Nfld. & Labrador

Environment commissioner planned to scrutinize handling of marine oil spills

A federal watchdog has launched work to put the management of marine oil spills under the microscope, but the environment commissioner's audit plan predates the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current status of the work is unclear.

Status of audit unclear, as COVID-19 has had ‘significant impact’ on federal watchdog

The federal environment commissioner is planning a performance audit on the management of marine oil spills. In this file photo, diesel fuel from the sunken Nathan E. Stewart tugboat floats in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella, B.C., in 2016. (April Bencze/Heiltsuk Nation)

A federal watchdog launched work last year to put the management of oil spills off Newfoundland under the microscope, according to correspondence obtained by CBC News through access to information.

But the environment commissioner's audit plan predates the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current status of the work is unclear.

A spokesperson told CBC News the federal auditor general's office does not comment on ongoing audits, but added that the pandemic "has had a significant impact on the government's and our office's work and priorities."

In early December, a senior official in the auditor general's office wrote top brass at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard to inform them the performance audit was set to begin.

"This work will be published in the spring 2021 report of the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development," the letter advised.

The commissioner, who is appointed by the auditor general, is responsible for doing performance audits, and providing analyses and recommendations of federal efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development. 

According to that December letter, officials were expected to meet to discuss the initial scope and objective of the audit work.

DFO declined comment on what happened after that, steering questions back to the auditor general's office.

Regulator says it hasn't been made aware of audit

There were four significant spills in the Newfoundland offshore oil industry during 2018 and 2019.

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board told CBC News it hasn't been made aware by the environment commissioner or the federal government "of any planned audit that applies to any activity which we regulate."

The regulator said it will "co-operate fully" if that happens.

The C-NLOPB hosted a spill prevention and response forum in St. John's in December that featured more than 100 participants from government, oil and gas, and fishing industries.

Watchdog's past work

A decade ago, the environment commissioner tabled a performance audit on oil spills from ships.

According to a DFO memorandum obtained through access to information, it made eight recommendations to the department and coast guard that have since been addressed.

In 2012, the commissioner completed an audit of Atlantic offshore activities, which concluded that regulators had taken adequate steps to ensure operators were complying with environmental requirements.

But the watchdog questioned whether the board was ready to respond to a major oil spill. At the time, the C-NLOPB brushed the criticism aside.

In 2016, the province and feds addressed another issue previously flagged by the commissioner, beefing up liability provisions for the offshore, in an effort to ensure that companies — and not taxpayers —were on the hook for cleanup costs.

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