lacking. This is why we need to be especially careful along the Scotian Shelf, a true frontier in terms of experience, where all reassurances by BP or the regulator must be treated with justified scepticism and the precautionary principle should be “paramount”.

When would production begin if commercial quantities of oil or gas are discovered?

This fact sheet goes on to paint an optimistic picture of blissful production of oil or gas from a discovery. Climate change would appear to be irrelevant to the likelihood of that vision. Donald Trump would be proud.

“The Rockefeller Brothers Fund started divesting its fossil fuel stocks, while Deutsche Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have started down the same road. A month after the Rockefeller announcement, the governor of the Bank of England told a conference that “the vast majority” of carbon reserves are “unburnable,” warning of massive “stranded assets.” Bill McKibben, 350.org Yes Magazine, February 2016

Canada’s global climate change commitments can only be met, according to a long list of credible sources, from the Bank of England to the IMF, if anywhere from 50 to 70 % of current proven reserves remain in the ground. The CNSOPB (despite its commitment to “strategic environmental assessments”) and its industry clients have made no attempt to show how finding yet more high cost reserves makes sense in that context. It is hard to see any other reason for this failure than that they share a desperate desire to find and market new reserves before the gate closes. One can understand that attitude from an oil company, but not from the regulator.

One more nail in the CNSOPB’s credibility and legitimacy.

Is offshore drilling safe?

This is the 64 million dollar question, to which the CNSOPOB gives a three-sentence answer, all positive, concluding, “Offshore drilling has and continues to take place safely in many parts of the world.” One might almost be tempted to forget that the downside of drilling on the Scotian Shelf is the potential long-term loss of much of Nova Scotia’s renewable economic base.

What about offshore Nova Scotia?

Here, the CNSOPB blows its own horn. Nova Scotia is especially fortunate to have the CNSOPB, it says, an assertion that seems increasingly hollow as we examine all the “facts”.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (6): Blowout Preventer – CPONS Response

What is a Blowout Preventer (BOP)?

It is important to distinguish between the technology, its purpose and capability, and the way in which it is used or abused. A well-maintained blowout preventer in the hands of well-trained staff should be able to shut down a runaway blowout, barring a failure of the technology itself, which is certainly not unheard of.

Unfortunately, a significant percentage of serious spills are caused by; cutting corners to save money; failure to maintain the technologies in question; failure to observe regulatory requirements; absence of adequately trained staff; a failure of regulatory oversight; or other so- called examples of “human error”. Improving the technology or adding a second BOP does nothing to reduce such risks. Both technological and human failure were causes of the BP Gulf Horizons disaster.

An excerpt from one post-Gulf Horizons article provides a useful summary:

“at virtually every step, BP made decisions that increased risk and displayed a lack of oversight and operational discipline. All were failures in process safety — and all saved the company time and money. As the presidential commission noted, BP’s record suggests “its approach to managing safety has been on individual worker occupational safety but not on process safety. These incidents and subsequent analyses indicate that the company does not have consistent and reliable risk-management processes — and thus has been unable to meet its professed commitment to safety.”

“The offshore-drilling industry has experienced a chilling array of accidents in the past decade — fires, blowouts, oil spills, and close calls — including 20 in the gulf. As the presidential commission observed, “The Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.” From, Elkind, Whitford and Burke, “BP: An Accident Waiting to Happen”, Fortune, 24 Jan. 2011

When would a company use a BOP to seal a well?

The CNSOPB says in its “fact” sheet that the high pressure in an exploratory well that would require deploying a BOP is “unlikely to happen” because wells are well-designed to cope with such eventualities, because of the use of specialized drilling fluids (called “muds” – the failure of the drilling mud was a key cause of BP’s Horizons disaster), and because specialists monitor the situation. This is exactly the kind of gratuitous and unfounded reassurance the CNSOPB is noted for. It both insults serious analysts and undermines the agency’s credibility.

What makes the CNSOPB’s claims even more irresponsible is that they fail to acknowledge that the BOP in the case of BP’s planned Scotian Basin project will be operating under almost two miles of water. Deepwater Horizons, at half that depth, was already considered exceptionally “deep”. Operating and maintaining a BOP at that depth is still an experimental venture.

Nova Scotians are being asked, on the basis of the CNSOPB’s largely groundless claims, to bear the risk of history repeating itself in an industry known for “systematic failures in risk management”.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (7): Capping Stack – CPONS Response

What is a capping stack?

A capping stack is needed if the Blowout Preventer (BOP) systems fail to stop the flow of oil following a blowout or other such disaster.

The CNSOPB is so confident that drilling muds and the BOP will do their job that it plays down the need for a capping stack near at hand. As we have seen, such complacency is unjustified in the light of history. Both the technology and its handlers have given ample reason for skepticism.

How often are capping stacks needed?

This bizarre heading fails to grasp that even once is too much. Instead, the CNSOPB answers its own question with the assertion that “Blowouts are very uncommon”! Pointing to improved BOP technology and the fact that no capping stack has been needed since 2010, the year of the Gulf Horizons disaster, the agency justifies relying on a capping stack in Norway, should it be needed in Nova Scotia. In the event of “an uncontrolled release of oil”, the CNSOPB argues that site preparation is required before a stack can be deployed and, hence, the fact that it may take two weeks or so to arrive on site is of no concern.

The agency goes on to argue on the industry’s behalf that it is too costly to locate and maintain a capping stack nearby. Once more, when faced with the choice between addressing what it says are “paramount” environmental considerations (like protecting the fishery and the pristine coast) or saving the industry money, the CNSOPB opts for the industry interest.

This choice also overlooks the lessons of the Gulf Horizons blowout, where the failure to deploy a capping stack in a timely fashion is widely regarded as a major reason for that disaster’s persistence and devastating impact.

It would be hard to find a better example of the CNSOPB’s failure to protect the public interest. The precautionary principle is sacrificed, yet again.

NOTE: It is striking throughout one’s examination of CNSOPB literature that, despite the voluminous and erudite research analyses of the 2010 BP Gulf Horizons catastrophe, and the lessons to be derived from that event, the agency never acknowledges it ever happened. We might speculate about the reasons, but they appear to have little to do with the pursuit of truth.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (8): Spill Response – CPONS View

A couple of things need to be said up front about an oil spill at a deep well drilled in the North Atlantic. Unfortunately, nowhere does the CNSOPB admit to them. Some truths are too hard to concede.

First, whatever the impression of confidence the industry and the regulator attempt to convey, there is no known, proven, precedent for the clean up of a major oil spill in deep water in conditions akin to those along the edge of the Scotian Shelf. It has never been done. Their confidence is baseless.

Only the drilling of a relief well, designed to intersect with the original exploratory well has a track record, but it can take three months or more to complete. For much, or all, of that time the spill may continue.

“Ever since the 1970s, the oil and gas industry has trotted out four basic ways to deal with ocean spills: booms to contain the oil; skimmers to remove the oil; fire to burn the oil; and chemical dispersants, such as Corexit, to break the oil into smaller pieces. For small spills these technologies can sometimes make a difference, but only in sheltered waters. None has ever been effective in containing large spills.” – A. Nikiforuk, “Why we pretend to clean up oil spills”, Hakai Magazine, Sithsonian.com, July 12, 2016

Second, while the CNSOPB and the industry claim a blowout or similar disaster is “highly unlikely”, they go on to pretend that if a major spill occurs, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the damage the spill causes. Once again, the record shows otherwise. In the case of BP’s 2010 Gulf Horizons disaster, 8 years later, less than 10% of the nearly 5-million barrels spilled has been recovered. The remainder either lies thick on the sea bottom, or along the coast, or has entered the food chain where it continues to hamper species recovery.

Spill Prevention

The CNSOPB’s reliance on the technological capabilities of the industry to suggest that spill prevention is covered ignores the history of technological and human failure as causes of spills by companies like BP and Shell. The regulatory agency delivers a good news message where history presents largely bad news. When we consider the catastrophic potential of an oil spill along the Scotian Shelf, surely only a guarantee that no spill will happen could come near to justifying exploratory drilling. Neither the industry, nor the regulator can give any such guarantee.

Spill Preparedness

We are told companies must convince the CNSOPB that they have “spill response plans”, and “that they have the necessary equipment and trained personnel prepared to respond to a spill.”

As we have pointed out, there is no evidence that there is a proven effective response to a spill in conditions like those along the Scotian Shelf. There is no basis for accepting the industry’s claim that it is equipped to deal with a spill in waters twice as deep as those at the Deepwater Horizons site. Yet, the CNSOPB does just that.

Spill Response

Ignoring the lack of evidence, the CNSOPB goes on to blandly state the following: “Large oil spills are extremely rare. In the case of a significant oil spill, companies will immediately initiate emergency response procedures and take steps to stop the source of the spill and to clean up oil that is spilled.”

Our response to the CNSOPB: “Oh yeah? How did that work when BP’s Deepwater Horizon blew out in water much shallower, and ocean conditions far calmer, than those of the North Atlantic?”

The silence is deafening.

Oil Spill Clean-up

Under this heading, the CNSOPB lists four measures oil companies can take to “clean-up” a spill – booms and barriers, mechanical recovery, in-situ burning, and dispersants. All have been shown to be ineffective either because sea conditions like those on the Scotian Shelf make them unusable (booms, burning, and mechanical recovery), or because they actually make matters worse by adding to the toxicity of the spill and enhancing the extent of its impact(dispersants).

The CNSOPB’s failure to acknowledge the science contradicting the applicability of these measures on the Scotian Shelf is irresponsible if not mendacious. The agency is guilty of what Nikiforuk calls “the cleanup delusion”.

“In many respects, society’s theatrical response to catastrophic oil spills resembles the way medical professionals respond to aggressive cancer in an elderly patient. Because surgery is available, it is often used. Surgery also creates the impression that the health care system is doing something even though it can’t change or reverse the patient’s ultimate condition. In an oil-based society, the cleanup delusion is also irresistible. Just as it is difficult for us to acknowledge the limits of medical intervention, society struggles to acknowledge the limits of technologies or the consequences of energy habits. And that’s where the state of marine oil spill response sits today: it creates little more than an illusion of a cleanup. Scientists—outside the oil industry—call it “prime-time theater” or “response theater.” – Andrew Nikiforuk, op. cit., 2016.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (9): Dispersants – CPONS Response

What is a Dispersant?

The CNSOPB answers this question with a scientific half-truth, if not a falsehood. It claims that after a dispersant is sprayed on a surface spill, “The droplets are then dispersed, or mixed, into the water by waves where the oil will naturally break down.”

Research on dispersant use following the Gulf Horizons disaster contradicts that statement. Very little of the oil spilled in the Horizons debacle “naturally broke down”. Instead, it sank to the bottom, where it has created an oil-covered wasteland with next to no life surviving.

The theory behind dispersant use, beyond its obvious cosmetic value in removing oil slick visuals from the TV evening news casts, is that by breaking the oil into smaller droplets, the dispersant exposes more surface to oil-eating microbes and natural disposal follows.

Unfortunately, that process turns out to have serious negative ramifications. Some even conclude that it makes matters worse. Research on the Gulf Horizons experience, where BP sprayed nearly 2 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit, and research since, has found that breaking down the oil into micro-droplets has two major negative effects. First, greatly increasing the available surface area of the oil makes its toxic ingredients far more accessible. Second, the droplets sink more slowly in the water column, so the oil’s toxins are available longer and over a much wider area. So, apart from being a contaminant itself, the dispersant is a “vector”, or “delivery system”, for oil toxins.

But that is not the end of the story. Dispersants are emulsifiers. They not only break down oil, they also break down “lipids.” Lipids are the fats that make up the cell walls of living organisms. The thinnest cell walls in marine creatures are in the gills because that is where the oxygen exchange takes place. The highly toxic dispersant-laced oil accumulates in the gills where it attacks the cells vital to life.

The notion that microbes more easily consume dispersed oil also has its problems. In fact, in a large spill, there aren’t enough organisms to do the job. So, much of the oil reaches the bottom. Secondly, the combination of the toxic dispersant and the toxic oil adds up to a doubly toxic brew. When consumed by oil-eating organisms it enters the food chain as poisonous food for predators. What they excrete is also poisonous. The resulting impact on the ecosystem is neither benign nor short-lived.

Research continues on the effects of dispersants like Corexit, the industry favourite. In 2017, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada issued a report on the impact of oil spills and suggested that we do not know enough about dispersants to approve their use. According to the panel, “Research is needed to: 1) assess the toxicity of dispersed oil to deepwater corals, ground fish and invertebrate species that have high economic importance (e.g., lobster, crab, scallops);

2) model the distribution of deepwater plumes of dispersed oil in relation to areas of known fisheries productivity, such as the fishing banks of Canada’s east coast … “Using chemicals to disperse spilled oil often means surface oil is transferred to subsurface water at concentrations that can be toxic to aquatic life (especially to fish embryos)…” Royal Society of Canada, “The Behavioural and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released Into Aqueous Environments”, Nov. 2015

The CNSOPB does not acknowledge such concerns. Instead, it says, “Dispersants may be appropriate when there is a risk of a spill reaching shorelines, impacting seabirds and other wildlife, or reaching ecologically sensitive areas or fishing grounds. “ It is a statement that ignores the latest research and amounts to little more than an unscientific and irresponsible assertion.

Are Dispersants Toxic?

Despite the conclusion of the Royal Society of Canada expert panel that we don’t know enough about the toxic impact of dispersants, the CNSOPB goes so far as to claim that dispersants are less toxic than baby shampoo or dish soap. How is one to interpret these CNSOPB claims as other than dangerously mischievous?

It is critically important to note that the studies that Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and CNSOPB rely on to justify their acceptance of dispersant use are studies that examined dispersants on their own, with no spilled oil present. The Royal Society Report underlines the requirement to study “dispersant-laced oil,” not dispersant alone. As we have seen, the increased toxicity of dispersant-laced oil is enhanced by the fact that dispersants act as a delivery system for oil toxins. To study the toxic effects of dispersant alone, with no oil present, results in irrelevant conclusions and lends itself to efforts to misinform the lay public.

What the experts say:

Dr. Robert Mathis, an M.D. and doctor of environmental medicine in Santa Barbara, California, finds that while many chemical ingredients of dispersants remain unknown because they are “trade secrets,” even the known chemicals in the dispersant cocktails are extremely dangerous to humans because they contain an, “emulsifier that allows chemicals deeper penetration into tissues and cells.”

“Dispersants disrupt both bacterial and human cell membranes,” Mathis explains. “Damage disrupts cell functions, leading to cell failure, and may cause cancers and death. All living things are damaged.”

Mathis also states that many of these chemicals, when mixed together like the dispersants and oil were during BP’s disaster, “are many times more toxic than the individual chemicals are by themselves.”

Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute states, “We already know that dispersants are less toxic than oil if you compare the two,” says Shaw. “But because Corexit contains a petroleum solvent, we’re actually putting petroleum solvent on top of a petroleum spill. So it’s increasing the hydrocarbons in the water column.” Furthermore, the dispersant can increase the toxicity of the oil for those marine organisms that encounter it. “It’s like a delivery system,” says Shaw. “The [dispersed] oil enters the body more readily and it goes into the organs faster.”

Dr. Samantha Joye, Biogeochemist at the University of Georgia in response to the theory that dispersant use augments bacterial breakdown: “It assumes that the dispersant doesn’t impact the microbial community, and we have no idea if that’s true or not. There’s just as good a chance that this dispersant is killing off a critical portion of the microbial community as there is that its use is stimulating the breakdown of oil.” Dr. Joye’s most recent research indicates that, oil industry claims notwithstanding, dispersant use slows down the degradation of oil and disrupts the growth of the most proficient oil-consuming bacteria.

These findings are supported by empirical evidence from the ocean floor. Dr. Joye, alone, recorded nearly 1,300 square kilometers of absolutely lifeless ocean bottom covered in 3 to 4 inches of dispersant-laced oil in 2011, and in 2015 took additional dives and identified an additional 3,000 sq. km. of similarly damaged ocean bottom.

Dr. Peter Hodson, Aquatic Toxicologist from Queen’s University in Ontario, states the following, “Dispersed oil has a more toxic effect than non-dispersed oil since toxic components like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are spread around more widely in the water.”

Dr. David Valentine and his colleagues from the University of California have found in their studies of the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico a 1,235 square mile oil covered area that is about the size of the U.S. State of Rhode Island.

Dr. Jeff Chanton from Florida State University has just reported finding approximately 10 million gallons of oil from the Deep Water Horizon spill buried in the sediments about 60 miles Southeast of the Mississippi Delta. This is 4 years after the DWH spill.

In direct contradiction to the oil company assertions, the empirical evidence gathered in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deep Water Horizon spill indicate that the quick bacterial breakdown of dispersed oil, projected by oil company scientists, did not take place and that blankets of dispersed oil now cover large, now lifeless, areas of the sea floor. A large winter time spill at BP’s Scotian Shelf site, accompanied by our very common strong north easterly winds, along with the Nova Scotia and Labrador Currents could cover the South Western Scotian Shelf and deliver dispersed oil across Georges Bank in a matter of hours.

Dr. Terry Snell, chair of the School of Biology at Georgia Institute of Technology

“What remains to be determined is whether the benefits of dispersing the oil by using Corexit are outweighed by the substantial increase in toxicity of the mixture. Perhaps we should allow the oil to naturally disperse. It might take longer, but it would have less toxic impact on marine ecosystems.”

Dr. Snell’s research assessing the impact of oil and dispersants on Rotifer, minute aquatic creatures low on the food chain, found; a. Oil alone is toxic to Rotifers b. Dispersants alone are more toxic to Rotifers than oil alone c. Dispersants combined with oil are 52 times more toxic than oil alone

Dr. Snell also states that dispersant use would, in fact, be a disadvantage in trying to protect commercial fish or shellfish species from the toxic impacts of hydrocarbon pollution. The massive use of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico was rationalized as necessary to keep oil off the beaches to protect the critically important Gulf tourism industry. However, where commercial fisheries are most at risk the use of dispersants is contraindicated.

In Northern waters, Dr. Merv Fingas, a world expert on oil spill technologies, has done research on the capacity of dispersants to work in cold water temperatures, in low salinity and in non hydrocarbon-charged waters. His results indicate that the Scotian Shelf is not a prime site for the functional application of dispersants. His research indicates that dispersants do not work well in water temperatures less than 15 C, that dispersants do not work well in waters with low salinity and that areas such as the Scotian Shelf which have not seen large numbers of oil spills are not “Hydrocarbon-charged” and therefore do not have the hydrocarbon consuming bacteria required if dispersants were actually going to work. There simply isn’t any food around to support them. All of this begs the question, why would anyone actually promote the use of dispersants on the Scotian Shelf?

When would you use a dispersant?

The CNSOPB ends its “fact sheet” on dispersants by suggesting that before it approved dispersant use a number of conditions would need to be met, relating to suitable sea conditions, proximity of fisheries, depth of water, currents, and so forth. This appears to be window- dressing. Dispersant use is all but pre-approved. If a spill occurs 300 km from shore and those on the oil platform wish to use dispersants, it is hard to imagine the CNSOPB delaying that approval until it had someone on site. Its dismissal of the toxic implications of dispersant use earlier in this essay only confirms this suspicion.

CNSOPB “Fact Sheet” (10): Liabilities and Fines – CPONS Response

Responsibility for Responding to a Spill

The CNSOPB starts by claiming that “oil and gas companies are fully accountable to respond to all incidents, including spills” caused by their activities in the offshore.

However, in the next section of the “fact” sheet on “compensation for economic losses in the case of a spill”, it admits that the limit of liability ”in relation to any loss or damage” is $1 billion.

To put that sum in perspective, according to a Reuters report from January of 2018, BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizons disaster will cost BP almost $65 billion to settle claims, when all is said and done. This figure does not include, of course, the cost of all harm done by the spill to traditional industries, or long-run impact on Gulf ecosystems

The enormity of the risk to our Atlantic marine ecosystems, our fisheries and tourism industries, the communities and provincial economy that depend on them, is one thing. That alone should ensure the precautionary principle denies approval of BP’s exploratory drilling along the Scotian Shelf.

But the failure to account for the sheer cost of addressing the consequences of a serious spill makes the approval of BP’s drilling program look even more reckless. At the moment, in the event of a major spill, it is Canadians who will be left holding the bag.

Of course, the suggestion that compensation could ever truly make up for the potential catastrophic consequences of a major oil spill off Nova Scotia is similarly breath-taking.


Not to worry, the CNSOPB, in its final statement under this heading in the “fact” sheet has this to say by way of comfort: “An oil and gas company found guilty of an offence under the Accord Acts, which outlines the rules for offshore oil and gas activity, can be fined up to $1 million per day.”

Sleep well tonight!

Check out the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia website

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