While much of the country’s attention was focused on the rapidly escalating stand-off between Alberta and British Columbia over the Trans Mountain pipeline this week, another major environmental announcement went largely unnoticed.
On Thursday, the federal government quietly approved BP Canada’s plan to drill up to seven deep exploration wells off the coast of Nova Scotia between 2018 and 2022. In her decision statement, Environment and Climate Change minister Catherine McKenna wrote the project “is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”
That conclusion ran contrary to serious concerns that environmental and fishing organizations have raised about the project — including BP’s role in the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the proximity of the project to critical fish and marine mammal habitats, the company’s dependence on toxic chemical dispersants in the case of an oil spill, and a blowout containment strategy that would require at least two weeks to ship and equip a capping device from Norway.
“We feel like we’re under assault,” said John Davis, director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, in an interview with DeSmog Canada. “The coastal communities and fishing industry of Eastern Canada is just under assault by this government.”
The Clean Ocean Action Committee is a coalition of fish plant operators and fishermen representing more than 9,000 jobs in southwestern Nova Scotia.
The BP wells off the southeast coast of Nova Scotia are slated to be at least 3.5 times the distance from land and up to twice the depth of the well beneath the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig, which exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
McKenna’s approval isn’t the last word on the project: the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board still needs to oversee some final processes, including the creation of a spill response plan and issue a licence approval to drill.
But the offshore boards aren’t exactly known for interfering with development.
For all intents and purposes, this decision was the last opportunity for the federal government to make an intervention on a number of different issues: spill response, impacts of routine activities on marine mammals such as right whales, Indigenous rights or greenhouse gas emissions. While some legally binding conditions were included with the approval, none fundamentally addressed the major issues critics have with the project.
The 700 kilometre Scotian Shelf, which effectively divides the Continental Shelf and the deeper Atlantic Ocean, serves as the site of remarkable biodiversity, including whales, seals, sea turtles, fish, corals and birds. That contributes to highly successful fisheries such as the nearby Georges Bank.
“The edge of the Scotian Shelf is a remarkably productive area and important for a lot of animals,” Hal Whitehead, professor of biology at Dalhousie University, told DeSmog Canada.
“It’s that the drilling is actually on and near the shelf that worries me most.”
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) February 3, 2018
Limited Consultations Resulted in No Major Changes, Critics Said
There wasn’t much of a chance for the public to articulate its concerns at any point during the process, despite McKenna’s assurance there was “meaningful consultation and input from Indigenous groups and the public.”
“We were denied any opportunity for public hearings,” Davis said. “Any comments that we had to make about BP or the Environmental Impact Statement would have to be written briefs. And quite frankly, I work with a lot of really confident and thoughtful people, but most of my fishing community aren’t into writing briefs. But they would be happy to have a discussion. And we were denied that discussion. That really aggravated us.”
In its Environmental Assessment Report, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency reported that it received submissions from five organizations and 26 individuals.
But it’s unclear that the submissions had any discernible impact on the outcome, despite overwhelmingly opposing the project.
“Comments went in, but looking in particular at the spill response plan, I don’t see much change between the draft environmental impact statement and the environmental assessment report that just came out with McKenna’s approval,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, director of Sierra Club Canada’s Atlantic region chapter.
The announcement occurs during a time of flux for the offshore boards and environmental assessment process in Canada
Next week, it’s expected that the government’s long-awaited overhauls of the country’s various environmental laws will be announced — with the new Impact Assessment Act and Canadian Energy Regulator Act having the potential to further entrench the regulatory responsibilities of the two petroleum offshore boards.
“We’re really going to be watching to see what the legislation is going to look like in regards to offshore oil and gas,” Fitzgerald said.
In addition, the federal government has been amalgamating regulations on offshore oil and gas activities under the primary consultation of industry players, moving from a prescriptive to a performance-based approach that gives companies far more flexibility in how it manages risk and prepares for situations like blowouts — such as not requiring a capping device nearby.
“When you’re drilling that deep, you better know exactly what you’re doing,” Fitzgerald said. “With the poor regulations and industry oversight that we perceive out there, we’re not reassured that’s happening. They’re very far from emergency and spill response.”