A Canadian offshore oil regulator has accepted a bid from BP Canada to explore a portion of an environmentally sensitive marine refuge in the Atlantic Ocean for drilling.
The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) announced Nov. 4 that it had accepted a bid from the energy company for 264,500 hectares of ocean in exchange for a commitment to carry out exploration work worth $27 million.
According to the regulator, one part of BP Canada's successful bid overlaps with a portion of the Northeast Newfoundland Slope – a marine refuge east of the province that the federal government and environmental groups say is key to biodiversity in the area.
The refuge contains corals and sponges that other marine life use as spawning grounds or nurseries, says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Corals and sponges are fragile and take time to recover from damage.
Any oil company exploration in the marine refuge is going to put biodiversity in the area at risk, argues WWF-Canada.
The sensitive environment is already at risk of catastrophic oil spills, said Sigrid Kuehnemund, vice-president of wildlife and industry for WWF-Canada. The regulator itself has expressed concern over a string of offshore oil spills in recent years.
The federal government also put in place new rules this year that exempt individual exploratory offshore drilling projects in the region from federal environmental impact assessments.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has “reaffirmed Canada's commitment to protect 25 per cent of land and waters by 2025 and reach 30 per cent by 2030,'' noted Kuehnemund.
“Efforts to protect marine refuges and the species they support must be meaningful. WWF-Canada calls on the federal government and the C-NLOPB to stop allowing oil and gas exploration and drilling in marine refuges. Biodiversity depends on it.''
The bid is still subject to government and regulatory approval. BP Canada must satisfy all requirements before the C-NLOPB can issue an exploration licence.
BP Canada spokeswoman Maureen Herchak said the company “follows all regulatory requirements where we operate.''
“It is too early to discuss future plans for this parcel,'' said Herchak.
“However, should we undertake activity in the future, in keeping with government regulations, we will adhere to strict environmental standards, including evaluating any potential environmental and socio-economic sensitivities.''
Meanwhile, the regulator, referring to the overlap with the marine refuge, said in its Nov. 4 announcement that it was “focused on the protection of environmentally significant and sensitive areas'' and would “continue to work closely with DFO and others in this regard.''
"Planning, monitoring and assessment of offshore petroleum activities will ensure they occur in an environmentally responsible way,'' the C-NLOPB wrote. This includes any required “mitigation measures'' are in place before any operations can begin, it said.
Canada's National Observer asked the C-NLOPB on Nov. 6 if it could explain what specific oversight it would be providing to ensure oil exploration would be done in an environmentally responsible manner, but a representative could not respond by publication.
The area in the bid and other marine areas in the region were approved for bidding by the federal and Newfoundland and Labrador governments.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told the House of Commons environment committee on Nov. 4 that ``all drilling projects must respect high environmental standards,'' and regulations in place ``establish clear processes for drilling projects offshore.''
In a statement issued June 4, the government said the federal impact assessment exemption “upholds robust mitigation measures and strengthens conditions to ensure projects adhere to high standards of environmental protection.''
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