Part 1 in a two-part series (Part 2 Monday)
It’s dubbed "the lungs of the ocean."
The Labrador Sea plays a vital role in the global climate system.
It’s one of only a handful of places on the planet where the atmosphere connects with the deep ocean and sends life-sustaining oxygen to the depths, supporting fish in far-flung seas.
While Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has considered deep water and coastal parts of the Labrador Sea for conservation, the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) has a call for oil exploration bids there expected to close next year.
“The federal government was looking at having a marine protected area in the Labrador Sea because they’ve been keen to meet their targets for protecting ocean areas. It didn’t quite happen, partly because there’s oil and gas exploration in the Labrador Sea, and I think they were a little embarrassed to be opening up new oil exploration at the same time they were declaring a protected area — might seem contradictory,” said Memorial University physical oceanography professor Brad de Young, who has studied the area.
“There was certainly some back chatter that it had to do with the push for oil exploration because the province just opened up new lease exploration last year. That was like, oh, OK, we’re doing that. And then the protected area shrank - the discussion - immediately because of that.”
Meanwhile, the provincial government is aiming to double oil production by 2030.
Between 2011 and 2015, provincial Crown corporation Nalcor conducted seismic surveys of the entire Labrador Sea, identifying three large new basins in the deeper offshore waters — the area that scientists call a "vital organ" in the Earth’s climate system.
Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady said in an emailed statement to The Telegram that the oil and gas sector is a crucial component of the province’s economy, and the potential in offshore Labrador is “very real, known and exciting.”
“With decades of exploring for oil in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have gained knowledge and understanding of the industry, what we have to offer and where we are headed — including in the Labrador Sea,” she wrote.
But in the context of climate change, some people are cautioning against oil and gas development in an ocean that plays, as de Young said, “an outsized role in the global climate system."
Source of ocean’s ‘deep breathing’
“It’s one of the most unique areas in the world,” said DFO research scientist David Cote, who has been studying the diverse life in the Labrador Sea for several years.
“What we’ve seen all the way out to 3,000 metres of depth that we’ve been working in is we’re seeing a variety of species; there’s quite a bit of life down there.”
Cote and his team have identified everything from giant bowhead whales to tiny sea cucumbers and fragile deep water corals and sponges.
They also identified the mysterious deep water fish, the blue hake. Scientists have studied and found it in deep oceans throughout much of the world, but haven’t been able to find where it’s spawning. Cote’s research suggests the Labrador Sea might be the first known spawning area.
Arguably even more significant is the role of the Labrador Sea studied by de Young and many other oceanographers.
He’s involved with the extensive research network Ventilation, Interactions and Transports Across the Labrador Sea (VITALS) which studies how the deep ocean exchanges carbon dioxide, oxygen and heat with the atmosphere through the Labrador Sea.
On its website, VITALS explains what happens in the Labrador Sea as the ocean’s “deep breathing” which “redistributes nutrients and contaminants, e.g. from future deep water oil production along the deep Labrador slope, potentially affecting ocean productivity and marine ecosystem health.”
However, recent research suggests the “breathing” is becoming shallow because melting Greenland and Arctic ice is increasing the amount of fresh water, creating lower density and thereby making it more difficult for oxygen to sink into the depths.
Industry interest piqued by new basins
In 2010, Nalcor was working with Airbus Defense and Space on satellite imaging of the offshore when a number of potential oil slicks were detected in the deep water parts of the Labrador Sea.
From there, Nalcor did two-dimensional seismic work and identified three new basins in the deeper offshore area — now named the Chidley, Holton and Henley basins.
“We certainly began to see some evidence of prospectivity emerging in that data set,” said Richard Wright, a geophysicist and exploration manager with Nalcor.
The C-NLOPB then scheduled a licence round for the area which is set to close in 2021.
“That will really be the first licence round in the slope and deep water areas of offshore Labrador." -Wright.
And industry is paying attention to this new frontier.
Paul Barnes, Atlantic Canada and Arctic director with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), said those new basins have piqued some interest.
It’s too early to put a potential dollar value on the black gold that lies underneath the Labrador Sea, but in advance of the November 2021 licence round schedule, Nalcor will engage resource assessment firm Beicip-Franlab to do an assessment of the area. That will give a better understanding of just how much oil and gas lies beneath the ocean.
But the area isn’t entirely new to industry.
From the late 1960s to early 1980s, 28 wells were drilled which proved up a significant amount of natural gas — about 4.2 trillion cubic feet — in five licence areas.
At the time, it wasn’t developed because there was already plenty of natural gas on the market, and industry was more interested in the province’s offshore oil because there was greater demand and it was more profitable.
That could all change.
“We’re seeing a huge demand for natural gas in places like India and some other places in Europe,” said Barnes.
“There is a thought that at some point the offshore natural gas projects may be more viable, because technology is changing which you can liquefy that natural gas and put it aboard specially designed tankers that transport natural gas, and potentially transport it by tanker to markets that need it outside of North America.
“So, in the not too distant future, offshore gas that’s been discovered off of Labrador, or off of the Grand Banks, could be developed for markets in other places outside of North America where there’s a higher demand for gas, and the prices are higher.” -Barnes
Indeed, advances in technology have made deep water exploration easier than ever.
“Today our field of view is much wider because the technologies have evolved considerably over the last number of decades for us to be able to look in different areas for that opportunity,” said Wright.
Despite technology making oil and gas exploration in the Labrador Sea easier than before, environmentalists question whether it should happen at all, given the area’s important function.
Read about their concerns in Part 2 of this special report in Monday's edition of The Telegram.
Video courtesy Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
- WORLD METEOROLOGICAL WEEK: Could the Labrador Sea hold secrets to better understanding climate change?
- Federal plan for Sable Island will protect ecosystem, but won't tighten offshore oil and gas restrictions
- Lewisporte hopes to see its harbour used in connection with future offshore oil exploration