Red flags raised over spill damage risks at Old Harry reservoir

New warnings are being raised over proposed drilling at the Old Harry reservoir beneath the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with research that suggests an oil spill at the site could affect coastlines in Atlantic Canada.

Drilling beneath Gulf of St. Lawrence could harm environment more than forecast, research says

Oil drilling risks on the St.Lawrence

9 years ago
Duration 1:34
Drilling beneath Gulf of St. Lawrence could affect coastlines in Atlantic Canada

New warnings are being raised over proposed drilling at the Old Harry reservoir beneath the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with research that suggests an oil spill at the site could affect coastlines in Atlantic Canada. 

A Radio Canada-CBC investigation in partnership with the Institut des Sciences de la Mer de Rimouski warns an oil spill could be much worse than previously thought.

The investigation was aired Sunday night on a documentary produced by Radio-Canada's science magazine program Découverte.

The Old Harry reservoir straddles the maritime border of Quebec and Newfoundland, and is north of the Maritime provinces. It is estimated to contain as much as two billion barrels of recoverable oil and and 5,000 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Corridor Resources is seeking permission from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board to do exploratory drilling at the site.

Corridor hired Ottawa-based SL Ross Environmental Research to do a study on the effects an oil spill could have in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The report, presented in 2012, found that oil would quickly break down and a spill would be minimal and be unlikely to reach land.

Researchers take issue with report

But Dany Dumont, professor of physical oceanography at ISMER, said the report is flawed.

Reseacher Dany Dumont hopes that regulators take independent research on the possible risks of an oil spill into account. (CBC)

"It all started when we began to notice some flaws to our ideas in the methodology of this report and also triggered by the conversation that was going on between environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, whom we're working with sometimes," Dumont said in an interview. 

"They were contesting, or arguing about some flaws in the report, so we decided to have our look in it," said Dumont.

The study looked at  where the water passing through Old Harry would go.

"We found that the extent of the oil transiting over Old Harry is much wider than what's presented in SL Ross," said Dumont. "If we consider just that for example, degradation is slower due to the cold environment we are in."

A study published this spring found that the areas most likely to be affected by a spill at the site would be the coastlines of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. 

But the magnitude of any such spill could be a significant factor, the researchers found. For instance, while a concentrated spill (of less than 10 days) would affect specific areas, a major spill (lasting up to 100 days) would affect all of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Documentary launches own buoys

Then the Radio-Canada program Découverte tested the flow assertions of the study. 

Dany Dumont, right, and Daniel Bourgault, professor of physical oceanography, point to the site of the OId Harry offshore oil prospect. (CBC)

Three buoys were deployed from a boat at the Old Harry site. Their movement was then monitored electronically.

It took 12 days for the buoys to arrive at Port Saunders on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula — a flow rate much faster than even what Dumont's study had predicted. 

Dumont said before any decision is made to allow drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, his research should be taken into consideration.

"I would argue that it would be really great and not only great but also essential that independent science is also considered in the  decision-making process."

Gaps in original report 'dangerous'

Meanwhile, the original research done for Corridor Resources has drawn criticism from an oceanographer at Memorial University in St. John's.

Len Zedel, an associate professor at Memorial University, told CBC News that gaps in the SL Ross report are dangerous.

"Dangerous, in the sense that if the oil is heavier than expected, [and] you had more escape than you would like, it's going to end up on the shorelines all around Newfoundland, potentially Quebec, P.E.I., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia — they're all potentially exposed to that risk," said Zedel.

Zedel added he finds any assertion that oil won't reach shore following a spill hard to believe. He said it's time for a discussion on how far people are willing to go with drilling in the gulf.

"I guess the thing that pains me about this is [that what] we're talking about,  it's only exploration. It's just going to be an exploration well," he said.

"That's true. But unless we as a community are prepared to follow up and have a production [plan], well then, it makes no sense to do the exploration."

Zedel said once exploration starts, it will be hard to stop.


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He is the host and producer of the lunchtime radio program The Signal.