Environmentalists say Bay du Nord offshore oil project claims leave science behind

Environmentalists are calling on the federal government to reject a $6.8 billion oil project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador just days before it is expected to be decided.

There are currently several exploration and discovery licenses being sought by Norwegian energy giant Equinor and its partner company Husky for the Bay du Nord project, which also includes a floating oil production station and up to 40 wells in the Flemish Pass Basin, about 500 kilometers east of St. John’s. It would be the first deepwater drilling location in Canada if it were permitted.

“Inappropriate” findings were made by Equinor in the project’s initial environmental impact assessment filed in 2019, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). As part of the government’s decision-making process, environmental impact statements outline a project’s possible environmental implications.

“There were several instances of the cited literature misrepresenting and omitting existing research. Part of the DFO analysis of Equinor’s first statement stated: “This introduced bias into the assessment process and compromised its dependability and credibility, leading to erroneous conclusions.”

In the end, DFO was able to collaborate with the Environmental Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (EIAAC) and Equinor to prepare a revised statement that is now “complete,” according to the agency. It was released in July of the next year, 2021.

As an environmental lawyer who has handled environmental evaluations, Shelley Kath has doubts. According to her, Equinor’s final environmental impact statement failed to address several of the issues made by DFO. Marine life might be adversely affected if a surface oil spill or an undersea blowout occurs, according to her.

According to DFO Scien(tists), “the great majority of the critiques I have cross-checked plainly reveal that Equinor did not make the modifications or additions that DFO Scien(tists) requested or proposed.”

In November, the business claimed it was on pace to begin extracting oil in 2028, given federal government clearance, after years of delays. Drilling at Equinor’s proposed site would reach a depth of up to 1,200 meters, a significant increase above the existing offshore drilling depth of no more than 100 meters.

It’s time for Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, to face his first real climate test since inheriting the post in the autumn.

Environmentalists are most concerned about the additional carbon dioxide emissions that extracting more oil might cause at Bay du Nord. An analysis of the planned project’s consequences by Canadian writer Barry Saxifrage concluded that by extracting 200,000 barrels per day, Bay du Nord will emit 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. To put it in perspective, that’s the equivalent of seven to ten million gas-powered automobiles every year. Although oil and gas production and burning produce greenhouse gases, environmental impact statements focus on the project’s influence on the surrounding environment rather than those emissions.

After being drafted many years prior to its public publication in January, DFO’s assessment of Equinor’s first environmental statement remained a closely guarded secret. When Kath was told by DFO and the IAAC that they had addressed all of the issues raised in their first evaluation of the first draught, she was surprised.

In the wake of DFO’s objections in Equinor’s final environmental impact statement, Kath was inspired to explore for answers. The potential of sub-surface blowouts, which was assessed as “very rare” multiple times in the first paper, was one aspect she found most troubling. DFO’s first answer said that the assertion made by Equinor was unsubstantiated and hence should be withdrawn. Information Equinor presented to back its claim suggests the contrary, the agency says. It also notes the likelihood of “similar events” occurring “over the life of the Project.”

As of the final environmental assessment, Equinor still calls an underground blowout “extremely unlikely,” but Kath questions the wording and wonders if the models adequately account for increased risks to operations over time as climate change brings more extreme weather conditions to offshore areas, like post-tropical cyclones in Northwest Atlantic.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) found that Equinor’s original environmental impact statement lacked critical information. Equinor should have utilized information from a November 2018 offshore oil leak at Equinor’s partner Husky’s location 350 kilometers southeast of St. John’s to “assist estimate environmental implications” a spill at the Bay du Nord project, according to the Department of Energy and Natural Resources. However, in the final statement, there is no mention of the 250,000-litre leak, which is the biggest in Newfoundland and Labrador history.

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