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The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has once again reminded us that there is no more room for the development of new reserves of fossil fuels. We’ve known for a while now that no new reserves of oil, in particular, can be developed if we are to meet our climate targets.

As with the release of every IPCC report, Canadian leaders are quick to make statements about their “commitment” to climate action. But whether the federal government is ready to act on these facts is yet to be seen.

Right now, a little-known proposed oil project called Bay du Nord — a collection of six oil discoveries close to each other in the Flemish Pass — is once again bringing the federal cabinet’s commitment to climate action into question.

The Equinor project, which would be developed 500 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, was initially supposed to produce 300 million barrels of oil. This figure has now skyrocketed to a possible one billion barrels of oil.

It goes without saying this would be a climate disaster and that a project like this should not even be considered. But in Newfoundland and Labrador, where I am from, the provincial government and oil lobbyists are still championing the oil and gas industry as playing a considerable role in the future of the provincial economy.

This stance is at odds with climate science, but it’s also at odds with the calls from within Newfoundland and Labrador for a green transition instead. Polling shows people in the province want to go green and in St. John’s, a city with a population of about 100,000 people, thousands have joined demonstrations calling for climate action. These climate strikes were not limited to the capital either, and many people there are actively working to grow the province's green economy.

Eighty per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador residents agree that priority should be placed on moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy and efficiency systems, which would include training and income support for affected workers. Residents shared their opinions in a poll done by The Atlantic Quarterly, May 13-18, 2021. The results are accurate within 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Climate change impacts for communities like Newfoundland's The Bay of Islands pictured above range from extensive flooding and the degradation of sea ice to increased risks of geohazards and changes in the marine ecosystem. Photo by Conor Curtis

Bay du Nord would lock N.L.’s economy, and Canada’s, into further dependence on fossil fuels at a time when we need to be working for a just transition for N.L. and other oil-dependent provinces instead.

Opinion: Newfoundland's #BayduNord is an economic dead-end, writes @CiaranCurtis1. The decision the federal cabinet makes on whether or not to reject it will be the first real test of its commitment to #ChangingClimate. #CDNpoli #Canpoli #nlpoli

There are other dangers associated with this project as well, which could directly harm fisheries, other industries and the ecosystems they rely on. A DFO Science report on the project found numerous threats to ocean life, including risk of an uncontrolled blowout, risks to deep sea coral and sponge communities, and risks to whales — some of which are endangered — from ship strikes. Bay du Nord would see the drilling of Canada’s deepest production wells. At the moment drilling off the coast of N.L. takes place at a depth of about 100 metres, but these wells would be at 1,200 metres, located 500 kilometres from St. John’s beyond the 200-mile limit.

This means that a blowout at the wellhead at this location would, according to the estimates of Equinor itself, take 18 to 36 days to cap.

Newfoundland and Labrador stands directly in the path of climate change-related disasters that adversely impact Indigenous, rural and remote communities and these impacts will only intensify if the climate crisis continues to worsen.

We cannot hope to adapt to all of the impacts we face globally if we pass our climate targets. The priority needs to be on prevention. As the IPCC Working Group II co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner states: “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future."

It is very easy to imagine a future in which Bay du Nord becomes yet another drain on public funds, like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The project would become a stranded asset if we meet our climate targets, and oil companies have made a habit in this country of seeking public money from governments. If the federal government, as Minister Chrystia Freeland has stated, is unwilling to sink further public funds into an oil project in the West, then that’s a definitive sign it should not do so in the East either.

Cabinet members have an opportunity to embrace calls for change at the provincial level and begin to make real investments in growing the green economy. Bay du Nord is an economic dead-end, and the decision cabinet makes on whether or not to reject it will be the first real test of its commitment to climate action.

Last week, youth activists in Montreal held a climate strike to oppose this project. It was freezing out, but still they went ahead with their demonstration, walking forward into the wind and snow to send a message to Canada’s leaders. Now it is time for those leaders to demonstrate their dedication to our planet and our long-term economic future.

The federal cabinet has until March 6 to decide whether or not to approve the Bay du Nord project, but Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is now also set to make an announcement about the project this Friday. We are calling on people to reach out to their nearest cabinet member by phone and send a clear message:

Reject Bay du Nord and act to ensure a just transition for Newfoundland and Labrador instead.

Conor Curtis is the digital communications co-ordinator at the Sierra Club Canada Foundation