Simultaneous federal consultation for 40 offshore oil wells

Pandemic or not, the Trudeau government has decided to complete, en bloc, the environmental assessment of three separate projects by oil companies that want to drill a total of 40 wells in the marine environment in eastern Newfoundland. Ottawa recognizes, however, that the current crisis makes public consultation “difficult”. The move comes as the federal government has just awarded $ 320 million to the offshore industry to ensure “a prosperous future.”

Judging that the exploration projects of BHP Canada (20 holes), Equinor (12 holes) and Chevron (eight holes) “include similar elements or activities”, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (CIRA) has decided to complete the “public consultation” for these oil projects as a whole. These alone account for almost half of Newfoundland’s drilling target for the next decade.

The federal body says it is doing so in order to “ensure an effective and efficient process”, after the recent publication of the “draft version of the environmental assessment report” for each of the projects. Citizens have until October 30 to submit their “written comments” on these three documents, which total 550 pages.

CIRA is “aware that it is more difficult to engage the public in a meaningful way and to carry out consultations with Indigenous people given the circumstances arising from COVID-19”, but is confident that it will be able to conduct this public consultation while providing “the flexibility necessary to put the health and safety of all Canadians first.” Is it possible to conduct an adequate consultation in the midst of a health crisis? CIRA and Environment Canada still had not answered this question from Duty at the end of the day Friday, even if the question was sent Thursday morning.

Species at risk

The projects of the three companies present similarities, since they are all located in the same maritime region, more than 300 kilometers east of Newfoundland, near the area of ​​great ecological wealth of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. New.

In addition to commercial fishing activities, the area is part of the habitat of many species of fish, birds and marine mammals, many of which are threatened and protected under the Species at Risk Act. However, the promoters could obtain a federal “permit” to drill in areas frequented by these species and it would be “surprising” if Ottawa refused them, according to biologist Alain Branchaud of the Société pour la nature et des parcs Québec.

CIRA reports mention the presence of the blue whale and the right whale, two species listed as “endangered” in Canada. This region is a very important food sector for cetaceans, animals particularly vulnerable to the impacts of seismic surveys and drilling, underlines biologist Lyne Morissette, a specialist in marine ecosystems. And exploratory drilling will be conducted “at the worst possible time,” she adds, as it will be done primarily in the spring and summer, at the peak of annual use by marine mammals. A borehole can last up to 180 days, or six months.

Proof of the biological richness of the region targeted by the oil industry, the BHP Canada drilling project will be carried out on exploration permits that straddle the most important “marine refuge” set up by the Trudeau government in the East from Canada. This area, protected to meet international ocean conservation commitments, is referred to as the “Northeastern Newfoundland Slope Closure”. According to the federal government, this is “an area of ​​ecological and biological importance that supports great diversity, including several declining species.”

In all three cases, drilling is also planned in deep water, ie at more than 1,000 meters. In the case of BHP Canada, the company even plans to drill more than 2,500 meters deep. By comparison, BP’s drilling that caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was exploratory drilling that was approximately 1,500 meters deep.

“Unlikely” incidents

For the projects of the three oil companies, preliminary reports from CIRA nevertheless state that the environmental risks are low. In the preliminary report on BHP Canada’s 20 boreholes, for example, “the Agency concludes that the project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on fish and fish habitat, marine mammals and turtles. species, migratory birds, special areas, species at risk, commercial fishing or common use, health and socio-economic conditions of indigenous peoples ”.

Regarding the risks of an oil spill, CIRA notes that “the available data indicates that the likelihood of an underwater eruption is extremely low and, therefore, its potential effects would be very unlikely.” In the event of a major “blowout”, BHP Canada, Chevron and Equinor report that the equipment needed to stop the leak is not available in Canada. It would therefore be transported from Norway by ship. All three companies say it will take around 30 days before they can install it.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, this delay highlights the risks associated with drilling in the marine environment. The environmental group also believes that CIRA underestimated the risks associated with an oil spill, after three spill events have occurred in the past three years.

For biologist Lyne Morissette, despite the mitigation measures that will be put in place by the oil companies, “it is wrong to say that these projects do not pose risks to the marine environment”. According to her, the Trudeau government’s desire to support the drilling of several oil wells even runs counter to international efforts to protect migratory species, especially species at risk. While emphasizing “the great biodiversity” of the Grand Banks region of Newfoundland, she asserts that “no oil project matches the ecosystem services that are provided by this maritime region.”

Federal support

CIRA’s announcement of the final bulk public consultation came five days after the Trudeau government announced $ 320 million in public funding “as part of an agreement with the provincial government to supporting Canadians who have jobs in the offshore energy sector ”. “We trust our workers. We have confidence in this industry. And we have confidence in its future. These are jobs. It’s about securing a prosperous future for our offshore resources, ”said Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan.

In another move to support the development of offshore oil projects over the next few years, the Liberal government announced in June that all exploratory drilling east of Newfoundland will now be exempt from the environmental assessment that was previously in effect. The exemption zone covers an area of ​​735,000 km2 and it covers all the promising sectors targeted by the oil companies. And all the public consultations were carried out in the midst of the pandemic.

According to the Trudeau government, it is entirely reasonable to do so, since a “regional assessment” was carried out before the exemption regulations were developed. However, the report of the committee that carried out this evaluation is very critical of the process imposed by the federal government. He insisted in particular on the “very short deadline” which was granted to him “to carry out his task”. “This not only limited the ability of the Committee to prepare the report, but also reduced public confidence in the work of the Committee and the opportunities for others to contribute. The members were appointed on April 15, 2019 and their work was due to be completed in the fall of 2019.

What is more, the committee notes that, “too often, the scientific expertise of the federal government was not offered or accessible to support its work.” Such an access was however provided, can we read in the document of 234 pages. “In particular, it was initially envisaged that government experts would be directly involved in the planning of different components of the regional assessment, data analysis and drafting. With a few notable exceptions, this situation did not materialize. This is an unbearable situation which has greatly hampered the efforts, ”the report said.

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