Nfld. & Labrador

Oil and water: N.L. tries to balance economy and environment — to mixed reviews

The message from the provincial government at this year’s Noia conference is clear: the province wants more oil development, lots more.

Province says it's doing a lot for the environment while pushing goal of doubling oil production

The Hebron platform is seen anchored in Trinity Bay, N.L., in April 2017. (Paul Daly/Canadian Press)

The message from the provincial government at this year's Noia conference is clear: the province wants more oil development. Lots more. 

"I assure you the future in our offshore has tremendous potential, and we are working hard to make sure that we can realize that potential," said Premier Dwight Ball to the audience at the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industry Association conference.

In a nod to environmental concerns he repeated the claim that oil production in this province emits less carbon than the global average.

His words come at the same time the federal government has declared a climate emergency in Canada while also giving the green light to the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which will bring oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.

It's all a delicate balancing act meant to show voters that economic development and environmental protection are both priorities. 

But there's debate over the definition of balance. 

While the provincial government wants to double oil production by 2030, Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady says it's also doing a fair bit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We are ensuring the oil and gas industry continues to lower the amounts of carbon per barrel it emits," she said. 

Coady points to the government's climate action plan as proof. 

Its stated goal is to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions from across the economy, stimulate clean innovation and growth, and build resilience to the impacts of climate change."

'Toothless carbon tax'

For political pundit and Independent editor Drew Brown, the balance is way off. While he doesn't think all the oil should be kept in the ground, he says, a new approach is needed. 

"Unless the province seriously acknowledges the ecological limits and limitations on what it's doing, I think no matter how much we are going to ban the plastic bags, bring in a really toothless carbon tax, functionally unless the state actually addresses these issues, we live in a climate denial province."

The way the industry sees it, there is a demand for oil that is not going away overnight, and it's better if it's produced here.

Premier Dwight Ball, speaking to media after delivering his keynote address to the Noia conference in St. John's on Tuesday, said the oil industry has tremendous potential. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"So if we turn off the switch to oil tomorrow, some other company is going to come in and fill that space and it's going to come from a country that isn't as geopolitically sound, does not treat their workers as well, does not have the same environmental standards," said Noia CEO Charlene Johnson. 

Claiming everyone in the oil and gas room at the convention is an environmentalist, Johnson said lowering carbon footprints is the goal.

"[But] we still need the oil. So let's reap the rewards that we can here."

Balance important: Johnson

Johnson also said policy is about striking a balance, and the industry is critically important to the province's economy. 

"If we didn't have oil we would be in a sad place."

Economist Wade Locke agrees. 

"Right now the biggest potential for this province is oil and gas. And without that we are in dire straits," he said.

"At some point and time because of climate change and people's concern about it, there will be a reduced demand for oil. Right now this is what we have."

Nick Mercer, a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo with a focus on renewable energy policy, says he doesn't consider himself pro- or anti-offshore, but he thinks the course the province is charting is all wrong. 

"Doubling offshore oil production is entirely incompatible with what we need to build a just, equitable and sustainable planet," said Mercer, who is originally from Halifax and lived in Corner Brook for six years. 

I would like to see the province make moves that are compatible with climate science.- Nick Mercer

Mercer says his research shows this province has some of the strongest potential for wind energy development of any jurisdiction in North America. 

But he says the government is preventing that from happening because regulations stop the private sector from coming in. 

"At the very least I would like to see the province make moves that are compatible with climate science and to allow activities via sustainable energy technologies that can help us get there," he said. 

And so discussion and debate will continue. 

While, the Noia conference runs through Thursday at the Convention Centre in St. John's, Nick Mercer is also part of Decarbonize NL, a conference that will take place in St. John's next month, envisioning a carbon-free provincial economy.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.

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