Environmental Culture and Mitigation Criteria for Offshore Oil and Gas Activities

In: The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development
  • 1 Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, Canada
Open Access


While considered a frontier exploration area, offshore petroleum activities began in eastern Canadian waters in 1943, when the first offshore well was drilled off Prince Edward Island.1 There have been substantial changes to the industry since the 1940s, most notably with changes in technology, the Canadian regulatory regime, and in philosophies and culture.

The most important advancement in the offshore petroleum industry, not just within Canada but worldwide, has been the development and continuous improvement in fostering a safe workplace mentality or ‘safety culture’ by industry professionals. Inherent within safety culture lies the lesser discussed, and even lesser understood, environmental culture. People, like other living things, have natural survival instincts; they want to work safely because life and limb may be at risk if they do not. It is relatively easy to convince employees, government officials, and executives that safety is important, especially in a high-risk work environment like the frigid Northwest Atlantic.

People appreciate the importance of working safely and maintaining a safe work place; their own lives and the lives of people they work with depend on it. So, how does environmental culture fit into all this? While environmental culture has not yet been elevated to the forefront of the minds of the general public when they consider day-to-day workings in the offshore, what lives beneath the waves is, however, at the forefront of the minds of offshore employees, regulatory bodies, and industry executives.

This essay discusses the established protections required when working in the offshore petroleum industry on the east coast of Canada, particularly offshore Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.2 Mass media typically focuses on extreme events, such as major explosions and spills. The typical day-to-day life on an offshore installation is not well-understood by the general public. Aversion to offshore activity is typically the norm, regardless of existing protections that help to ensure the norm is relatively uneventful. This essay summarizes information from hundreds of regulatory documents prepared over the past seventy years.

General Offshore Landscape

Offshore petroleum activity is divided into two broad categories: exploration and development. Major offshore exploration projects typically involve either seismic data acquisition or exploration drilling. Other technologies exist, such as aerogravity surveying,3 Marine Vibroseis,4 and electromagnetic surveying, but are infrequently used. This essay focuses on well-established mitigation measures for seismic data acquisition and exploratory drilling, as well as development and production of resources in the Canadian Northwest Atlantic.5

Regulatory Regime

It is important to assess the potential effects of offshore petroleum activity on marine wildlife during an activity application review. This assessment is conducted by regulatory authorities for populations of species anticipated to occur within or adjacent to project areas, and at an enhanced level for species at risk listed on Schedule 1 of the federal Species at Risk Act.6 Consideration and mitigation are typically required for the following:

  1. marine mammals
  2. turtles
  3. marine and migratory birds
  4. fish
  5. species at risk and critical habitat
  6. commercial fisheries and other oceans users
  7. prevention of accidents and malfunctions

Activity applications are reviewed by the respective Offshore Petroleum Boards whose jurisdiction contains the proposed activity (presently Nova Scotia or Newfoundland and Labrador), in conjunction with other federal departments, including, but are not limited to, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Environment and Climate Change Canada. A myriad of acts, regulations, and guidelines apply, including the following:

  1. Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Resources Accord Implementation Act and Canada-Newfoundland Atlantic Accord Implementation Act
  2. Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (2012)
  3. Oceans Act
  4. Fisheries Act
  5. Canadian Environmental Protection Act
  6. Species at Risk Act
  7. Nova Scotia Offshore Drilling and Production Regulations and Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Drilling and Production Regulations
  8. The Statement of Canadian Practice with Respect to the Mitigation of Seismic Sound in the Marine Environment (Seismic Statement of Practice)
  9. Offshore Waste Treatment Guidelines
  10. Offshore Chemical Selection Guidelines
  11. Geophysical, Geological, Environmental and Geotechnical Program Guidelines (2012)

An environmental assessment is the main component of the activity application that considers potential effects on the marine ecosystem. Environmental assessment takes anywhere from six to eight months (typical for seismic applications) to two years (some exploration and development applications).

Seismic Exploration

Seismic exploration has been a fairly regular occurrence in the Canadian Northwest Atlantic this past decade (2006–2016), occurring every year or two. Arguably the least understood in terms of potential effects on marine species, seismic programs nonetheless have a comprehensive list of mitigation requirements. The precautionary approach is the primary established philosophy. It is a world of unknowns within the scientific community; therefore caution is exercised regardless of a lack of physical or observed evidence to support concerns of significant negative effects on marine wildlife. Published research has been, and continues to be, conducted on the topic; however, it would be remiss to claim scientific certainty in the form of statistically significant evidence of negative effects caused by seismic programs conducted offshore. Nonetheless, every living thing has intrinsic value regardless of whether or not there are interactions with anthropogenic activities, and mitigation is required and implemented during offshore petroleum exploration to help safeguard against adverse environmental effects on marine wildlife.

With respect to the potential effects of seismic activity, the main concerns are noise effects on marine life, vessel presence, and ship strikes on large cetaceans, especially species at risk like the North Atlantic right whale. Although no known evidence exists demonstrating that any large marine mammal in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland waters has been harmed through hearing damage or otherwise by a seismic program, the implemented mitigation measures are considered the regulatory standard. Adherence to mitigation measures within the Seismic Statement of Practice includes, but is not limited to the following:

  1. Implementing an exclusion zone for monitoring and shut-down requirements, such as shutting down in the case of species at risk entering the exclusion zone. Marine mammal observers have the ability to immediately shut down a seismic program if a species at risk comes within the exclusion zone of the program.
  2. Prescribed marine mammal detection measures such as visual and acoustic monitoring.
  3. ‘Ramping up’—starting with the smallest volume outputs and working to full sound outputs when beginning programs, after shut downs and in poor visibility (fog) or darkness to give any wildlife a chance to leave the area should they wish to do so.
  4. Zero activity within known spawning grounds and during known spawning times.

The above mitigation measures are the major themes detailed within the Seismic Statement of Practice. Adherence to the Statement is considered a minimum standard for protection from seismic noise. Each seismic program application is reviewed with specific mitigation requirements assigned based on the spatial and temporal boundaries of the program, and the results of the environmental assessment. Other required mitigation measures may include the following:

  1. avoidance of species at risk and/or their critical habitat areas
  2. specific speeds at which vessels may travel
  3. limiting activity within or adjacent to marine protected areas or critical habitat areas
  4. no ballast water exchanges in sensitive areas
  5. minimizing hydrocarbons on board vessels and seismic equipment
  6. protocols for stranded birds
  7. communications protocols with other oceans users
  8. on-board fisheries liaison observers
  9. minimizing flaring
  10. spill prevention plans, procedures, and response equipment on board

These mitigation measures are not meant to be comprehensive lists because every activity application is unique.7

Exploratory Drilling and Development Activity

Exploratory drilling occurs less often than seismic programs in the Canadian Northwest Atlantic, and is a much less regular occurrence than in established areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. Development activity is rare; less than half a dozen operations are currently in place as of 2017. Nonetheless, the potential effects of exploratory drilling and development are much better understood than the potential effects of seismic exploration because they are clearly observable. The potential impacts can also leave a larger ecological footprint. Required mitigation measures may include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. temporal and spatial restrictions for sensitive areas, such as marine protected areas and critical habitat
  2. minimizing discharges and emissions
  3. bird handling protocols
  4. reporting of wildlife observations
  5. use of specialized equipment to remove potential hydrocarbons or toxic fluids from entering the ocean
  6. use of water-based drilling muds where technically feasible and shipping cuttings to shore for disposal rather than at-sea disposal
  7. avoiding sensitive benthic habitat
  8. minimizing disturbance to the seabed
  9. appropriate ballast water control
  10. onshore disposal of hazardous wastes
  11. appropriate communication and coordination with other oceans users
  12. chemical screening for selection of least hazardous chemicals for use
  13. spill prevention plans and procedures, and proven, effective spill response plans, including exercising these plans to demonstrate effectiveness

Of these mitigation measures, arguably the most discussed is spill prevention. It comes as no surprise, as a major spill has potential tragic consequences to both human life and wildlife, as well as to the ecosystem and other ocean users. For these reasons, there are numerous protections in place. One major protective measure is the coming into force in 2015 of the ‘polluter pays’ principle within the federal Energy Safety and Security Act, which outlines the liability regime that is applicable to spills and debris in the offshore areas. The Act’s Summary states:

  1. (a)…the “polluter pays” principle, which is consistent with the notion that the liability of at-fault operators is unlimited;
  2. (b)increases to $1 billion the limit of liability, without proof of fault or negligence, to which certain operators are subject in the event of a spill or damages caused by debris;8

These requirements eliminate under-experienced operators from conducting exploration drilling in the offshore Canadian Northwest Atlantic. Regardless, spills remain a recognized risk. To minimize the risks and impacts of spills, prevention, preparedness, and response are key requirements. Applications must include assurances that a well is properly designed and controlled. Hazards must be identified and mitigated against. Applications are reviewed by regulatory authorities who are experts in the fields of engineering, technology, geology, geophysics, ocean sciences, and environmental protection.

In addition to the required environmental assessment, activity applications must include a spill response plan and an environmental protection plan. Audit and inspections of these plans and their contained processes are conducted on rigs and in-office several times per year. Spill response plans must include a spill risk assessment relevant to the project, detailed descriptions of how operators plan to prevent spills, and how they would respond to a variety of spill scenarios. It must be demonstrated that the necessary equipment is available and trained personnel are prepared to respond to a spill, should one occur. Drills and training exercises are required on a regular basis. The majority of spills is minor in nature (less than 100 ml), dissipating naturally and requiring no response. Every spill must be reported and investigated regardless of volume. Trends are analyzed and maintenance programs must be adapted when necessary to safeguard against incidents. Best available preventative practices are expected and enforced. In the rare case of a major spill, however, technologies available for use are evolving and improving. Examples of currently best available technologies include

  1. capping stacks and relief wells;
  2. use of barriers (floating boom);
  3. mechanical recovery using clean up equipment such as skimmers;
  4. burning oil gathered at sea; and/or
  5. dispersant use, if approved.9


In review, existing and well-established protections required when working in the offshore petroleum industry in the Canadian Northwest Atlantic have been discussed. Hopefully, the reader’s understanding of how the environment is protected during the day-to-day norm of offshore operations has been enhanced. Accidents do happen, and they can and have been tragic. However, this is not the norm for the offshore petroleum industry in Atlantic Canada, or anywhere in the world. The Canadian offshore regulatory regime is designed to be fair, efficient, and safe, to hold environmental protection paramount. It’s a cultural mindset.


P. McKenzie-Brown, G. Jaremko and D. Finch, The Great Oil Age: The Petroleum Industry in Canada (Calgary: Detselig Enterprise, 1993).


The information provided is publicly available online at http://www.cnsopb.ns.ca/environment or http://www.cnlopb.ca/environment.


A form of gravimetry incorporating real-time aerial navigation.


Marine Vibroseis is quieter than seismic airguns and does not use sharp pulses, which are known to be quite damaging for marine life.


See the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers website for information on how activities in Atlantic Canada are conducted at http://atlanticcanadaoffshore.ca.


S.C. 2002, c. 29.


For complete lists of current typical mitigations, see strategic environmental assessments produced by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board online at http://www.cnsopb.ns.ca/environment and http://www.cnlopb.ca/environment/.


S.C. 2015, c. 4.


An excellent resource for detailed information on spill response technologies is Oil Spill Response Limited’s website at https://www.oilspillresponse.com.