Atlas shows the high cost of offshore oil and gas production

A collaborative effort between York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) and Newfoundland-based NGO the Alder Institute has helped create a unique electronic marine atlas aimed at furthering protection of endangered species in the Atlantic Ocean.

Colouring in the Offshore: An Atlas about Species at Risk and Oil and Gas Activity Off Newfoundland and Labrador was created through the work of FES Professor Gail Fraser together with Janet Russell and Joanne Ellis of the Alder Institute. Master’s in Environmental Studies students Daniella Molnar and David Laws assisted with the project, which was funded by the Government of Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk.

The researchers hope that through the atlas, which is produced as a CD-ROM, they can bring attention to environmental impacts of oil production that are generally not highlighted or understood. "One of the biggest problems with offshore oil and gas in Newfoundland is that it’s out of sight, hundreds of kilometres away," said Fraser. "While I think that people are becoming more aware of issues related to oil consumption, such as carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, it’s important to be aware that all stages of oil production can negatively impact the environment."

To create the atlas, the group chose six endangered species – the blue whale, harlequin duck, ivory gull, and three species of wolffish (northern, spotted, and Atlantic) – that cover the open ocean, the coast, the air-sea interface and the sea floor. The historical population ranges of those species were examined and then compared to the area where the oil and gas industry currently operates.

Right: The ivory gull, photo by Dave Fifield, Alder Institute

The overlap between endangered species’ habitats and the petroleum operations revealed the broad potential for those operations to affect wildlife. "Environmental assessments generally only consider the impacts of offshore oil and gas at a 100-square-kilometre area around the platform, but in fact the impacts can be carried much further," said Fraser.

Each species is potentially affected in different ways. For example, whales can be impacted by noise pollution generated from seismic testing activities during oil and gas exploration. In contrast, seabirds are likely more vulnerable during the production phase, when small-scale oil spills are common and light pollution from gas flaring is most severe.

The digital maps have helped to reveal geographical areas of key concern. "Some of the oil exploration happening on the west coast of Newfoundland seems to be a hotspot for blue whales, and this is an area that will likely be developed further. It is very difficult to predict how oil and gas activities may impact the highly endangered blue whales. Blue whales come to the northwest Atlantic to feed. If this activity is continually disturbed it could have dire consequences for this population," said Fraser.

Left: An offshore oil rig

In addition to current problems, concerns are mounting about the potential impacts on these and other endangered species from an expanded Canadian oil program. "It is certainly the intent of the current federal government to become a major producer of oil, so it’s a question of how to balance extraction of oil and the protection of the environment," said Fraser. "We hope to help people realize the full reality of the situation to better inform future decisions."

This article was submitted to YFile by Arlene Williams, media & communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies, and MES student Diego Garcia.