This is what politicians mean when they talk about ‘clean oil’ from offshore Newfoundland


Oil production in Newfoundland’s offshore may soon be increased. But what do officials mean when they say the oil is clean? (HMDC)

Newfoundland and Labrador is sitting on billions of dollars in potential oil revenues.

It is also, subsequently, generating billions of kilograms of greenhouse gases.

Despite this, politicians repeatedly espouse the environmental virtues of the province’s crude oil – a stance that has raised the stakes of a long-awaited decision by the federal government on Bay du Nord, an ambitious project that would displace the oil industry province’s offshore in the never-before-drilled deep waters off Canada’s east coast.

The Bay du Nord oil, buried under more than a kilometer of seawater in an area of ​​the Atlantic known as the Flemish Pass, is said to be “the cleanest in the world”, as declared by the Liberal MP Ken MacDonald to reporters late last month.

He is not alone in presenting crude oil as a good thing for the climate, a marketable substitute for the so-called dirtiest oils in the world. The provincial government also took a hard line on its oil resources last year, calling its offshore fields “low carbon”. more than a dozen times in a 35-page report on the oil and gas industry.

“It is not in the interests of Canada or the world to limit the production of low-carbon oil from Canada and encourage the development of high-carbon oil in other parts of the world to meet to energy demand,” says the report.

But how clean can the oil be?

“When they say the cleanest oil in the country or the greenest oil in the country, well, what they’re really saying is that producing oil is going to produce less greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse,” said Jean Phillipe Sapinsky, assistant professor. at the Université de Moncton and a researcher at the Corporate Mapping Project, which tracks the fossil fuel industry in Canada.

“It’s not the production of oil that’s damaging, it’s when we burn the oil. And the oil is extracted to be burned.”

With water depths of approximately 1,200 meters, Equinor’s Baie du Nord project will utilize a floating production, storage and offloading vessel, better known as an FPSO, like the one pictured here. Equinor officials say first oil is expected before the end of this decade. (Equinor)

Extraction “includes things like flaring, venting methane into the air, fixing methane leaks,” explained Paasha Mahdavi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California.

Oil extracted from offshore Newfoundland is, technically, “a green comparison to, for example, the oil sands, which are very energy intensive to produce and process.”

But like Sapinsky, Mahdavi explains that most of the greenhouse gases in a barrel of oil don’t come from the extraction process. The whole process, from extracting it from the ground to exporting it, only accounts for around 15% of the total emissions of a barrel.

“So you can produce the cleanest oil,” Mahdavi said, “and you can still only absorb one-sixth of the emissions problem.”

The Bay du Nord project is located in the Flemish Pass. 500 kilometers east of St. John’s, with recoverable reserves estimated at 300 million barrels of oil. (Equinor)

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, oil off Newfoundland is often considered a light, sweet crude, with a consistency ranging from maple syrup to water.

Unlike bitumen from the Alberta oil sands, it generally does not require additional processing to force it through a pipeline.

So when politicians talk about “clean oil,” Mahdavi said, “there is a meaning to that, in the sense of the carbon intensity of oil.”

These include geological components, he says: the amount of sulfur in the oil, for example, or the “heaviness” or thickness of the product.

But when oil is actually burned to produce energy – like jet fuel, gasoline or fuel oil – the differences between the types of crude evaporate.

According to the Carnegie Oil Climate Index, crude from one of Newfoundland’s offshore projects, Hibernia, emits 436 kilograms of carbon per barrel when burned, compared to 466 kilograms of carbon emitted from diluted bitumen in Alberta oil sands.

That’s a six percent difference.

The Bay du Nord project could generate 300 million barrels of oil which, when burned, would release 130.8 billion kilograms of carbon into the atmosphere.

This graph of the Carnegie Oil-Climate Index shows that most of the greenhouse gas savings from Hibernia crude oil come from its extraction and processing, not from its combustion. (Carnegie Oil-Climate Index)

Does Canada’s climate plan allow us to keep pumping oil?

No oil is truly clean.

But when politicians talk about “clean oil,” Jordan Kinder says, they may also be referring to Canada’s specific regulations: its policies to control greenhouse gas emissions, like those contained in last month’s climate plan. .

Kinder, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, said it’s true that these policies are better than those in many oil-producing regions.

“But the bar is low.”

Kinder has been tracking greenwashing in the oil industry for over a decade. He points to Ezra Levant’s 2011 book, ethical oillike launching an argument for Canadian crude that has now entered the mainstream.

At first, that of the Levant was widely considered a marginal position.

Newfoundland and Labrador politicians regularly compare the province’s offshore industry with the carbon-intensive processing required by Alberta’s oil sands. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

“That’s changing,” Kinder said.

“Certain elements of this argument have been adopted as common sense. It’s something you see in some discussions around [the Bay du Nord] project in particular, is that you can make claims about oil cleanliness without too much qualification, when it requires qualification.”

The expansionism of fossil fuels is then justified, he explains, within the framework of these climate plans and regulations; as long as some of the carbon is sequestered, for example, or some profits are invested in renewable energy, then it is considered politically acceptable to continue extracting oil.

“There’s a commitment to some kind of future built into these new projects,” Kinder said, “that indicates we’re always going to be dependent on oil.”

“I think they don’t understand”

In Sapinsky’s eyes, investing in oil and gas alongside renewables, as the province sees fit in the years to come, is not the answer.

“We have very little time now to avoid the worst impacts of global warming,” Sapinsky said.

The International Energy Agency, he points out, also says that to avoid the highest costs of climate change, no country can embark on new carbon mining projects.

“So no Bay du Nord, no White Rose, no fracking, nothing. No expansion,” he said.

“What we need is to shut down the industry. It’s critical right now, and the economic impacts, especially on Newfoundland, will be disastrous. … So it’s not balanced to say that we are going to make money by extracting oil, where we are going to be affected by climate change and the economy is going to collapse, because that is what we envision.

Oil prices are volatile; request, uncertain. The profit to the province, or even the break-even point, of the Equinor-led project is by no means assured, according to Sapinsky.

“I think they don’t understand,” Sapinsky said bluntly, pointing to repeated lobbying by oil and gas companies, citing a Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives study that found industry players met with politicians. Canadians. over 11,000 times between 2011 and 2018.

In these perpetual meetings, politicians “keep hearing that it’s going to make money. It’s good for jobs,” Sapinsky said.

Mahdavi, too, argues that governments are taking the path of least resistance.

“It’s currently easier to ship oil from an offshore oil rig. It’s a process we know how to do,” he said.

“But if you plan for the future and say, okay, we have this untapped resource, a very windy place that can provide electricity not just to everyone there, but to people elsewhere – why not do it? And why not support that with investment in transportation or storage? We have all this technology. It just requires government support.”

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