This month, the board responsible for regulating offshore oil and gas in Nova Scotia announced plans to shift its focus to renewables.

As of April 11, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board is no more and the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Energy Board will take its place. Announced by the federal and provincial governments, the bodies say the move will “facilitate the transition to a clean economy and create sustainable jobs” and shift away from its previous mandate of “enabling safe and responsible development of Canada-Nova Scotia’s offshore petroleum resources.”

The announcement, made by Natural Resources Canada, said the change was more than a rebranding exercise. Going forward, the “primary focus of offshore development efforts will be renewable energy projects,” the release said.

In light of the news, environmentalists are calling for commitments from the body — stressing that stopping all new fossil fuel activity and making sure clean energy is developed sustainably need to be top of mind.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to Natural Resources Canada to ask if there were plans to ban offshore oil development. Although the department did not address that question, it responded with a statement saying both governments are committed to working together to develop clean energy.

“As part of its collective effort to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050 and a net-zero electricity system by 2035, the Government of Canada is taking concrete action to identify and pursue opportunities for regional economic growth to create sustainable, middle-class jobs for people and communities in every province and territory,” reads part of the statement.

Gretchen Fitzgerald of Sierra Club Canada says a rebrand isn’t enough.

She argues the board, which is made up of people with backgrounds in fossil fuels and some renewables, needs an overhaul along with the name change. The Sierra Club is part of the Nova Scotia Offshore Alliance, which is calling for the board to commit to a stop on all new offshore oil and gas.

“There are just structural problems with these boards … for any industry, regulators should be separated from the body that is promoting the industry and so forth,” she said.

She points to the National Energy Board, replaced by the Impact Assessment Agency (IAAC) in 2018, and its contentious review of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. She said rebranding didn’t fix the long-standing problems within the IAAC, which has similar issues around subpar environmental standards.

@GreenMission of the @SierraClubACC says the board needs an overhaul along with the name change, and most importantly has to put a stop on all new offshore oil and gas.

Currently, there’s only one active offshore gas project in Nova Scotia waters — the Sable Offshore Energy Project, which has been decommissioned and is in the monitoring phase. Its five offshore fields operated from 1999 to 2018 and produced 2.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas during the project’s lifespan.

Another project, Deep Panuke, a gas project about 250 kilometres southeast of Halifax, has been officially abandoned. So has the Cohasset Panuke, which produced oil between 1992 and 1999.

Efforts to set a new direction for the board seem at odds with commitments to expand oil and gas on the province of Nova Scotia’s website, where the government describes the area as “rich” with potential for offshore oil and gas. “It’s already been tapped with the Sable Offshore Energy and the Deep Panuke Project. And there’s more to come. Lots more,” reads the site.

Screenshot from the province of Nova Scotia's website.

It goes on to say that Shell Canada and BP have committed to spending over $1 billion each on oil and gas exploration over the next six years and that StatOil Canada has committed $82 million for the same time period.

“As we move toward clean energy, it is important that we have a diversity of options available. While there has been decline in the offshore oil and gas interests, natural gas is an important part of the transition,” said the N.S. Department of Natural Resources and Renewables in an email.

Spokesperson Patricia Jreige also said BP, Shell and StatOil no longer have exploratory licences offshore, and the site will soon be updated. However, she said the renaming of the board “doesn’t close the door on new petroleum development.”

“We know now that known petroleum, fossil fuel projects can’t go ahead if we're serious about climate change,” said Fitzgerald.

“I think the pushback on Bay du Nord shows that there is zero appetite among people who care about climate change.”

On the other hand, Atlantic Canada has potential for offshore renewables — the University of Alberta found N.S. could meet all of its energy needs using onshore and offshore wind. As seen in the Global Wind Atlas, wind speeds off the coast of Nova Scotia are more intense than in northern Europe, which has used offshore wind as part of its energy grid since 2020.

Another piece of the puzzle is making sure any future offshore renewable projects unfold in a just and equitable way, said Elisa Obermann, executive director of Marine Renewables Canada, who said she’s cautiously optimistic about the announcement.

The body committed to a regional assessment, which Obermann said needs to be the start of meaningful and ongoing engagement with the public that must include rigorous environmental studies before projects go forward.

“What I've seen in the past … with other industries and also in marine renewables is that there’s a lot of engagement up front, but then not an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and Indigenous peoples,” she said.

“And I think that has to happen throughout different stages of development. Even if it isn't about a project, but just constant information sharing and just an open dialogue.”

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Ah ha, a ray of hope, and where from? Our Atlantic Provinces! Wonderful