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Spill raises new questions about fast-growing N.L. oil industry

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Newfoundland and Labrador’s ambitious plans to dramatically expand the province’s lucrative offshore oil and gas industry got a nasty jolt on Nov. 16.

Amid a fierce winter storm, an estimated 250,000 litres of oil spilled into the ocean from Husky Energy’s SeaRose platform, about 350 kilometres from St. John’s.

It was the largest spill in the history of the province’s offshore industry, and has prompted calls for regulatory change.

Critics are calling for tighter control of the industry, just as the province moves to expand the size and range of offshore drilling, and fast.

“This incident, we hope it will shine a light on the laws and how we undertake offshore oil and gas in Canada and how we regulate it if and when it proceeds,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald of Sierra Club Canada Foundation.

“If they are going to undertake this large industrial activity in the rough waters of the North Atlantic there has to be a better regulatory scheme.”

Gretchen Fitzgerald is Atlantic director of the Sierra Club of Canada. (Robert Short/CBC)

There are currently four platforms producing oil off Newfoundland: Hibernia, Hebron, Terra Nova and SeaRose.

Expansion plans include a proposed 100 new exploration wells and over 650,000 barrels of oil per day by the year 2030.

This long-term vision also includes “shortened time from prospectivity to production.”

Going deeper

The expansion will also take the industry into uncharted territory with its first deepwater drilling site at Bay du Nord in the Flemish Pass, after announcing an agreement with Norway’s Equinor earlier this summer.

The remote Bay du Nord parcel, about 500 kilometres east of St. John’s, lies in more than 1,100 metres of water — 10 times deeper than the SeaRose, the current deepest site.

Premier Dwight Ball called the announcement a “new frontier” for the province’s offshore industry, but deepwater expansion also raises fresh concerns about worker safety and the possibility of a swift cleanup if another spill were to occur.

Oil royalties promise a much-needed economic boost for the financially strapped province.

A report this month from the Conference Board of Canada predicts Newfoundland and Labrador will lead all provinces in economic growth in 2019, just a year after having the weakest economic outlook in 2018, with oil revenue getting all the credit.

Recommendations will be implemented, premier says

In an interview, Ball said the November spill was “unfortunate” and reiterated his government’s prioritization of worker and environmental safety.

The premier said his government would consider regulatory changes, including more transparent, public and accessible summaries of operators’ safety plans, based on the findings of the SeaRose investigation.

“Once this investigation is done and completed, if there’s changes that will need to be made, we’re more than willing to implement those changes,” Ball said.

Dwight Ball says the government is committed to implementing any changes that come from the investigation into Husky’s spill on Nov. 16. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The premier said his government is looking to other jurisdictions around the world as it plans to expand its industry and prepare for potential incidents in the future.

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) regulates the industry’s development in the province, as well as its safety and environmental responsibilities.

The spill occurred as Husky began to restart production on Nov. 16 as the storm began to wane — a decision that was up to the company, not the offshore board.

Operators like Husky are responsible for following their own internal safety and environmental plans that are approved by the board, which monitors and investigates if things go wrong.

Production on the SeaRose remains halted as the offshore board investigates whether the company followed its own internal procedures.

You should never use this word around safety, but we just felt that we got lucky.– Lana Payne, Unifor

Husky provides its procedures to the board, but a Husky spokesperson told The Canadian Press in an email that the company “does not disclose its specific operating procedures publicly for security and commercial reasons.

Critics say operator transparency is a key area of possible reform, especially as the industry braces for expansion into even riskier conditions.

Ball said his government is giving Equinor time to properly assess the deepwater drilling site before construction is tentatively slated to begin in 2020.

He said his government will look to other jurisdictions as it prepares for new deepwater ventures, adding that he considers the industry’s track record to be fairly clean over the long term.

“Our track record when you look at it is pretty solid,” said Ball.

Pair of offshore tragedies

The province’s offshore industry doesn’t have a history of multiple major oil spills, but it has been marked by devastating tragedies.

The memory of the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster still haunts the province. An offshore rig sank during an intense storm, claiming the lives of all 84 people on board.

In March 2009, Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the ocean while carrying workers and staff to the oil fields, killing 17 of the 18 people on board.

After an inquiry into helicopter safety, commissioner Robert Wells in 2010 called Newfoundland’s offshore conditions “probably the harshest in the offshore world,” citing bitterly cold water, high winds, sea ice, fog, severe sea states and long helicopter flights.

Unifor wants separate board for safety

Wells recommended establishing a stand-alone, independent safety regulator for the province’s offshore industry.

The recommendation was echoed by the provincial NDP after the recent SeaRose spill, asking the premier to establish a separate safety and environmental board similar to those in Norway and the United Kingdom.

Lana Payne, Atlantic regional director for Unifor, which represents about 700 offshore oil workers on the Hibernia and Terra Nova rigs, said the industry has seen some safety improvements since the helicopter safety inquiry.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic regional director for Unifor. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

But she said the union still sees room for more — including establishing a separate safety and environmental board, especially in light of the recent close call.

“You should never use this word around safety, but we just felt that we got lucky,” Payne said.

There were 81 people on board the SeaRose at the time of the spill, and while there were no injuries, the incident called to mind another safety incident on the same rig not long ago.

There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the system to get things done quickly, and when you do that in an environment like the offshore things can go amiss– Lana Payne, Unifor

An investigation by the offshore board found the company failed to follow its ice management plan during a 2017 near-miss with a large iceberg. The rig was not disconnected as the iceberg approached, with 84 people and upwards of 340,000 barrels of crude oil onboard.

Fitzgerald thinks Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans should have regulatory power, to ensure people with more environmental expertise oversee the industry.

More federal involvement in the industry would also help keep national environmental priorities like climate change and protecting endangered species in view, Fitzgerald said.

Payne said at a minimum, the regulator needs more expertise and staffing for the rapidly expanding sector.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the system to get things done quickly, and when you do that in an environment like the offshore things can go amiss,” Payne said.

“We’ve got to do everything possible here to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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7 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers In Calgary

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Buying a house for the first time can be overwhelming to say the least. If you’re wondering what neighbourhood to go with, what you can afford, or even how to just get started on the process, let us take some stress off your hands! We’ve teamed up with Hopewell Residential to give you 7 tips to ensure the home you end up with is everything you dreamed of.

Hopewell Residential is a five-time Developer of the Year award winner, so their expertise is second-to-none in Calgary and beyond. Who better to learn home-buying tips from than the homebuilders themselves?

Create a checklist of needs & wants

This is a biggie. When you’re buying your very first home, you’ll want to weigh your needs vs. your wants. Ensuring you have what you love in your first home is a big, big deal.

What should you do? Easy. Set up a list of needs and a list of wants, but be pretty strict with yourself, and make sure you take your lifestyle into consideration. With the increase in remote work over the past year, it’s important to keep in mind that a home office or flex room might just be the key to maximizing at home happiness. Especially if you’re thinking you might be expanding your family later on, spare rooms and extra space is key (but more on that later!).

Or for instance, you might need a home in an area with a high walkability score, but you want to be close to certain amenities. Set yourself up with the right level of compromise and the number of homes that actually fit your ‘perfect’ idea will skyrocket.

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‘Don’t give up’: Ottawa Valley realtors share statistics, tips for homebuyers in ‘extreme’ sellers market

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The real estate market in the Ottawa Valley can be summed up this way: people from far and wide are in a buying frenzy, but there’s hardly anything to buy at the “store,” and the limited inventory is overpriced.

This “stampede” — as one realtor described it — will affect rural towns as residents grapple with finding affordable housing and agonize over their inability to purchase homes in their price range.

“We are seeing a lack of inventory in all price ranges,” said Laura Keller, a real estate agent from Carleton Place.

Helen Vincent, a Renfrew realtor, said she’s never seen a market like this in her 36 years of practice. “We postpone offers for four to five days in order to get all the buyers,” she said.

Multiple offers — between seven and 10 — became the norm, with cash offers and no conditions, as buyers faced bidding wars. “In Ottawa, they have up to 50 (offers),” she added.

“It’s very stressful. You’re going to get nine (people) ticked off, and one happy. So many people are disappointed,” Vincent said.

Terry Stavenow, an Arnprior realtor for 40 years, said that “the pent-up need took over with inventory going low. It made a stampede on everything that was available.“

“Brand new housing — it’s very much gone. Several building developers are rushing to get inventory. They usually don’t do construction in the winter months,” said Stavenow.

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10 Tips For First-Time Home Buyers

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Buying a home for the first time is exciting and a commitment to the future. It’s often challenging, too, and the process requires a lot of steps, many of which can be tricky to navigate as a first-time home buyer.

What are some things you should keep in mind as a first-time home buyer?

First-Time Home Buyer Tips

Here are 10 tips to keep in mind as you begin your journey toward homeownership.

1. Have Your Finances in Order

It’s wise to begin saving as early as possible once you’ve made the decision to purchase a house. You’ll need to consider the down payment, closing costs (which often range from 2% to 5% of the down payment), as well as move-in expenses.

You also need to understand the other costs of homeownership, such as mortgage insurance. property taxes, utilities, homeowner’s insurance, and more.

2. How Much Can You Afford?

Knowing how much you can realistically afford in a home is another important financial consideration. Look for the home of your dreams that fits your budget.

One way to avoid future financial stress is to set a price range for your home that fits your budget, and then staying within that range. Going through the preapproval process will help you understand what price range is realistic for your budget.

3. Make Sure Your Credit is Good

Another thing to keep in mind as a first-time home buyer is your credit score because it determines whether you qualify for a mortgage and affects the interest rate that lenders offer. 

You can check your credit score from the three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

This is another good reason for getting preapproved before you start your search. Learn more about the preapproval process and your credit score.

4. Choose The Right Real Estate Agent

A good real estate agent guides you through the process every step of the way. He or she will help you find a home that fits your needs, help you through the financial processes, and help ease any first-time buyer anxiety you may have.

Interview several agents and request references.

5. Research Mortgage Options

A variety of mortgages are available, including conventional mortgages – which are guaranteed by the government – FHA loans, USDA loans, and VA loans (for veterans).

You’ll also have options regarding the mortgage term. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is popular among many homebuyers and has an interest rate that doesn’t change over the course of the loan. A 15-year loan usually has a lower interest rate but monthly payments are larger.

6. Talk to Multiple Lenders

It’s worth your time to talk to several lenders and banks before you accept a mortgage offer. The more you shop around, the better deal you’re liable to get – and it may save you thousands of dollars.

7. Get Preapproved First

Getting a mortgage preapproval (in the form of a letter) before you begin hunting for homes is something else to put on your checklist. A lender’s preapproval letter states exactly how much loan money you can get.

Learn more about the preapproval process and how preapproval provides you with a significant competitive advantage in our article How Preapproval Gives You Home Buying Power.

8. Pick the Right House and Neighborhood

Make sure to weigh the pros and cons of the different types of homes based on your budget, lifestyle, etc. Would a condominium or townhome fit your needs better than a house? What type of neighborhood appeals to you?

9. List Your Needs and Must-Haves

The home you purchase should have as many of the features you prefer as possible. List your needs in order of priority; some things may be non-negotiable to you personally.

10. Hire an Inspector

Hiring an inspector is another crucial step in the home buying process. An inspector will tell you about existing or potential problems with the home, and also what’s in good order. You can learn more about home inspections and how to find a home inspector through the American Society of Home Inspectors website.

Buying a home for the first time is a challenge, but it’s one you can handle with the right planning and preparation.

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