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PhD student Tanya Gulliver: Can Canada handle a Gulf-style oil disaster?

PhD student Tanya Gulliver: Can Canada handle a Gulf-style oil disaster?

If a monster iceberg (like those now being formed from the melting of the Greenland ice shield) was to collide with the Hibernia platform, says Michael Klare, a noted American oil expert, author and academic, it could prove to be far more devastating than last year’s BP spill, which dumped almost five million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, wrote Tanya Gulliver, a PhD candidate in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, in Reader’s Digest’s May 2011 issue:

That’s because Hibernia – one of the world’s largest drilling platforms, weighing over a million tonnes – is located in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, rife with high waves, fog and violent storms. The disaster would push cleanup crews to the absolute limit; plugging the leak might be nearly impossible.

Are we prepared? Hardly. Most Canadians still don’t see Canada as an oil-producing nation, even though this country is the seventh-largest producer of crude oil in the world: We produce 2.8 million barrels a day, a number that is expected to grow to 4.3 million barrels a day by 2025.

As a result of this perception, many are clueless about the risky oil exploration and production activities occurring here every day. And without the drama of a catastrophe or heartbreaking images of oil-covered birds, it’s all too easy for Canadians to remain blissfully unaware.

I know this because until recently, I was one of those Canadians. I consider myself an environmentalist, but also a realist. I recycle and turn off lights, and I drive a car and eat processed food. I understand that we can’t live without oil – at least not right now. Furthermore, as a researcher studying disasters, vulnerability and risk at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, I thought I was fairly informed about the risks stemming from offshore drilling.

But travelling around New Orleans after last year’s Deepwater Horizon explosion exposed me to the impact that spills can have on land, people and wildlife. It wasn’t pretty, and it inspired me to dig deeper into the dangers back home. What I discovered scared me.

Between 1999 and 2009 there were 156 oil spills (totalling over 2,600 barrels) off the coast of Newfoundland. The Terra Nova platform, 350 kilometres southeast of St. John’s, was responsible for 36 of them, including an incidence of equipment malfunction in 2004 that led to Canada’s worst offshore oil spill to date—1,000 barrels of oil gushed into the Atlantic Ocean, with high waves and bad weather impeding cleanup.

. . .

Let’s be frank. Clean energy solutions that would reduce our dependence on oil are still a ways away. But being realistic means recognizing that short of imposing a moratorium on offshore drilling (not a bad idea), we need to ensure that our technologies, teams and training are tough enough to prevent a Deepwater Horizon-style spill from happening in Canada.

And at the moment, they’re not.

Gulliver's complete article is available on Reader's

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.