In 2021, the International Energy Agency — not known for its ecological sensitivity — pleaded for an immediate moratorium on new projects for the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels. Despite this plea, the Canada Energy Regulator (CRE) predicts growth of more than 30% in gas production by 2040, and in the oil sector the industry is also forecasting growth, particularly in the oil sands.
Off Newfoundland, there is also a desire to double marine oil production after 2030 — a wish supported by the Justin Trudeau government, which has already approved 40 new drilling permits since 2021. Not surprisingly, among the G-7 countries, Canada’s growth in greenhouse gases is the worst since 1990, according to ourworldindata.org. And it continues. Investments in the production of oil and gas will reach CA$40 billion this year, including $12 billion in the oil sands sector and $1 billion for ocean oil drilling platforms — the third year of growth in a row, at a level higher than the pre-pandemic period.
Serious safety and biodiversity risks
The project closest to being realised in the Atlantic, east of Newfoundland, approved last year for exploitation purposes, is oil company Equinor’s 12 billion dollar giant drilling platform, Bay du Nord.
Majority owned by the Norwegian government, the Bay du Nord platform will undertake around 60 drillings at a depth of more than 1000 metres — a first in Canada — in an area located 470 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland, vulnerable to strong storms and iceberg passages.
“For comparison, the Hibernia platform [the first platform operating off Newfoundland since 1997] exploits oil at about 90 meters depth. And with Bay du Nord, we should have several areas exploited and connected by underwater pipes to an operating vessel,” Le Devoir reported on February 28. Hibernia’s first platform collapsed in 1982, causing 84 deaths.
Le Devoir reported back in 2021 that “the BP drilling that caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was an exploratory drilling that was about 1,500 meters deep.”
Added to this safety risk is the risk to biodiversity. “Equinor’s project is located in an ‘ecologically and biologically significant area of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’, but also in ‘vulnerable marine ecosystems’,” reported Le Devoir in April last year. “The drilling will also be carried out not far from recognized critical habitats of endangered species, bird sanctuaries and an important ‘marine refuge’ set up by the Trudeau government to achieve its objectives of protecting the oceans”, which was highlighted at the recent COP15 on biodiversity held in Montreal in December last year.
“This maritime region is also recognized as an important habitat for several commercially exploited fish species, 14 species of birds at risk as well as about fifteen species of marine mammals, which are particularly sensitive to underwater noise pollution. Equinor plans to do seismic surveys there.’’
Despite everything, “[g]iven the implementation of the mitigation measures, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada concludes that the proposed development of Bay du Nord is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects,” wrote Le Devoir.
Canadian government’s boundless complacency
Fisheries and Oceans Canada refuted Equinor’s claims in January last year that the risk of a spill is “extremely low”.
"If 40 wells are drilled in 30 years, the probability of an extremely large spill is 16%," the federal experts wrote.
Équiterre and the Sierra Club, along with the Mi'kmaq First Nations communities of New Brunswick are contesting the approval of the project before the Federal Court.
In their arguments, the plaintiffs recalled that in the event of a spill, Equinor will not be able to immediately deploy a "capping system" necessary to block the outflow of oil, as the oil company does not have one. Instead, it plans to bring this equipment from Brazil or Norway, which takes 18 to 36 days. The plaintiffs also argue that no consideration has been given to the greenhouse gas emissions produced downstream, or 90% of the emissions related to the project.
Should we be surprised at the complacency of the impact study that assessed the Bay du Nord project in relation to the former Canadian Environmental Assessment Act — adopted in 2012 by the pro-oil Conservative government — which did not consider Canada's GHG emissions targets or Paris Agreement goals?
The current Liberal government claims that Bay du Nord is in line with the government's plan to achieve an overall 40% reduction in GHG emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. It went even further by exempting all exploratory drilling carried out since 2020 in the marine environment, off the coast of Newfoundland, from the environmental assessment process that had been in effect until then. Economic recovery requires it, says Ottawa. As icing on the cake, the project approved last year provided for a potential of 300 million barrels of oil. Less than a year later, the confirmation of a sudden “significant discovery” brings this potential to almost a billion barrels.
Acrobatics combined with doing one thing and its opposite
It is comical that one of the complainant organisations, Équiterre, was co-founded by the current federal Minister of the Environment, Steven Guilbeault, who gained notoriety due to his militant stunts as an employee of Greenpeace. Today, the opportunistic politician is pirouetting in favour of oil and gas companies at the heart of the Canadian economy, financed by the big Toronto banks. Like its environment minister, the Liberal government talks out of both sides of its mouth on the climate issue. As for taking into consideration the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — requiring their prior consent on what endangers their fishing rights — that is out of the question, as it was for the Wet'suwet'en of British Columbia.
The oil windfall in Newfoundland has lifted it from its previous position as the poorest province in the country. Clearly the economic security of the people of Newfoundland needs to be ensured and they should not bear the cost if the court action succeeds. For the government, the alternative to the Bay Du Nord project would be to demand even more from Alberta, the richest province, thanks to its much dirtier oil.
A just transition away from fossil fuels would require a gigantic program of industrial reconversion focused on a green economy such as the manufacture of buses, trains, solar panels and wind turbines. It would also require an ecofeminist reinvestment to expand the public sector while reducing working hours and consumption, without planned obsolescence and more than compensated for by a society based on solidarity.
Canada’s is not the only two-faced government that needs to make amends.
In Australia — the world's largest coal exporter — the federal Labor government has developed a "safeguard mechanism" to limit emissions from the 215 main polluters, while allowing new hydrocarbon-producing facilities.
The Norwegian government is hardly better off, having the richest hydrocarbon-based sovereign wealth fund in the world, which allows it to be the world champion of electric vehicles per capita. From one type of extractivism to another, one might say.