Greenwashing our hands of it — N.L.’s oil challenge

Posted on March 03, 2021 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments



It was a Friday afternoon and if there wasn’t a pandemic, the place would’ve been packed to the gills. There was a limited number of appropriately spaced folding chairs instead. It didn’t take long for the guests—representatives of oil producers and supply companies, of political parties and particularly the governing provincial and federal Liberals—to take their places to hear about a new injection of public money, federal funds, into offshore oil and gas.

“Today, I am announcing $320 million to support jobs and to ensure a sustainable, long-term, lower-emitting future for our offshore,” said federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan, from the podium.

The announcement was at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John’s, N.L. The museum-like geological interpretation and education centre is cut into the rock of Signal Hill at the heart of the city. The main room is subterranean, offering a large, open space that’s rented out for special occasions. Models of the planets hang overhead.

On Sept. 25, 2020, the Earth looked on as O’Regan worked to explain to reporters how the funding—described by others in the room as “virtually no strings attached”—would be handled. The climate-conscious federal Liberals had made clear they wouldn’t be directly subsidizing the oil sector. At the same time, they never said never to funding clean-up efforts (think stranded, abandoned gas wells) or efforts to lower carbon emissions. O’Regan was walking the tightrope.

It’s easier in Newfoundland and Labrador than other parts of Canada, maybe even easier than in Alberta. The country’s most easterly province has many resources, but oil and gas is the industry that came with cash just as the cod moratorium slammed the economy with the largest mass layoff in Canadian history and shop windows were boarded and stories of the real “hard times” were back (what we’d hoped was left behind with Confederation). That’s the ‘everyday’ oil and gas entered into. It helped to flip the narrative, through investments not just directly in oil extraction but in related service companies and education spending.

Oil and gas was never perfect. It was built over bodies, including 84 people lost with the sinking of the drill rig Ocean Ranger in 1982, and 23 people killed in helicopter crashes in 1985 and 2009. But as the oil flowed, the province found its feet financially in years rather than centuries. Both directly and indirectly, the industry birthed a collection of skilled professionals and companies able to pivot into other oceans work, including roles with renewables.

It’s common for people on the outside looking in to say the people in a petrostate “love” oil. But if there’s any love here, it has been for the periodic financial relief, professional challenges and the sense of direction.

So, on this particular Friday, it was easier to welcome money for a “sustainable” offshore oil industry than reject it for an economic alternative never fully articulated.

Newfoundland and Labrador has not had the hard talk with itself on the energy transition and offshore oil. That discussion has been made more difficult with some newer political talking points, naming Newfoundland and Labrador as offering “one of the lowest per-barrel emissions in the world.”

It was the cry through 2020, as then-provincial Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady lobbied for federal support after the oil price crash and early challenges of COVID-19. “The importance of the offshore industry in Newfoundland and Labrador cannot be overrated. It represents one of the lowest carbon-per-barrel footprints in the world, contributes an estimated 30 per cent GDP, and directly employs 6,390 people with thousands more in supporting industries,” she said, in a quote also added to the “We Are N.L. Offshore” site, built to support the joint industry-provincial government push for cash.

The idea of “per-barrel emissions” was on repeat. It was there again after the federal government came to the table with $320 million and an industry-led task force was created to help direct the spending. “Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil and gas industry represents one of the lowest carbon-per-barrel footprints in the world,” stated the related press release.

“Newfoundland and Labrador offshore oil is one of the least carbon intensive extractive crudes in the world and emits significantly less greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) than other oil-producing jurisdictions,” the government stated.

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