Fighting to assess downstream emissions from Bay du Nord

Sierra Club Canada Foundation and Equiterre v Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Attorney General of Canada, and Equinor Canada Ltd
Projections in Stavanger, Norway on Equinor’s headquarters overlay plumes of smoke, a whale tail and coral.
Program area – Climate Status: In progress
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Bay du Nord is the first remote, deep-water oil and gas project in Canada, with reserves estimated between 300 million and one billion barrels of oil. The project, 500 kilometres off Newfoundland’s shores, would see a huge new complex of oilfields with drilling taking place at a depth of 1,200 metres, compared to other current offshore operations, which drill at 100 metres or less.

Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Stephen Guilbeault approved the Bay du Nord project on April 6, 2022, just days after an alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that simply cutting emissions was no longer enough to curb the climate crisis and the United Nations chief called funding new fossil fuel projects "moral and economic madness."

Minister Guilbeault insists Bay du Nord will be required to meet 137 conditions — including a condition that the project be net-zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This target, however, fails to account for the massive downstream emissions the project will generate. Downstream emissions are released when the oil & gas is burned.

Ecojustice, on behalf of Équiterre and Sierra Club Canada Foundation, filed a lawsuit against Minister Guilbeault’s approval of the project in Federal Court on May 6, 2022. The groups say the project’s approval clashes with Canada’s international obligations and the urgent call to reduce global emissions as the reality of the climate emergency becomes more distressing with every severe weather event.

Industry and government rhetoric around “clean oil” blatantly ignores the fact that the process of extracting oil only accounts for 10 per cent of the emissions from an oil project, with the other 90 per cent coming when the oil is burned. Recent estimates suggest that over its lifetime, Bay du Nord is projected to produce between 300 million to one billion barrels of oil, which could in turn generate about 400 million tonnes of carbon — that’s the equivalent of the emissions from 7-10 million cars per year.

The Atlantic waters off the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador are one of the most important marine environments in the world and home to a large amount of ocean life from the endangered cod to humpback whales, corals and sponges. A Department of Fisheries and Oceans Science report on the Bay du Nord project identified numerous threats to ocean life, including the risk of an uncontrolled blowout. As the project is located 500 kilometres offshore, Equinor’s own forecasts predict that a blowout at the wellhead causing an uncontrolled release of oil into the sea would take 18-36 days to cap.

We’ve seen the federal government make many promises to do its part to tackle climate change. It ratified the Paris Agreement, committed to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and recently acknowledged that meeting long-term objectives requires immediate action.

While efforts to incorporate climate change considerations into environmental assessments have existed for years, Canada has yet to meaningfully do so. We need the federal government to follow its commitments to tackle climate change. But continually approving carbon-intensive infrastructure like Bay du Nord, while failing to account for the full scope of the emissions generated by projects undertaken in Canada, is a recipe for failure.

We are in a climate emergency. The projects we undertake in Canada are threatening lives and livelihoods here at home and abroad. We can no longer accept a business-as-usual approach that places short term profit over a prosperous and climate-safe future. We also cannot ignore downstream emissions when assessing projects like Bay du Nord. The Canadian fossil fuel projects have a global impact and we must stop exporting our emissions and climate crisis overseas for others to deal with while continuing to profit at home.

The government has acknowledged that our window for mitigating the worst impacts of climate change is rapidly closing, and meeting critical long-term objectives requires immediate action. Bay du Nord will lock the province and Canada into further dependence on fossil fuels at a time when the science demands we transition away from fossil fuels towards cleaner, sustainable energy sources.

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