The area offshore Western Newfoundland is poised to open for new oil and gas industry work, including potential new exploration licences for interested players, as the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) has published its updated Western Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).
The release of the document means the restart of a round of licensing for oil exploration offshore Western Newfoundland, previously placed on hold, pending the completion of the regional environmental review.
The call for bids on those exploration licences will now close in 120 days.
Corridor Resources, a company looking to drill an exploration well on a licence area it already held right to in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including a prospect known as Old Harry, had placed their plans on hold, at least until the CNLOPB completed its review work.
“We welcome the release of the Strategic Environmental Assessment report ... We also have to understand and review the consultation process for Old Harry before commenting further. We do plan to proceed with our exploratory program at Old Harry, which is one of the most promising undrilled offshore petroleum structures in Atlantic Canada,” said a spokesman for the company, in a statement provided in response to questions on Old Harry plans.
The release of the detailed, regional environmental documentation on Monday afternoon completes a review process started in 2011.
The SEA was first completed in 2005 but due for an update. It is, generally speaking, a broad look by the CNLOPB at potential environmental implications of offshore oil exploration and development in a region.
It ultimately feeds decisions by the offshore regulator on applications for individual projects, but does not replace individual environmental assessments for proposed offshore work, such as seismic surveys or drilling.
The new Western region SEA provides summary of existing environmental baseline studies, identifies sensitive environmental areas, maps human activities offshore and notes species of concern. It highlights: areas important for marine mammals; beaches considered critical for breeding of the Piping Plover; migratory routes and rivers for salmon; areas of coral and eelgrass; lobster, herring, capelin, and cod nursery and spawning areas.
It notes seven coastal parks and protected areas under the provincial and federal government in the Western region and an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area for groundfish, as identified under the Oceans Act.
It also identifies eight, known unexploded ordinance sites.
Fishing areas are identified, but the report also maps the distribution of commercial fishing operations and intensity of work in the region from 2005 to 2011.
The CNLOPB states clearly an oil spill is always possible.
That said, the ultimate finding of the review work — including open house consultations conducted throughout Atlantic Canada and Quebec in September and October 2012, and consultation with various provincial and federal authorities — was that oil and gas exploration offshore Western Newfoundland is considered generally permissable, if standard measures are enforced for keeping negative environmental impacts to a minimum.
In some cases, some areas, as identified in the roughly 750-page report, special mitigation measures would need to be considered.
Yet, even with the best measures, NDP leader Lorraine Michael is advising caution in considering work into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, specifically at the Old Harry prospect. Speaking to The Telegram this morning from Ottawa, where she is participating in an all-party committee presentation on the shrimp fishery, she said exploration work there should be put on hold for now.
“I think the whole Gulf issue is very problematic because of the whole boundary dispute between Quebec and us around Old Harry, No. 1. And that has not been settled yet. So I think we’re putting ourselves in a precarious situation moving ahead with the part (of the prospect) that we do have some recognized jurisdiction over,” she said.
She said granting licences and permits for work in the Gulf, without settling standing disputes with neighbouring provinces, risks increasing the intensity of those disputes. And there is also the consideration of how other provinces might be impacted in the event of an accident.
“I think we should put Old Harry on hold until all this stuff gets worked out,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Board is now deep into work on updating its Eastern SEA, including the area with all of the province's producing oil projects and exploration areas such as the Orphan Basin and Flemish Pass. As reported, public meetings for that regional assessment were held in the fall and the call for comments on the draft report closed in April.