Newfoundland minister demands answers from Husky after huge offshore oil spill

Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore regulator and a provincial cabinet minister are demanding answers from Husky Energy after what's believed to be the largest oil spill in the province's history.

'They should not be mute,' says Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady

Husky Energy estimates 250,000 litres of oil spilled from a flowline to the FPSO SeaRose Friday.

Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore regulator and a provincial cabinet minister are demanding answers from Husky Energy after what's believed to be the largest oil spill in the province's history.

An underwater vehicle took to the sea on Monday to assess the damage, as the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) kicked off its investigation into the spill.

As of Monday afternoon, Husky Energy was refusing media interviews — something that didn't sit well with Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady.

"They should not be mute," she told reporters after question period at the House of Assembly. "They should be out giving people [information on] what is happening and what they're doing to mitigate, and what their observations are."

Siobhan Coady is the minister of Natural Resources in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Husky Energy estimates 250 cubic metres — or 250,000 litres — was spilled from a flowline when the Searose floating production storage and offloading vessel (FPSO) tried to restart oil production on Friday after a vicious storm the day before.

The province was hit with the strongest storm in the world that day, and sea conditions remained hazardous the next day, according to C-NLOPB chief executive officer Scott Tessier.

Waves were recorded at 8.4 metres — about 28 feet — at the time the SeaRose tried to reconnect and start production.

"They were still rough," Tessier told CBC News in an interview Monday afternoon. "We'll investigate this incident thoroughly, and we'll see exactly what the thinking was by the operator in that case."

Scott Tessier is the CEO of the C-NLOPB. (CBC)

According to the C-NLOPB, six vessels are in the area about 350 kilometres south-southeast of St. John's, monitoring for effects and have discovered four oiled birds so far.

A flyover on Monday showed no observable sheen, but Coady said the oil could have dissipated amidst rough seas by now.

The underwater survey by a remote-operated vehicle will seek to determine the current state of the SeaRose and whether it was a "batch spill" of a finite amount of oil, or a continuing leak.

Decision to start up required no approval

Questions have been raised in the House of Assembly as to why the SeaRose would have attempted to reconnect, and who would have made that call.

Tessier said the decision would have been Husky Energy's and did not require approval from the regulatory board.

If they did everythingaccording to protocol, then we need to change the protocol- Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady

Each oil production company in Newfoundland's offshore makes its own decisions on when they shut down and start up amid rugged seas. They are bound by legislation to develop safety plans for such situations and are required to follow those plans at all times.

Whether or not Husky Energy followed its safety and environmental protection plan remains unknown.

"We, as the regulator, have those questions as well," Tessier said.

Does Husky have 'systemic' problem?

This is the second serious incident by Husky Energy's SeaRose FPSO in the last year.

In January, production on the vessel was suspended by the C-NLOPB because of how the company handled a close call with an iceberg that got too close to the vessel.

"It's difficult to say whether two incidents is a pattern," Tessier said. "These are two serious incidents within a relatively short time-frame. So that's part of our investigation, is to get to the root cause and determine if this is a systemic issue with this operator."

When asked what the potential punishment could be for Husky Energy, Coady gave a stern response.

"The C-NLOPB does have the right to pull the operating licence," she said. "That's the ultimate they could do."

Coady said the provincial government will also investigate the spill, and investigate the C-NLOPB's response to it.

The amount of oil reportedly spilled in the White Rose oil field off the coast of Newfoundland is equivalent to 1,572 barrels of oil, 125,000 bottles of water and 704,225 cans of pop. (CBC Graphics)

If it's determined Husky Energy followed all the rules, Coady said that could still pose a serious problem for the offshore industry.

"If they did everything according to protocol, then we need to change the protocol."

Meanwhile, Tessier said the C-NLOPB feels obligated to stand in front of the cameras and give updates while Husky Energy stays quiet.

"We do our best if the company is not forthcoming," he said. "I'll appear before the media to try to answer the questions the best I can in the public interest."

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