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Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is open to removing conservation protections off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador if there is a major oil discovery in the area.
Fossil fuel giant BP — which left the oilsands to dive into Canada’s offshore market last year — is planning to drill an exploratory well in a marine refuge off the coast of Newfoundland. Rules around marine refuges mean exploratory drilling is allowed but oil production is not. In marine protected areas, no oil activity is allowed.
However, as reported by the CBC, Wilkinson said if BP finds oil while exploring the area, there is a possibility the marine refuge could be altered and “removed as a conservation area.”
"I'm not going to prejudge what is going to come out of the exploration, but that will be a discussion for down the road. If there is a decision to proceed with production and it goes through the various environmental assessment processes, then we would remove it from the protected status that Canada has put in place," he told the CBC.
Changing a conservation area would need to go through a rigorous federal environmental assessment, said Keean Nembhard, Press Secretary for the minister of Natural Resources, in a statement to Canada’s National Observer.
“While, under some circumstances, exploratory drilling is permissible within a marine refuge, production would only occur following a federal Impact Assessment conducted by [the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.] This is the same process for all production projects regardless of their location,” said Nembhard.
He added that the federal government is “committed to protecting marine environments and ecosystems,” and pointed to the Canada’s goal of protecting 30 per cent of marine and coastal areas by 2030, along with its $2 billion commitment towards its Ocean Protection plan and its moratorium on deep sea mining.
Wilkinson's comments come as Canada is experiencing an extreme period of wildfires. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters an “especially severe wildfire season” could be ahead and that climate change — which is largely driven by pollution from burning fossil fuels — is making fires more intense and frequent, and causing fires in areas where they don’t typically occur.
Canada’s National Observer reached out to Natural Resources Canada and BP but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Josh Ginsberg, lawyer with @ecojustice_ca, questions why protections are there in the first place if they can be “arbitrarily removed in favour of industry profits and carbon-polluting fossil fuels.”
BP currently has 15 licences to explore the waters off the coast of Newfoundland, including the marine protected zone in question, which spans more than 55,000 square kilometres. Known as the Northeast Newfoundland Slope Closure, Fisheries and Oceans Canada notes it has “high concentrations” of corals and sponges that provide habitats for other marine species. All bottom-contact fishing is banned in the area to protect biodiversity, and while BP says it will study the site to reduce “potential adverse environmental effects on corals and sponges,” it said risk can’t be eliminated completely.
Wilkinson’s comments fit into a larger picture of weak oversight and environmental protection in Newfoundland’s offshore oil industry, said Ecojustice lawyer Josh Ginsberg. Ecojustice, an environmental law charity, is currently involved in two offshore oil cases in the province: one challenging the exemption of offshore oil drilling from the federal environmental assessment process, and one against the approval of Bay du Nord, a megaproject that is part of Newfoundland’s plan to double offshore oil production by the end of the decade.
“Canada can’t claim to be a climate leader while at the same time continuing to greenlight massive offshore oil and gas exploration and production,” said Ginsberg.
“This government has fast-tracked exploratory drilling off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and approved giant and risky production projects like Bay du Nord despite warnings from scientists that we can’t afford new fossil fuel production in the midst of a climate crisis.”
Ginsberg questions why protections are there in the first place if they can be “arbitrarily removed in favour of industry profits and carbon-polluting fossil fuels.”
During exploration, airguns towed behind ships bounce airwaves into the seabed floor to give receivers a sense of where oil and gas deposits are. Depending on how long it takes for the airwave to return to the sensors, companies are able to map subsea formations, which could contain fossil fuels.
Exploration activity from oil and gas can harm marine life and ecosystems, especially during exploratory drilling. Depending on ocean depth, a temporary barge, rig or ship goes out and drills into the ocean floor to pump oil up from the deposit. At this stage, many of the same concerns critics have with oil production overlap, including the risk of a spill and the effect ongoing activity has on the ecosystem.
— With files from John Woodside