The Terra Nova oil spill - protected from scrutiny


Terra Nova FPSO - November 28, 2004 (Pierre Ryan photo)


On November 21, 2004, at 1250 AM - a PetroCanada press release reported a spill of 220-250 barrels from their Terra Nova FPSO off the SE coast of Newfoundland.  About two hours later, a CNLOPB press release reported "some 200" barrels spilled.  About twelve hours later, once there had been some surveillance, a PetroCanada press release reported the spill to be as much as 1,000 barrels or 160,000 liters, later referring to 170,000 litres which is more than 1,000 barrels. (CBC story)

By November 25, the spill's extent was estimated to be over 50 square kilometers (CBC story). The spill area is frequented by hundreds of thousands of seabirds that are moving through in November, mostly Thick-billed Murres and Dovekies. The expected seabird mortality from such a slick could be expected to number from hundreds of birds, to tens of thousands, or even up to one hundred thousand (CBC story).

No Canadian Coast Guard ships responded to the spill.

Drift blocks used to estimate seabird mortality, which were available on the FPSO, were not deployed until several days after the spill (too late to be of any use) and no serious attempt was made to recover these at sea - hampering the ability to quantify ecological damage.

On November 27, 2004, six days after the spill, after brief daily surveillance flights, the first government biologist (Pierre Ryan, CWS St. John's) arrived at the spill scene to carry out ship-based seabird surveys - these lasted two days and were the only surface assessment of the oil spill's effects on wildlife.

Leslie Harris (the late President Emeritus of Memorial University, and head of the Terra Nova Environmental Assessment Panel) made a very important statement about spill response "I felt a little bit cheated because we worked hard putting the recommendations together and thought they were not at all extravagent what were recommending....but the board overruled us..."



On April 7, 2005, in a CBC interview a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist estimated the seabird mortality associated with the spill to be somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 birds; this figure was initially reported erroneously by CBC as an estimate of 100,000 (CBC story).

No publicly accessible web pages (other than this one) have been set up to provide information about the spill

Calls for independent observers to be posted on the Terra Nova FPSO have been rejected (e.g., those of MUN President Emeritus Leslie Harris, head of the original Terra Nova Environmental Assessment Panel)

On July 29, 2005, charges were laid against Petro-Canada by CNLOPB (CBC story) "The CNLOPB says the incident is a violation of the Canada-Newfoundland Atlantic Accord Implementation Act under section 161(1). The section says no person shall cause or permit a spill on or from a portion of the offshore area."

On May 3, 2006, Petro-Canada pleaded guilty to the charges and under the terms of a sentencing agreement that was designed to restore the benefits back to the environment, $120,000 of the penalty will be allocated to the federally administered Environmental Damages Fund. A further $100,000 will be used to fund environmental science merit scholarships at Memorial University and its Sir Wilfred Grenfell College campus. A fine of $70,000 will also be paid as part of the decision.

PetroCanada's third quarter 2005 profits rose to a record $614 million, up from $410 million for the same period in 2004.

Canada's Federal Government budget surplus expanded to between $8.1 and $13.4 billion in 2005, largely as a result of high petroleum revenues.

In October 2006, nearly two years after the spill, a government report discussing the effects on seabirds was released. Due to lack of data, no death toll could be estimated, but the study concluded that between 10,000 and 16,000 auks were "put at risk" by the spill. To download the report click here.

In December 2006, after much delay, CNLOPB finally released information on oil spills at offhore sites during 1997-2006 by source - these are spills the companies admit ocurred (no independent verification or monitoring for completeness was available) (click here to view) (whups - the info is gone - May 9, 2010)


Understanding the government's response to the oil spill

The laws related to offshore oil and gas are extremely complicated, but it appears that under Canadian Federal Law and the Atlantic Accord:

Pollution caused by offshore oil and gas extraction is exempted from the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (122 (1) j see here)

Pollution caused by offshore oil and gas extraction seems to be exempted from the Fisheries Act (42 (7) see here)

Pollution caused by offshore oil and gas extraction is exempted from the Canada Shipping Act (655 (2) see here)

However, pollution from offshore oil and gas developmentactivity is subject to the Canada-Newfoundland Atlantic Accord Implementation Act as follows:

"161. (1) No person shall cause or permit a spill on or from any portion of the offshore area.

Duty to report spills (2) Where a spill occurs in any portion of the offshore area, any person who at the time of the spill is carrying on any work or activity related to the exploration for or development or production of petroleum in the area of the spill shall, in the manner prescribed by the regulations, report the spill to the Chief Conservation Officer.

Duty to take reasonable measures (3) Every person required to report a spill under subsection (2) shall, as soon as possible, take all reasonable measures consistent with safety and the protection of the environment to prevent any further spill, to repair or remedy any condition resulting from the spill and to reduce or mitigate any danger to life, health, property or the environment that results or may reasonably be expected to result from the spill."



Bill C-15 (passed in June 2005) was supposed to give significant increased protection to seabirds from oil dumping, including protection of migratory birds (Migratory Bird Convention Act) out to the 200 nm limit. However, the Canadian government's response to an alleged spill of approximately 300 L of crude oil from the Hibernia platform on about January 29, 2006 suggests offshore oil&gas operations are exempt from C-15. Such small spills are thought to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds each year off Newfoundland. The Canadian government's BOAS (Birds Oiled At Sea) web page states the following: "Government agencies, industry, and the private sector have to work together as a unit to bring this to a halt. We can no longer tolerate the release of oil into our pristine marine environment resulting in the death and injury to thousands of seabirds. Narrator: We have the eyes, the ears, the technology... we have the will...each person, each department provides a vital piece of the puzzle... working together, we make a powerful team...working together, we will stamp out this unconscionable environmental crime. Our only effective long term solution is to prevent oil dumping in the first place. Canadians demand it... the world expects it.... the seabirds deserve it... because for them there's no second chance..". Nevertheless, no charges were laid after the January 29 spill, which resembles 55 other recent spills from offshore oil platforms off Newfoundland.

All government agencies have agreed to not independently investigate, report publicly on, or otherwise do anything about oil spills resulting from offshore oil and gas extraction. Government agencies may 'advise' the CNLOPB if asked, but the CNLOPB (a non-governmental organization stacked with O&G industry insiders) is the 'lead' agency investigating pollution caused by offshore oil and gas extraction and is sole body that can authorize release of information about oil pollution et c. to the public. To date CNLOPB has released no meaningful information on the November 21, 2004 spill impacts on migratory birds.

Regular oil pollution surveillance flights by Transport Canada, now based in Moncton, N.B. (formerly the responsibility of the Canadian Coast Guard), are not covering offshore oil and gas operations.

The methods used by oil companies to monitor environmental effects of spills such as the Nov ember 2004 spill are unknown. Consequently, in 2007 Dr. Gail Fraser of York University submitted an Access to Information Request for environmental effects monitoring plans. Under section 119(2) of the Atlantic Accord, her request for the protocol used by Petro Canada to monitor its environmental effects was denied. Consequently we still know virtually nothing about how offshore oil and gas developers monitor their pollution.


How does the fine, levied on PetroCanada in relation to the Terra Nova oil spill, compare to other oil spill fines?

In a recent conviction, a Newfoundland and Labrador provincial court judge ordered the Motor Vessel (MV) Nordic Fighter, a Norwegian-registered tanker, to pay a $70,000 penalty for illegally discharging 64 Litres of oil off Placentia Bay on June 22, 2004 ($1,093.75 per litre spilled). At this penalty rate, if found guilty Petro-Canada would have been assigned a fine of $185,937,500 for the Terra Nova spill (based on the estimate of 170,000 litres accidentally spilled November 21, 2004). Coincidentally, Petro-Canada was also assigned a fine of $70,000 for its spill of up to 177,000 Litres ($0.40 per litre spilled). The two spill incidents are not strictly comparable because of differences in the two companies' ability to pay fines, uncertainties about amounts of oil spilled, and because far more vulnerable seabirds are present in the area of the Terra Nova spill (November, shelfbreak at edge of Grand Banks) compared to the time and location of the Nordic Fighter spill (summertime off the south coast of Newfoundland). Nevertheless, it appears that Petro-Canada received a relatively mild penalty.



1) The Canadian government's short term response to the Nov 21 spill (i.e., to document ecological damage) was grossly inadequate (see here).

2) Release of information about the Nov 21 spill and related issues has been inadequate (e.g., Leslie Harris' CBC interview comments).

3) Monitoring of chronic oil pollution from offshore oil and gas activity in general is inadequate. Due to lack of independent observers on platforms, lack of aerial surveillance, and lack of public disclosure of details of pollution events or even the methods used to monitor these, no credible program is in place to monitor pollution.

4) If offshore oil and gas activities are exempt from Bill C-15 (as seems to be the case), then seabirds and other migratory birds appear to have no clearly defined legal protection from harm from these activities.

5) Offshore oil and gas operations in Atlantic Canada are exempt from most other environmental regulations that might protect migratory birds. The effectiveness of the Canada-Newfoundland Atlantic Accord Implementation Act in ensuring mitigation of seabird mortality due to oil spills appears to be negligable.

6) The fine for the Terra Nova spill ($70,000) was ridiculously low and no mitigation action has been taken to replace the dead seabirds.

7) In general, offshore oil and gas developers appear to be unaccountable for damage they cause to the marine environment in Atlantic Canada.

8) Canada's environmental policies related to preventing damage from offshore oil and gas extraction seem to be a product of negligence and incompetence.


Questions in dire need of answers (here)


Photographs of oiled murres - taken at the southeastern tip of Newfoundland one week after the Terra Nova spill

These birds appeared in southeastern Newfoundland after southeast winds in the week following the Terra Nova spill. Among 409 carcasses recovered, "about 25" (actually 19) were tested and showed traces of bilge oil (not crude oil from Terra Nova). Interestingly, Environment Canada made an immediate statement to the press, that none of the birds in the wreck had Terra Nova oil on them, after the initial testing of the small sample of corpses. However, the origin of the oil on the other c. 390 carcasses remains UNKNOWN and all were disposed of by Environment Canada with no possibility for further testing, effectively destroying the majority of the evidence.




"The accidental oil spill from the Terra Nova platform off the coast of Newfoundland can be seen in this RADARSAT-1 image acquired November 23,2004. The image was acquired for the Government of Canada's Integrated SatelliteTracking of Polluters (ISTOP) program, which monitors accidental and illegal oil spills from space to help protect the environment. RADARSAT-1 data © Canadian Space Agency/Agence spatiale canadienne 2004. Received by the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing. Processed and distributed by RADARSAT International."



Letters to and from the Minister of Environment reveal different points of view regarding the Terra Nova oil spill

"...the government's lack of immediate response to a major spill that occurred at the Terra Nova FPSO on November 21, 2004, was disturbing. Moreover we believe the longer-term ecological damage assessment, information release and arrangements for compensation for damage related to this event have all been grossly inadequate." Drs. Ian L. Jones and William A. Montevecchi, Memorial University professors and seabird researchers, May 3, 2005

"...the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) is the lead regulatory agency dealing with oil activity in the Newfoundland offshore area. They have a dedicated team of professionals that administer the Atlantic Accords Act and its regulations regarding pollution." Hon. Stéphane Dion, Minister of Environment, July 11, 2005



Government web page for the Selandang Ayu oil spill in Alaska

a model for oil spill response and public information release

the oil spill took place on December 8, 2004

a massive project to mitigate damage, by replacing the c. 10^5 seabirds killed and lost 'bird years', is now underway (summer 2010)



Recent report examines flaws in scientific review process of B.C.'s offshore oil and gas moratorium

"'Putting the assumptions to the test' examines, and discounts, the key assumptions made by the federal science panel on offshore oil and gas in their submission to the federal goverment in February, 2003. This report, written by Susan Rutherford, L.L.B. and commissioned by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Living Oceans Society, concludes that regulations would not adequately protect B.C.'s coast from the negative impacts of offshore oil and gas."

key findings: "Existing offshore oil and gas regulatory systems in Canada are not independent and at arm's length. While a requlatory system for B.C. has not been adequately defined, experience indicates that any system developed is likely to be overseen by a government-appointed board that is subject to political control... Monitoring and enforcement programs are likely to be under-funded and insufficient."



Jonathan Wills' comment

"It is naïve to imagine, as both British and American politicians do, that a cosy relationship between industry and government can deliver effective regulation when, in fact, there are fundamental divergences of interest: the modern global corporation's financial structure is incapable of taking fully into account the long-term benefits of environmentally benign industrial activity, however "green-minded" individual executives may be; and the public, for whose environment elected governments act as trustees, cannot afford to allow short-term corporate financial objectives to obstruct desperately-need environmental improvements. Anyone who believes otherwise will suffer insuperable difficulties in understanding the relationship between industry, government and the environment. We do not necessarily need more conflict between regulators and the regulated but we do need a clearer definition of their respective roles. We also need more money and time spent on enforcement of the law. Private citizens are not allowed to negotiate with their rulers which laws they choose to observe and which they find it personally advantageous to break; nor should the oil and gas corporations be, even if they have become richer and more powerful than many of the governments they attempt to suborn and co-opt." Jonathan Wills, Bressay, Shetland, 25th May 2000



On September 26, 2005, in response to harassment from Environment Canada over the contents of this web page, I solicited peer review and feedback - read the results here


What happened at Memorial University on Friday, December 10, 2004? (coming)



Thanks to my many colleagues who have provided comments and contributions to this web page.


"Terra Nova oil spill - protected from scrutiny" is maintained by:

Ian. L. Jones

Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland

iljones 'at'



last updated May 9, 2010

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