When BP named its exploratory well in the Mississippi Canyon the Macondo Prospect after the doomed fictional town of Macondo from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, that alone should have raised alarm bells.

The story of seven generations of the Buendía family are set in the Colombian town, which is beset by a series of extraordinary and catastrophic events that eventually lead to its apocalyptic demise. The massacre of thousands of striking banana plantation workers by the Colombian army is seemingly punished — in the author’s magical realism style — by five years of rain, torrential and unstoppable, destroying much of the town. And then in a final, tragic downturn, the town is hit by a hurricane, which essentially wipes it off the map.

The resemblance between the novel’s ill-fated town with BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico is uncanny, to say the least.

In 2010, the oil and gas behemoth was leasing Deepwater Horizon, a fifth generation rig from Transocean, to do its drilling. A year earlier the rig had drilled the deepest oil well in history at an astonishing vertical depth of 10 kilometres in the Keathley Canyon, under 1,250 meters of water in the Gulf of Mexico. Those oil reserves were reportedly buried under salt accumulations that were thousands of feet thick. But the next exploratory well wouldn’t be as fortuitous for BP. Just as it had finished drilling the Macondo in 1,500 meters of water — the oil well itself a vertical depth of more than 5.5 km — there was a blowout at the wellhead, apparently the result of a combination of bad well design and a shoddy cement job, among other factors. A geyser of seawater, drilling mud, and methane gas ignited an explosion, and continued to feed the fire onboard the rig for 36 hours, when it finally sank.

The blowout at Deepwater Horizon would result in the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. All told, the disaster killed 11 rig workers and resulted in what felt like a never-ending horror: the gushing of oil from the seafloor for months — 87 unrelenting days to be exact — amounting to a spill of somewhere between three and four million barrels of crude as well as the addition of nearly seven million litres of the oil dispersant Corexit — the trade name for a mixture of surfactants and solvents that purportedly help to “clean up” the spill.[1]The US government estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, but BP argued in court it was much lower at 2.5 million barrels. In 2015 a judge decided to split the … Continue reading

Seadrill’s West Aquarius on lease to BP to drill on the Scotian Slope. From Seadrill handout.

In early April, even before the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) had given its official approval to drill for oil and gas, BP Canada began moving Seadrill’s West Aquarius, what it calls a sixth generation “ultra-deepwater semi-submersible rig capable of drilling in harsh water environments” into some of Nova Scotia’s deepest waters, setting its sights on the Scotian Slope, about 330 km from Halifax, where the continental shelf drops off from 200 meters to about 4,000 meters. This is where it will drill the Aspy D-11, the first of possibly seven exploratory wells. It’s an area described in a CNSOPB 2002 document as having “very similar” “attributes” to the deep-water basin in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also territory where the risk of an uncontrolled blowout increases.

But as we shall see, with BP about to drill in some of Nova Scotia’s most dangerous and unpredictable conditions, history could easily repeat itself. What follows is a story that illustrates how our systems are failing us — indeed there is nothing in our regulatory system that will reduce the likelihood of a Deepwater Horizon-like disaster off our coastline. It also illustrates how the disaster profiteers are trying to keep us all in the dark.

Access Denied

In early 2017, the CBC reported that Nalco Environmental Solutions, the Texas-based manufacturer of Corexit, had refused to provide samples of the product to a Canadian government-funded researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Craig Purchase was working on a $75,000 project comparing the toxicity of two types of Corexit — 9500A, a dispersant, and Corexit 9580A, a surface washing agent used for shorelines — on beach-spawning capelin but was unable to conduct his study without access to the product.

Capelin spawning on Bellevue Beach, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

According to news reports at the time, Nalco said it would only provide samples to government agencies for regulatory approval and would not allow toxicity testing by non-government agencies. Canadian fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc pushed back, saying, “We obviously have a huge concern about a potential corporate interest that appears to not want to have robust, thoughtful, independent scientific analysis of their product.”

But if LeBlanc’s bluster revealed anything, it’s how late it was in coming. In the summer of 2016, months before the story about Nalco refusing access to the products broke,  Corexit 9500A and Corexit 9580A were both quietly approved for use in Canada’s offshore.

And what was not reported at the time was that Purchase wasn’t the only scientist having trouble accessing the product. Emails obtained by the Halifax Examiner through an Access to Information request reveal that in the two years before Nalco’s refusal made the news, there were nine other projects funded by DFO that involved Corexit, and some of those researchers also had difficulty accessing the products. [2] The nine Corexit-related studies are: 1. Toxicity of Diluted Bitumen to Aquatic Species (Langlois, RMCC, 2014); 2. Molecular Mechanisms of Action of Diluted Bitumen and Dispersant in Fish … Continue reading

This was all happening around the same time the feds were pushing through new legislation that would pave the way for the approval of Nalco’s products for use in Canada’s offshore — and as we shall see, leading some senior government scientists to raise critical questions about Nalco’s behavior and ultimately about the functioning of our country’s regulatory system.

Toxic Trade Off

John Davis is the Director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, a Nova Scotia consortium of nine fishing associations and union locals representing 9,000 fishers and fish plant operators. In a 2016 report, Davis wrote to municipal governments, urging them to call on the CNSOPB to remove two of its sites on the Scotian Shelf, leased by Shell Canada, because the sites were too risky and in close proximity to some of the most critical spawning and nursery grounds for Nova Scotia’s commercial species. [3]In response to Davis’ report, in June of 2016 Minister LeBlanc’s office received letters from 10 Nova Scotian Municipal and Town Units calling on the removal of Shell’s lease units 3 and 4.

In the report, Davis explained that dispersant-treated oil can increase the threat to fish ecosystems in the water column where dispersed oil is present and that even brief exposures to dispersed oil can have delayed and long-term effects. Davis said that because regulators don’t require the oil industry to develop better technologies to clean up spills, the companies have become dependent on the large scale use of chemical dispersants, which he says don’t actually clean up anything. “They simply put the oil into a more toxic state and drive it out of sight below the ocean’s surface.”

BP Exploration Licence Area located on the Scotian Slope, 330 km from Halifax. From Scotian Basin Exploration Project: https://www.bp.com/en_ca/canada/who-we-are/offshore/bp-in-nova-scotia.html

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the use of Corexit 9500A helped hide the magnitude of the Macondo well failure by reducing the size of the slick on the sea surface by moving it into the water column, potentially increasing exposure to aquatic organisms and adding to the toxic nightmare — a subject we’ll return to. [4]There have also been scores of news articles about the human health effects of the dispersant, particularly among the oil clean-up workers and fishers. Respiratory ailments, headaches, memory loss, … Continue reading

In an interview, Davis tells me the oil and gas industry lobbied Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to approve the use of Corexit for use in Canadian waters and Harper, who wanted to expedite the export of bitumen by tankers to foreign markets, was happy to oblige. So in early 2015, the feds passed Bill C-22, the Energy Safety and Security Act, which allowed the use of dispersants. Prior to that, the use of dispersants in Canada to “clean up” marine oil spills was prohibited because dumping harmful substances into waterways violated several federal laws. But C-22 essentially superseded these other federal laws.

“C-22 negates DFO regulation, Coast Guard regulation, Transport Canada regulation, regulations within the Migratory Bird Act, that state you cannot put these chemicals in Canadian waters without facing prosecution,” says Davis. Now, he says, “responders to oil spills won’t be prosecuted for violating any of these laws.”

Davis points out the bill was passed under Harper but it wasn’t promulgated — or officially put into effect — because of the 2015 election. Instead it was the new Liberal government, with Catherine McKenna as Canada’s newly minted minister of the Environment and Climate Change (ECCC), that promulgated the law and created a list of approved chemical agents, including the two Corexit products.

In the case of a spill, the way it would theoretically work is the regulatory body (CNSOPB) and the lead regulatory agency (ECCC) would come together and form a science team to provide advice on the best response option. Before Corexit could be used, it would have to be deemed a “net environmental benefit” (NEB).

In other words, the team would have to analyze the “trade-off between the toxic effects of the dispersed oil in the water column relative to the advantages of removing floating oil from the surface and preventing shoreline impacts.”[5]The Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) essentially evaluates the “trade-off situations whereby acceptance of certain adverse effects may be necessary to avoid other, more significant adverse … Continue reading

But the ability of Canada’s regulators to conduct a thorough “net environmental benefit analysis” (NEBA) has been compromised and the gaps in the scientific understanding of the product’s toxicity in the Canadian context are nothing short of glaring.

“A Void in Knowledge”

Emails obtained by the Halifax Examiner through an Access to Information request show that in the two years before anyone had even heard about Nalco’s refusal to provide the Memorial University researcher with Corexit samples for toxicological research, the products were already hard to come by and internally, mainly within the DFO, concern was mounting.

In February 2015, Judith Leblanc, the Senior Science Advisor with the DFOs National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG) was trying to find samples of the product for a consultant NCAG had hired to test the effects of diluted bitumen on freshwater fish species. She asked Ben Fieldhouse, an oil chemist with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), if he had any. Fieldhouse replied: “[W]e have only very limited supplies — insufficient volumes for toxicity testing. NALCO has been reluctant to provide samples of late.”

About a year later, in April of 2016, Cecilia Lougheed, Manager of the NCAG, heard that Craig Purchase was looking for samples of Corexit for his research on capelin. Purchase had managed to track some of the dispersant (9500) down from the DFO in Halifax but he still needed some of the surface washing agent (9580). Lougheed contacted Bruce Hollebone, a chemist at the Oil Research Laboratory of ECCC, wondering if he had any; Hollebone replied: “Corexit dispersants are extraordinarily hard to come by right now… we’ve even heard it’s not being made available to the response organizations.”

When Purchase contacted Nalco directly for the product, the company asked for a summary of his project, which described how he wanted to study the interaction between oil and the two Corexit products and the potential effects on capelin reproductive success. In May, Nalco replied: “Upon detailed review of your proposed project, we feel it contains aspects of testing that we interpret as toxicity testing. This is an area that [Nalco Environmental Solutions] cannot be a participant, either directly in performing the tests, or indirectly by providing samples for use in such testing. If the scope of the project can be reconsidered to remove these tests, we can restart the dialog and process to obtain samples.”

Then in May 2016, around the same time the feds were about to add the two Corexit products to the list of approved spill-treating agents for Canada’s offshore, Lougheed sent a pointed email to Thomas King, a DFO oil spill expert with the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography: “If the companies are not willing to allow toxicity testing of their products, how can Canada even consider them for use?”

Lougheed pointed to the fact that more toxicological data were needed for these products in order to determine a net environmental benefit (NEB). She said that “without effects work” it is not possible to determine this. “Therefore the product could not be really considered.”

A U.S. Air Force Reserve plane sprays Corexit over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Around the same time, Chris Kennedy was also having trouble finding samples. He’s a professor of Biology and Toxicology at Simon Fraser University and had secured funding from DFO to do research on the effects of diluted bitumen and dispersant on Pacific estuarine and marine organisms.

Kennedy turned to Cory Dubetz, a Science Advisor with the NCAG, but Dubetz said “there has been little progress” with Nalco. “It looks like it might take some time.” Kennedy was concerned because his fish were “growing” as the delay continued and the experimental window of opportunity was fast closing.

According to emails from Judith Leblanc, Kennedy then contacted Tom King at COOGER to see if he had more product but COOGER also was running low. King contacted Nalco to ask for more but was told not to do any toxicity work and that there was a legal issue regarding this, probably linked to the Deepwater Horizon court case.

By the end of May 2016, with the new regulations and Corexit about to be listed for use in Canada, Patrice Simon, the Director of DFO’s Environment and Biodiversity Branch, decided to take matters into her own hands. She sent the following email to a number of people at DFO, NCAG, ECCC, and Natural Resources Canada (NRC). It read in part:

I am planning to contact [Nalco] to discuss. Results from toxicity experiments of various dispersants and dispersant-oil interactions would be useful in informing guidance and policies regarding oil spill response as well as NEBA [net environmental benefit analysis]. As new regulations are in the works to authorize the use of dispersants under certain conditions, I feel that it would be important to secure access to dispersants for toxicity and other work.

Simon was clearly concerned. She sent an email to Mike Stoneman, a Senior Advisor with DFO, as well as others stating: “Since DFO would have to respond to the minister’s request/ priority on potential dispersant impact to valued local fisheries (crab, lobsters, capelin) that ECCC may not necessarily conduct as part of their authorization, it would create a void in knowledge for NEBA analysis and other advice.”

A discussion ensued among senior bureaucrats with DFO and ECCC about whether there was some way to “compel” Nalco to supply the products for toxicological testing. Marc-Etienne Lesieur, ECCC’s Manager of the Environmental Emergencies Policy wrote: “I am not aware of a way to compel the submission of [spill-treating agents] or other samples for that matter.”

By the summer of 2016 there are other indications that accessing Corexit had become an issue not just for government-funded researchers, but for the government.

Marc Bernier, the Director of Water Science and Technology at ECCC wrote in an email to DFO’s Simon that, “So far we had no issues getting samples for our regulatory work and we obtained samples directly from Nalco. However, the same cannot be said for other researchers within the [Government of Canada] and academia.”

Judith Leblanc, the Senior Science Advisor with the DFOs National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG), wrote: “Access to the product is getting more and more difficult, even to ECCC, not just DFO or universities. Actual regulatory measures don’t make it mandatory for companies to provide products to departments.”

In June 2016 Simon sent an email to Nalco asking about its refusal to supply Corexit to Craig Purchase, saying his study “will assist the Government of Canada in the development of science-based policy and regulations for Canada’s oil spill response program.” Nalco responded: “Does the Fisheries and Oceans entity work with Environment Canada?” Simon explained how the two departments’ mandates differ but also intersect and that both departments are “involved in the provision of scientific information to guide the development of the regulatory process, including information on fate, behavior and toxicity.” Nalco responded that the company is only able to release samples “directly related to regulatory use and process” and that “it is recommended that we not allow toxicity testing.”

As a follow up to Simon’s email, NCAG manager Cecilia Lougheed drafted an official letter from the Government of Canada to Nalco.  It took nine months for it to finally be sent, in April 2017.

Nalco acknowledged receipt of the letter, but now, as of this writing more than a year later, no further discussions have taken place.

As for Purchase, DFO spokesperson Sarah Gilbert tells me via email that “the government-funded researcher completed his research, and the outcomes of his project will be published in 2018.”

But this isn’t entirely true. Purchase tells me he was never able to do the work using the surface washing agent (Corexit 9580), the one that would most likely be used in the event that a shoreline becomes contaminated with oil. The window of opportunity for that study — when capelin was spawning — was tight. Given they breed in very close proximity to the shore, the potential impacts of this particular “cleaner” on capelin, a crucial forage fish for Atlantic cod, should be studied. With the samples of Corexit 9500 Purchase was able to access from DFO in Halifax, he managed to complete two other studies that are set to be published very soon.

Remarkably, according to ECCC, the refusals by Nalco to provide samples to the DFO “did not have any bearing on the decision” to include Corexit in the spill-treating agent list regulation. The ECCC says it received samples of Corexit 9500 on two occasions in three years, enough apparently for it to decide that the product is “suitable for inclusion in the regulation, noting that use of the product in an actual spill scenario is contingent on the determination of a net environmental benefit by the appropriate regulatory authority following consultation with ECCC.”[6]This information came from an email in the ATIP release dated January 12, 2017 from Maja Stefanovska, the ECCC’s Senior Communications Advisor. She was drafting “proposed answers” to be sent to … Continue reading

ECCC says it made this decision to include it based on “extensive documented real spill experience and scientific studies by the Department of Environment, other government departments and international agencies, academia and industry, including toxicity testing.”

But when I tried to locate the extensive documentation referenced by the ECCC, I was astonished to find that none of it studied the biggest “real spill experience” we’ve ever had — Deepwater Horizon.

Limited Science, Uninformed Decisions

Thomas King is a DFO oil spill expert with the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. In an interview he tells me that Nalco’s refusals to provide access to Corexit for toxicological testing was because of ongoing litigation around the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“Nalco basically put a hold on all product production,” says King. “So, when DFO and others in Canada requested it at the time, Nalco had a hold on its product and didn’t want to release anything that was associated with toxicology in that it may actually cause problems with their litigation.”

King says he never had any trouble himself getting samples but that’s because he doesn’t do toxicology studies. “Our studies are related to how the dispersants behave and how they degrade and break down.”

I ask King what he thinks about the products. “We look at all the scenarios and try to determine what the benefits of using it are, does it minimize the impact on the environment, is it going to reduce cleanup costs?” he replies. “But there’s a lot of controversy because if it’s used in an area where it can impact a fishery or have long term chronic affects to a fishery, where you have to shut down the fishery for long periods of time, or reduce the quotas for x-number of years, then the recommendation would be not to use it, and that’s why you have to do the toxicology side of it.”

King says there needs to be more research. “Generally oil contains chemicals that are toxic to marine or aquatic species, however, it floats on the surface 99 per cent of the time. If you apply a dispersant, it breaks it up and makes it more bio-available because it pushes it into the water column. So now you have massive quantities of oil that are now in the water column that can actually impact a larger number of species than if it was just on the surface.”

But King also says that concentrations of the chemicals “should dilute rapidly as the dispersed oil is transported by water currents over a large spatial area.” He says scientific research is required to confirm that using a dispersant is better than “natural attenuation,” which is when the oil is allowed to biodegrade naturally without any human intervention.

King says there’s so much we don’t know about how the Corexit products behave in different environmental conditions like “whether the sea is calm, whether it’s in a freshwater area, in a brackish or more marine-like conditions… the seasonal affects, what happens if there’s cold water, what happens if there’s ice, what happens in warmer temperatures?”

King says that with increased growth in oil and gas production and increases in transport and tanker traffic, the risk increases too. He wonders if we know enough to make the right decisions.

“It takes a great deal of science to answer all these questions… if there’s limited science then you can’t come up with the best response.”

Synergistic Toxicity

If there is one scientific study about Corexit that managed to capture the headlines since the Macondo blowout, it’s the one that appeared three years later in the journal Environmental Pollution, titled “Synergistic toxicity of Macondo crude oil and dispersant Corexit 9500A® to the Brachionus plicatilis species complex (Rotifera).”

The study found that the combination of oil and Corexit 9500 was 52 times more toxic than oil alone. Lead researcher Roberto Rico-Martinez, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, tells me that by using ratios of sea water with Macondo oil and Corexit 9500 his team set out to reproduce in the lab the conditions that existed in the Gulf of Mexico after the spill. Rico-Martinez says they found that when the dispersant was added to the oil it made the oil more soluble — breaking it down into smaller droplets — which also made it more bioavailable and therefore more acutely toxic for the marine rotifer, the microscopic marine organism used in the study.

The 2013 study also points to other articles in the mainstream scientific literature at the time that found that a combination of dispersed oil and dispersants was more toxic than crude oil alone to a variety of organisms, including hard and soft corals, some juvenile fish species, herring embryos, rainbow trout embryos, and some freshwater species.

Rico-Martinez also says that when they set out to conduct the study, they ran into a big (and now familiar) road block: Nalco refused to provide them with samples of Corexit 9500 for their work. “I was lucky that a fellow professor at Georgia Tech was working with [the product] and Macondo oil, and he provided us with both Corexit and Macondo oil for our research,” he says.

Later that same year, a “Commentary” appeared in Environmental Pollution, critical of Rico-Martinez’s synergistic toxicity work. It questioned the team’s methodology, among other things, and raised questions about the study’s credibility. The lead author of the commentary was Gina Coelho, who Rico-Martinez tells me was an environmental consultant working for BP at the time. He says he found out about the affiliation from a journalist but decided not to pursue it with the journal.

Gina Coelho

In fact, Coelho was “Chief Scientist on the Deepwater Horizon monitoring of subsurface dispersant injection, and served as a scientific liaison for BP on dispersant issues during and after the spill response.” That work was contracted through a company called Ecosystem Management & Associates, a Lusby, Maryland firm, of which Coelho was president.

Likewise, her two coauthors (Don Aurand and James Clark) of the Commentary had also been employees of Ecosystem Management & Associates — Don Aurand was vice-president of the firm, and James Clark has represented the firm at conferences.

In August 2012, Ecosystem Management & Associates was acquired by HDR Inc., and both Coelho and Aurand stayed on as researchers. HDR continued to work for BP and other oil companies when the Commentary was published in February 2013.

In 2016, Coelho joined the Sponson Group, a Mansfield, Texas firm that contracts with BP and other clients. In November 2017, the Sponson Group was hired by BP to produce the “Spill Impact Mitigation Assessment” for BP’s Scotian Basin exploratory well. Coelho and two other Sponson scientists are co-authors of the assessment.

I tried to reach Coelho directly, but she didn’t get back to me.

So I contacted Elsevier, the publisher of Environmental Pollution and asked about Coelho’s undisclosed conflict of interest. A couple of months later communications officer Jonathan Davis got back to me via email:

There was no way that the handling editor who handled this paper knew that Dr. Coelho was also employed by British Petroleum while the commentary was published. The editor is considering the available information and if necessary, will raise the allegations with the author in accordance with the COPE [the Committee on Publication Ethics] and Elsevier’s best practices.

But for Rico-Martinez and his team, the seed of doubt was successfully planted. The oil and gas industry could now point to commentary in a reputable journal refuting the claims of Rico-Martinez’s team.

Indeed, even some of Canada’s government scientists had been fooled.

The emails obtained through the Access to Information request show that in May 2016, leading up to the listing of both Corexit products for use in Canada’s offshore, Brian Robinson, an aquatic science chemist with COOGER was skeptical of Rico-Martinez’s study.

Remarkably, Robinson was doing some research himself on how diluted bitumen and more conventional oils react with dispersant and found they were forming different sized droplets, “which may have an impact on bioavailability and toxicity,” he wrote in an email to Cory Dubetz, a Science Advisor with the National Contaminants Advisory Committee. But then Robinson added, referring to the Rico-Martinez study: “I suspect one of the reasons the dispersant manufacturers are reluctant to release their product for testing is because of some poor quality scientific studies leading to alarming headlines in the media.” Dubetz responded: “Yes, I recall reading some strong criticism of the Rico-Martinez exposure work with 9500.” Dubetz attached Coelho’s commentary. “The concern from the manufacturers is understandable in this light.”

Despite the industry’s attempt to discredit his work, Rico-Martinez says his study has been cited 117 times and that most of the citations are positive.

I ask him what he thinks we should do in the case of an oil spill. “I would not recommend Corexit. If possible in the event of a small oil spill I would recommend mechanical ways to collect or break up the spill. However, for big oil spills we really need to explore new techniques with nano-particles or other alternatives that might help disperse the oil in a more environmentally friendly way.” But he goes on to say that unfortunately many of these new technologies have not been developed enough.

BP: Reckless and Grossly Negligent

The Macondo blowout and the resulting scrutiny and 2014 federal court ruling of BP’s “recklessness,” gross negligence, and willful misconduct revealed how lax the approval process for oil and gas development in the US and Canada is, which isn’t really surprising given that governments take the initiative to court and woo companies to invest in their oil and gas reserves, leaving little appetite to then stringently regulate them. [7] In 2014, a federal US judge ruled in the Clean Water Act trial that BP was 67 per cent to blame for the spill while Transocean, the owner of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, was 30 per cent … Continue reading

As it turns out, BP’s use of the dispersant Corexit after the disaster ended up being one of the few tricks in its bag. According to sworn testimony from former BP CEO Tony Hayward, BP did not have a capping stack, which would have “instantly” gone into place to temporarily stop the flow of gushing oil while a relief well was being drilled. He stated, “We didn’t have some of the things that you would ideally want.”

But having a capping stack ready to go was neither required by government nor was it standard industry practice at the time. This has since changed in the US where an aggressive overhaul of oil and gas safety regulations has meant that operators must now have “immediate access” to a capping stack.

But not so in Canada.[8]In Canada, a capping stack is required to be ready to deploy within 24 hours only in the case of Arctic drilling because a delay of several weeks could mean the blowout would continue after the sea … Continue reading In 2016, the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by Stantec for BP’s exploratory well on the Scotian Slope says that if a blowout were to occur BP would “commence the mobilization” of the capping stack from Stavanger, Norway, which would take from 12 to 19 days with the well capped between 13 and 25 days after the incident. If a relief well had to be drilled, that could take upwards of 165 days.

Location of the Macondo well/ Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico, adjacent to the continental shelf and about 77 km from shore. CNSOPB describes the basins in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Nova Scotia as “Atlantic-facing look-alike basins.” The Gulf of Mexico was used as an “analogue for the deepwater slope assessment” off Nova Scotia. (Image from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adapted from US Geological Survey)

In the Gulf of Mexico, without a capping stack nearby, the company instead activated a bunch of ill-fated endeavours — what they call in industry lingo as “top kills” and “junk shots” — that were suited for shallow water. Not only had BP engineers miscalculated the rate at which oil would be flowing in the event of a blowout — they thought 5,000 barrels a day, but it turned out to be closer to 50,000 — they had also tried to use the blowout preventer, which had never been tried before at a depth of 1,500 m below the ocean surface. In any event, that failed because the blowout preventor ran out of battery power.

Then they tried shooting heavy drilling mud and a mix of golf balls, rubber balls, and other junk into the well in an attempt to clot the flow, but that failed too.

So they drilled two relief wells to intercept the original well above the reservoir of oil and then they sent heavy drilling muds and cement down these wells to permanently seal the original well. This took three months. The well was finally sealed and cemented permanently, or in oil and gas lingo “well kill operations” were completed, five months after the blowout.

The use of dispersants in the case of Deepwater Horizon began early on in the blowout and about a month later the amounts being used increased significantly and in controversial ways.

First, the amount used was unprecedented, nearly seven million litres all told, and more than 40 per cent of that was applied at the wellhead, 1,500 meters underwater at the source of the blowout. The rest of the product was sprayed from planes over the oil coated waters. Little or no prior testing of the product had ever been done and like here in Canada, the regulatory system in the US pre-authorized its use without any guidelines on quantities allowed.

According to Robert Bea, a Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley and co-director (and founder) of the university’s Centre for Catastrophic Risk Management, the documentation that BP submitted to Canada’s Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) indicates that BP has not properly assessed the risks of accidents and malfunctions. Bea is also known as a “forensic engineer,” an expert in some of history’s worst engineering disasters.

In a recent opinion piece, Bea wrote specifically on BP’s exploratory well on the Scotian Slope:

BP’s assessment of the likelihood of an uncontrolled blowout [on the Scotian Slope] are much too low, based on the Nova Scotia exploratory drilling conditions… Given the potential severe consequences of a sustained uncontrolled blowout during BP’s exploratory drilling operations offshore Nova Scotia and the relatively high likelihoods of such a blowout, the Canadian governments with responsibilities for offshore oil and gas developments should do all that is possible to assure that such a miserable failure will not be realized.

The Macondo blowout showed that when faced with an emergency of catastrophic proportions, decisions are often made in the absence of key scientific information. And as we’ve seen, this could just as easily happen here and it’s a position our governments have a responsibility not to put us in.

As doomed as it was, Macondo, the exploratory well, actually bears little resemblance to Macondo, the fictional town in Garcia Marquez’s novel. The destiny of only one of them was fated.

As for the other, let’s just hope we haven’t set the stage for a repeat performance.


1 The US government estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, but BP argued in court it was much lower at 2.5 million barrels. In 2015 a judge decided to split the difference and ruled BP was responsible for the release of 3.1 million barrels.
2  The nine Corexit-related studies are: 1. Toxicity of Diluted Bitumen to Aquatic Species (Langlois, RMCC, 2014); 2. Molecular Mechanisms of Action of Diluted Bitumen and Dispersant in Fish (Langlois, RMCC, 2014-2016); 3. Molecular Mechanisms of Action of Diluted Bitumen and Dispersant in Fish (Langlois, RMCC, 2016-2018); 4. Toxicity of Diluted Bitumen to Canadian Marine and Freshwater Fish Species (Langlois, Queen’s University, 2014-2017); 5. Toxicity Testing of Diluted Bitumen and Chemical Dispersants in Pacific Coast Marine Species (Environment Canada, North Vancouver Toxicological Lab, 2014-2015); 6. The Environmental Effects of Diluted Bitumen on Pacific Estuarine and Marine Organisms in the Straights of Georgia/ Juan de Fuca area of BC (Kennedy, SFU, 2015-2017); 7. Effets Biologiques Sous-letaux sur la Moule Bleue des Petroles Classique et Non Classiques Disperses Physiquement et Chimiquement en Milieu Marin Froid (St. Louis, 2015-2017); 8. The Toxicity of Molecular Effects of Mechanically and Chemically Dispersed Diluted Bitumen to Eastern Canadian Fish Species (Langlois, Queens University, 2015-2017); 9. Impacts of Crude Oil and Dispersants on Capelin Reproductive Performance (Purchase, Memorial University, 2016-2017).
3 In response to Davis’ report, in June of 2016 Minister LeBlanc’s office received letters from 10 Nova Scotian Municipal and Town Units calling on the removal of Shell’s lease units 3 and 4.
4 There have also been scores of news articles about the human health effects of the dispersant, particularly among the oil clean-up workers and fishers. Respiratory ailments, headaches, memory loss, skin rashes, vision and balance problems, tightness in the chest, burning eyes, are among the complaints of those who came into contact with the chemicals. For more info see: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/gulf-spill-oil-dispersants-associated-health-symptoms-cleanup-workers
5 The Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) essentially evaluates the “trade-off situations whereby acceptance of certain adverse effects may be necessary to avoid other, more significant adverse environmental effects on habitats and receptors, like oiling of marine birds and shoreline habitats.” From BP’s 2016 Scotian Basin Exploration Drilling Project – Environmental Impact Statement (Stantec), pp. 639-640.
6 This information came from an email in the ATIP release dated January 12, 2017 from Maja Stefanovska, the ECCC’s Senior Communications Advisor. She was drafting “proposed answers” to be sent to CBC journalist Paul Withers, who had submitted the following questions to the ECCC for a piece on the Nalco refusal including:  “Did Nalco refuse to provide EC with Corexit samples?” “Did EC approve the use of this product without conducting toxicity tests?” What impact, if any, did the refusal have on EC decision to approve Corexit?”
7  In 2014, a federal US judge ruled in the Clean Water Act trial that BP was 67 per cent to blame for the spill while Transocean, the owner of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, was 30 per cent responsible, and Haliburton, in charge of the well cementing process was three percent to blame. Under the Act fines can be based on a cost per barrel of oil spilled, up to $4,300 per barrel, at the discretion of the judge but the government estimate of the number of barrels spilled — 4.2 million barrels — was disputed by BP, who say only 2.5 million barrels were spilled. The case is currently under appeal.
8 In Canada, a capping stack is required to be ready to deploy within 24 hours only in the case of Arctic drilling because a delay of several weeks could mean the blowout would continue after the sea ice formed, which would be impossible to mitigate.

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia. email: linda@halifaxexaminer.ca; Website: lindapannozzo.ca

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  1. I cannot begin to say how excellent this piece of reporting is on a subject which is intentionally obfuscated by both industry and governments. You deserve an award of some kind for this piece.

  2. Thank you very much. Remind me: how is BP still a corporate entity? For the life of me, I cannot understand how an organization that kills its workers and destroys wide swaths of natural life, and whose pollutants continue to mark the whole glorious Gulf of Mexico, is permitted to keep going. It is a toxic enterprise at its heart.

  3. Top notch work, as usual, Linda. Thank you for your work. The political brain trust is certainly flirting with disaster here. When will Nova Scotia learn? Until the sheople wake up and demand better, this place will continue to be an environmental backwater.

  4. This is a fantastic run down of so many things. The Gulf of Mexico spill, the interplay of government testing, academic research, and industry secrecy, and the potential danger in our own backyard of such spills. Thank you!

  5. After the Deepwater Horizon incident the BOP manufacturers went to work and this is just one result less than 2 years ago :
    and there is also this : https://www.nov.com/Segments/Rig_Technologies/Rig_Equipment/Offshore/Drilling_Pressure_Control/Subsea_Systems/Blowout_Preventers/RAM_Blowout_Preventers/20k_RAM_BOP.aspx
    We need to know what equipment is being used today, not what was used 8 years ago.
    Did the author contact CNSOPB to determine what has changed since the Deepwater Horizon incident ?

    1. You make a good point. According to BP’s Environmental Impact Statement (http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/p80109/116298E.pdf) Table 8.3.2 “Key Findings from the Macondo Well Blowout Incident and Application to the Scotian Basin Exploration Drilling Project” the BOP failure in the Macondo blowout was a result of “potential weaknesses in the testing regime and maintenance management system for the BOP.” On page 647 of the more than 900-page document, you can see there is a list of how BP plans in this case to ensure the same kind of failure doesn’t happen here, including third party certification and what looks to be the use of possibly newer equipment: “BP and others in industry have advanced industry standards for BOP equipment through the American Petroleum Institute.” So there may be some differences there, though they don’t give any specifics in terms of the actual type of BOP they’re using, except to state that it’s rated to 15,000 psi working pressure. However, as I mentioned in the piece, Robert Bea is a forensic engineer and he’s familiar with both the Macondo well failure and with the documentation that BP submitted for the project here and he concludes that BP has not properly assessed the risks of accidents and malfunctions. I will defer to him on this. Furthermore, if my piece shows anything, when the drive is to save money (and make money), it’s often at the expense of environmental protection. It can result in shoddy maintenance, insufficient equipment at hand, and what my piece was mostly about, the making of crucial decisions based on incomplete and stifled scientific investigation.