Environmental groups take federal government to court over Bay du Nord

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Environmental groups announced today they are suing to overturn the federal government’s approval of Bay du Nord, Canada’s first deepwater oil drilling site.

In April, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault approved Bay du Nord, stating the project was environmentally sound. He determined the project, about 500 kilometres east of St. John’s, “is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

Ecojustice, on behalf of Équiterre and Sierra Club Canada, will argue in Federal Court, that Bay du Nord could harm the environment and Guilbeault unlawfully approved the project.

Norwegian energy giant Equinor and its partner company Husky (owned by Cenovus) will operate the Bay du Nord project, which includes numerous exploration and discovery licences, the creation of a floating oil production station and the drilling of up to 40 wells in the Flemish Pass Basin. Guilbeault’s statement about the environmental decision was posted with conditions, including requiring Equinor to develop a “marine mammal and sea turtle monitoring plan” and a requirement that the project would be net zero emissions by 2050.

Critics were quick to point out that there’s no such thing as a “net zero” fossil fuel project, and that even if companies could make their products without any emissions, which so far none have, all oil and gas produce emissions when burned. So-called Scope 3, or tailpipe emissions, are not accounted for in the government’s calculations.

Ian Miron, Ecojustice lawyer, said they’ll argue it’s misleading not to include those emissions.

“We're saying that the minister had a legal duty to consider downstream emissions…and he did not do that. And so his decision is unlawful,” he said.

The lawsuit will also argue the environmental impact assessment supporting the approval was flawed, said Miron. Environmentalists have criticized its lack of evidence about the project’s potential impacts on marine life in the event of a surface oil spill or underwater blowout, the way Equinor described potential accidents as “extremely unlikely,” and more.

The lawsuit comes the same week as Equinor’s Annual General Meeting, where the company will consider a final investment decision for Bay du Nord.

In an emailed statement, Guilbeault's press secretary Kaitlin Power said, Bay du Nord went through an environmental assessment and “aligns with our government’s ambitious Emissions Reduction Plan to cut pollution.”

“This project is required to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in addition to 137 other legally-binding environmental protection measures,” she added.

“Bay du Nord will be subject to some of the strongest environmental conditions in Canada’s history and will be five times less emissions intensive than the average oil and gas project in Canada.”

The case is now before the courts and the government will not make further comment, she noted.

Miron said the government claims to understand climate science and has "made many promises to do its part to tackel climate change."

“But the decision demonstrates that those promises are really more talk than action at this point. And Canada just can't be a climate leader and approve projects like this at the same time.”

— This story was updated on May 11 with a response from the federal government.

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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