Seabird deaths result of regulatory failure in the offshore oil industry

Two highly motivated academics – Professors Gail Fraser, in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, and Angela Carter, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo – joined forces to press for changes in the offshore oil industry after their study showed that a lack of regulatory action places seabirds’ lives at risk due to their attraction to lighting on oil rigs.

“Our study underscores pressing problems with the environmental governance structure of Newfoundland’s offshore oil industry,” said Fraser. The two researchers make suggestions for change, including the introduction of light deflectors.

Gail Fraser holding a Leach’s storm petrel, the bird on which her research was focused. Photo: P. Thomas

This work was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and published in Ocean Yearbook (2018).

Seabirds face many threats

Seabirds encounter numerous threats to their existence. In Newfoundland, on the Grand Banks, offshore oil production began over two decades ago. This area supports one of the most diverse and abundant seabird communities in the world – an estimated 40-million birds comprising 20 species, according to the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Who is supposed to be protecting these birds?

Environmental regulation is a complicated matter that involves regulations, legislation and intergovernmental relationships. There are two key players:

  1. Environment Canada (EC), which oversees regulation of the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994); and
  2. The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), an arms-length (from government) regulator that enforces environmental compliance.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the C-NLOPB and EC was created to maintain roles and responsibilities, and to enable cooperation. In this document, EC was to provide advice on migratory birds.

Study focuses on the mitigation of seabird light attraction

In their study, Fraser and Carter examined the regulatory framework to monitor and mitigate the risks of seabird light attraction in Newfoundland. The duo looked at two sources of artificial lighting from offshore oil platforms: continuous lighting necessary for the operation of the rig, and irregularly occurring gas flaring.

They focused on Leach’s storm petrels, local birds that are attracted to light – a fact that was established over a century ago. Brightly lit offshore platforms can attract petrels, which then become disoriented and crash into the platforms or fly into gas flares on moonless or foggy nights. (In 1999, a reporter visiting the Hibernia oil platform likened the birds to Icarus flying too close to the sun.)

A Leach’s storm petrel. Photo: P. Thomas

Although seabird light attraction is well known, it is not well studied. The recent decline in Leach’s storm petrels in Newfoundland is also not well studied. It is still unknown how significant light attraction is to this population decline. (A “petrel wreck” is when flocks of storm petrels are attracted to light at night. See photograph below.) Fraser and Carter’s research adds to the literature by investigating why this issue has not been systematically addressed in the offshore oil regulations in Newfoundland, where the storm petrels are abundant.

Environment Canada’s concerns went unaddressed

In their research, Fraser and Carter traced EC’s comments throughout the environmental assessment process. “Environment Canada’s concerns in the environmental assessment process is important and it allowed an assessment of the MOU,” Fraser explained. EC also assisted in the development of a protocol allowing oil operators to pick up stranded seabirds on their platforms. It required the operators to report to EC on the number and species of dead birds collected per day (or night), and weather for each incident.

EC stressed that pairing information on the weather with information on the number of birds found on a platform on a particular night, over time, could help to understand the phenomenon of light attraction.

Terra Nova platform. Photo: IceSpecialist, Wikipedia

The duo next examined operators’ protocol reports for birds found on three production platforms from 2000-11, one of them being Terra Nova (above). They concluded that the operators were not fully following the protocol. Further, “the operators were not following a systematic approach to their data collection, and this prevented any serious investigation of seabird attraction to artificial light,” Fraser said.

This research brings to light the failure of the MOU between EC and the oil regulator. EC had repeatedly expressed concern about seabird light attraction, and yet the C-NLOPB failed to resolve this concern.

Pressing need for new regulatory structure

A “petrel wreck” is when flocks of storm petrels are attracted to light at night. This photo illustrates such a wreck in Alaska. Photo: Anonymous

The researchers emphasize the need for accountability and action. “There’s a glaring lack of consistent scientific monitoring and independent oversight,” said Fraser. “A new regulatory structure is required, one that can ensure environmental review and protection that is independent from industry interests.”

She also suggested that operators undertake a more robust monitoring program and immediate mitigation efforts such as adopting light deflectors – an idea that was put forth by EC more than two decades ago.

To read the full report, visit the website. To learn more about Fraser, visit her faculty profile page. To see a related article, visit CBC News. To read more about the International Ocean Institute, visit the website. To learn more about the Marine and Environmental Law Institute, visit the website.

To learn more about Research and Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation, York University,