Canada greenlights three offshore drilling projects off Newfoundland coast

·3 min read

Canada is letting three fossil fuel firms proceed with offshore drilling plans in the Atlantic Ocean, saying that requirements related to fish habitat, species at risk and other conditions will protect the environment.

On Jan. 12, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced that Chevron Canada, Equinor Canada, and BHP Petroleum (New Ventures) can move forward with drilling projects east of St. John's, N.L.

The companies have proposed using offshore platforms, supply ships and helicopters to conduct exploration drilling, well testing and other activity beginning as early as this year. They will still have to secure other federal or provincial permits they might need, such as from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

In separate statements issued a day earlier, Wilkinson said he had determined that the projects were all “not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects,” and that he had established a list of conditions for each project the energy companies would have to follow.

The three projects would see drilling between 350 kilometres and 375 kilometres east or northeast of St. John’s. Two of the three projects are based on exploration licences that overlap, or are near, a key marine refuge called the Northeast Newfoundland Slope. That refuge is thick with fragile corals and sponges, and acts as spawning grounds for various fish.

The minister’s decisions were made following reports issued in December by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, which conducts environmental reviews. Those reports detailed environmental and other concerns, but concluded that serious environmental degradation was unlikely if extensive mitigation measures were deployed.

The decision to allow three offshore drilling projects to proceed comes as the federal and provincial governments seek to encourage the development of the offshore oil industry in Atlantic Canada.

In September, Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan, the MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl, announced $320 million in federal funding in partnership with the provincial government to support “offshore energy jobs” and the local oil and gas sector.

Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador government published a plan in 2018 that envisioned drilling “over 100 new exploration wells” and “multiple basins producing over 650,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day” by 2030.

Jordy Thomson, senior marine co-ordinator for ecosystems at Ecology Action Centre, said the three projects had been under evaluation for years, so are likely not connected to the recent federal spending to any large extent.

But they did represent a trend, said Thomson, in the sense that the province wanted to see more exploratory wells drilled by the next decade.

The federal environmental assessments consulted with Indigenous communities, and some First Nations were concerned over issues such as oilrig discharges, the pressure that the projects could place on Atlantic salmon and other fish populations, migratory birds and other wildlife, and the risk of oil spills.

Some environmental groups have also pointed to a number of oil spills that have occurred over the years in the region, questioning whether greater government oversight is needed.

“There is a pattern of deregulation and abdication of federal authority when it comes to offshore oil drilling and exploration that does not jibe with the federal government’s desire to be perceived as leaders in ocean protection and conservation,” argued Gretchen Fitzgerald, national program director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation.

The government says the assessments examined the projects extensively, and noted that the conditions it is imposing related to fish and fish habitat, migratory birds, Indigenous and commercial fisheries, accidents and malfunctions and other issues were robust.

“The government of Canada believes that environmental assessments, which are based on science and meaningful consultations with Indigenous peoples and the public, are key to responsible resource development,” said Wilkinson in a statement.

“These resources projects will provide economic opportunities for many Canadians and the legally binding conditions imposed throughout the life of the projects will protect the environment for generations to come.”

Carl Meyer / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Carl Meyer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer