Ship in a bottle

Equinor is getting closer to launching Canada’s first deepwater oil project

By John Woodside,  National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After discovering hundreds of millions of barrels of oil underground and securing a new licence to drill the site, Norwegian energy giant Equinor is one step closer to developing Canada’s first deepwater oil project off the East Coast.

The flagship discovery, called Bay du Nord, was identified in 2013 and Equinor was given a “significant discovery licence” in 2017. But Equinor’s Bay du Nord project involves tying in nearby oil discoveries called Cappahayden and Cambriol, which were found in 2020. In late January, the offshore regulator, called the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), granted Equinor a new “significant discovery licence” for Cappahayden, which spells out terms to further develop the site.

Adding up the estimated barrels of oil that could be tapped near Bay du Nord reveals a major attempt to increase oil extraction as the province tries to double offshore production by 2030. In Equinor’s 2018 application to the federal Impact Assessment Agency, a body that studies environmental impacts of major projects, it describes extracting “approximately 300 million barrels” of oil. That estimate is now more than 500 million barrels and “includes the 2013 Bay du Nord discovery, as well as the 2020 Cappahayden and Cambriol discoveries,” Equinor spokesperson Ola Morten Aanestad told Canada’s National Observer. 

The C-NLOPB shows a breakdown of estimated barrels of oil with each significant discovery licence but notes these figures include oil that is technically possible to take out of the ground but may not be economically viable. Beyond the Bay du Nord, Cappahayden and Cambriol oil discoveries Equinor currently considers part of its Bay du Nord project, the company also owns three nearby significant discovery licences for sites called Mizzen, Baccalieu and Harpoon that collectively hold an additional 180 million barrels of oil, according to the regulator’s data.

Taken together, that’s 979 million barrels of oil Equinor could potentially tap, making the Bay du Nord project larger than most existing oilfields off the coast of Newfoundland. The Hebron, Terra Nova and White Rose oilfields range from 404 million to 707 million barrels. Only the massive Hibernia project, with an estimated 1.8 billion barrels, is larger than Equinor’s Bay du Nord plans. 

As Equinor inches closer to deciding whether or not to invest an estimated $16 billion in Bay du Nord to turn its plans into reality, the company is enjoying record profits, raking in US$74.9 billion last year. But Canada is at a crossroads. This week, delegates from around the world are in Vancouver for a global summit on ocean conservation that comes shortly after Canada hosted the COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal where countries around the world adopted a plan to conserve nature

“Canada’s vision of marine protected areas will not be complete unless we begin to see an acknowledgment that all new oil drilling is an unacceptable threat to ocean life,” Sierra Club Canada Foundation national program director Gretchen Fitzgerald said in a statement.  

Exploring for oil comes with significant harm to marine life. Finding where the oil physically is involves a process called seismic testing, where airguns are towed behind a ship blasting airwaves into the seabed to help reveal where oil and gas deposits are. Once promising locations are identified, exploratory drilling begins to confirm the deposit’s size and quality.

The largest oil spill in U.S. history came from BP’s Deepwater Horizon project, which was an exploration well. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the 2010 spill, which killed 11 people, “likely harmed or killed about 82,000 birds of 102 species; about 6,165 sea turtles; as many as 25,900 marine mammals; and a vast (but unknown) number of fish — from the great bluefin tuna to our nation’s smallest seahorse — plus oysters, crabs, corals and other creatures.”

The federal government approved Equinor’s Bay du Nord project in April 2022. If built, it would emit 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution annually. 

Top image credit: After securing a licence for a recent discovery, Norwegian energy giant Equinor is one step closer to developing Canada’s first deepwater oil project off the East Coast. – Illustration by Ata Ojani / Canada’s National Observer

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