Will Oil Blowout Revive Trans-boundary EIA Negotiations?

It did not require the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to realize that oil and gas field developments are high risk operations. Similar to the Mexican Ixtoc One oil platform spill in 1979, which affected Texas coast lines, the on-going spill has the potential to result in significant trans-boundary impacts.  Will this latest spill encourage the three North American governments to re-open stalled negotiations on a Trans-boundary EIA agreement?

A few days ago, I was listening to a session of NPR’s All Things Considered about the devastation of the Ixtoc One oil spill disaster and felt an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

The NPR interview detailed the impact of the drilling platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico some 30 years ago. The platform was located in the Bay of Campeche in the southern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles from shore. The wellhead began spewing thousands of barrels of crude each day into the sea. It took 10 months to cap the well, and the oil tainted more than 150 miles of Texas coastline.

In 2003, I wrote an article entitled “The transboundary EIA convention in the context of private sector operations co-financed by an International Financial Institution,” which was published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review. The paper was based on two case studies involving offshore oil field developments in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, both littoral states of the Caspian Sea. The projects’ Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) indicated that major and unmitigated oil spills could potentially result in trans-boundary impacts.

At the time of project/financing review, neither Azerbaijan nor Turkmenistan were Parties to the 1991 Convention on EIA in a Transboundary Context, better known as the Espoo Convention.This UN Convention lays out the obligation of states to consult each other on all major projects under consideration that are likely to have significant environmental impact across boundaries. So, somewhat unconventional approaches were taken to follow ‘the spirit’ of the Espoo Convention and bring about information sharing and collaboration between littoral states of the Caspian Sea to also deal with potential for large scale oil spills. Both countries have since also become parties to the Espoo Convention and have been in regional environmental programs, including those related to oil spill response planning.

So how does this all relate to the Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon disaster – now more popularly known as the BP spill? The size and duration of the oil spill, the apparent presence of surface and deep, underwater oil plumes, and presence of strong water currents means that the conditions for creating trans-boundary impacts are all in place (Mexico, Cuba and Caribbean nations). Also, the US never fully adopted the Espoo Convention.

Dr. William Kennedy, Former Executive Director of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), described in a recent paper prepared for the Environmental Norms, Institutions and Policy Workshop at Stanford University, that the North American governments pursued an Espoo-like agreement through the CEC. Among the areas specifically identified by the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), were firm commitment to “consider and develop” recommendations with respect to an agreement on trans-boundary environmental impact assessment. In 1997, a “Draft North American Agreement on Trans-boundary Environmental Impact Assessment” was published. However, the negotiations fell apart in 1999.

I wonder if the scale, impact and outrage associated with the on-going spill will revive some of the stalled efforts to bring about better trans-boundary EIAs. This could contribute to better , notification, public consultation and collaboration and probably improve response to large scale emergencies with potential for trans-boundary impacts.

Similarly, I wonder if the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) and similar local, national and regional “oil clubs” may need to step it up a notch. They may need to consider pooling significant additional resources to seriously update and scale up technologies and equipment to deal with the sorts disastrous events we are witnessing in the Golf of Mexico today.