In fight against Bay du Nord oil project, environmental groups turn to courts and Norwegian public
Newfoundland offshore project has several parallels to oil project in Australia abandoned by Equinor in 2020
Months after the Bay du Nord offshore oil project in Newfoundland was approved by the federal government, environmental groups are continuing their campaign against the project, taking their fight to the courts and the company's offices in Norway.
Opponents of the project hope that Equinor, the company leading the project (oil major BP has a minority stake) will be especially sensitive to growing climate concerns over fossil fuel production, because it is a state-owned Norwegian company accountable to the country's citizens.
Equinor has yet to make a final investment decision on moving ahead, and environmental groups are focusing their efforts on that upcoming milestone. Led by environmental law charity Ecojustice, they have gone to federal court for a review of its environmental approval of the project.
"Our federal government says that it understands climate science," said Ian Miron, staff lawyer at Ecojustice. "So it should understand that Canada can't be a climate leader and approve fossil fuel infrastructure projects like this one."
Lawsuit focuses on downstream emissions
Equinor and the federal government say that Bay du Nord's operation will have a low carbon intensity, especially when compared to other oil projects in Canada and abroad.
With demand for oil continuing even as the world decarbonizes, they say it makes sense that that oil comes from projects like Bay du Nord. The project has a requirement of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, a first for a Canadian oil and gas project and an indication that the government will seek similarly stringent climate conditions on future environmental approvals.
But these conditions focus on emissions from the operation of Bay du Nord, and not the emissions from when that oil is burned in power plants or vehicles after it is extracted and exported.
Ecojustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of climate advocacy groups Sierra Club Canada and Équiterre in May. Its main argument is that the government failed to consider the emissions from when the oil produced at Bay du Nord is actually used — also called downstream emissions.
Emissions from the actual operation of Bay du Nord — about 177,000 to 309,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, according to the environmental assessment — would amount to a tiny fraction of Canada's annual emissions. But the environmental groups say 90 per cent of a project's lifecycle emissions can be downstream emissions, which need to be accounted for.
"I think if the minister had looked at the downstream emissions, it would be very difficult to come to a conclusion that this project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects," Miron said.
The groups say the government "ignored all downstream emissions, and unlawfully restricted the assessment artificially to consider only the emissions from the extraction facility itself."
In June, eight Mi'kmaw communities in New Brunswick joined the lawsuit, saying that the government did not consider how the shipment of the oil could threaten species of animals they rely on for food and cultural reasons, and fell short of its duty to consult and accommodate those First Nations.
Groups take fight to Stavanger
While the government and Ecojustice's lawyers exchange documents and evidence, the environmental groups are applying pressure on Equinor elsewhere. In May, the groups protested at Equinor's annual general meeting in Stavanger, Norway, projecting slogans and videos onto the company's head office and local landmarks.
"We hope that we can actually convince Equinor and its majority shareholders, which are the people of Norway, that this project is dangerous," said Gretchen Fitzgerald, national programs director for Sierra Club Canada, who also travelled to Stavanger for the demonstrations.
It's a strategy that was followed by environmental groups opposed to another Equinor project halfway across the world. In 2020, Equinor backed out from an offshore oil exploration project in the Great Australian Bight, the large open bay of rugged ocean off the southern coast of Australia.
The company said that the project was not commercially competitive, but it had also faced years of opposition from local groups intent on protecting the remote patch of ocean, an important habitat to a wide range of sea animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world.
"The situation in the Bight, they couldn't have picked a worse place to propose what they were trying to do," said Peter Owen, director of the Wilderness Society in South Australia, an environmental advocacy group that campaigned against Equinor's project.
"But also, they couldn't have picked a worse time in history to be pushing to expand the fossil fuel industry, now that the climate is collapsing before our eyes."
Lessons from Australia
There are many parallels between what happened in the Bight and Bay du Nord. Owen's organization is part of the Great Australian Bight Alliance, which brought together local conservation groups and Indigenous groups that opposed oil drilling in the region.
Australian regulators conditionally approved an exploration well from Equinor in December 2019 in the Bight. The Wilderness Society took the government to court to challenge the approval, but Equinor announced it was pulling out by February 2020.
"Not only did we have a responsibility to stop this [project] because of the direct risks that it brought to the communities of southern Australia, but we had a responsibility globally to stop this carbon going into the atmosphere," Owen said.
"That was something that we could do in our jurisdiction, on our watch, as part of a global effort that we have to all embark on now — to stop these types of projects."
Campaigners with the alliance held demonstrations across Australia and in Norway, where they went to Equinor's annual general meetings in Stavanger and spoke directly to its board and executives.
"We went to Norway looking for friends, recognizing that this fossil fuel company, Equinor, was essentially the Norwegian people," said Owen.
"The community was being made aware that there was this amazing place on the other side of the world, that the community who lived there didn't want to be put at risk through oil drilling."
In an email statement, Equinor did not address the lawsuit against the Bay du Nord project, but said that a final investment decision is "anticipated within the next couple of years." The project, if it goes ahead, will start producing oil by the end of the decade — and continue until 2058.
Bay du Nord could produce up to 200,000 barrels per day, and up to a billion barrels of oil over its lifetime. That would release about 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases.
"Canada's committed to be net zero by 2050," said Fitzgerald. "You can't keep approving new oil and gas projects if you're serious about that commitment."