Part 2 in a two-part series (Part 1)
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.
But given the Labrador Sea’s significance, environmentalists urge caution.
Sigrid Kuehnemund is vice-president of ocean conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
She said oil and gas development could negatively affect the Labrador Sea in two ways.
First, there’s the effect of development on the species that call the Labrador Sea home.
Second is the effect on the deep breathing function.
“In terms of the climate impacts, natural gas is by far a far greater threat as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So, the consequences of putting more natural gas on stream are even greater than the consequences associated with coal and oil.
“So, for an area that is the lungs of the ocean, that contributes to that deep transfer of oxygen, that is being impacted by climate change, (it) really doesn’t need any additional risks — especially for activities that are contributing to that climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.”
Tanya Edwards, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society — Newfoundland and Labrador (CPAWS-NL), said areas that are so vital need to be protected before it’s too late.
Edwards said the federal government has been improving in ocean protection in recent years, such as setting a target of 25 per cent protection by 2025. She hopes the provincial government “will also step up and publicly commit to these targets.”
Consider fishery impacts: FFAW
Fish, Food and Allied Workers president Keith Sullivan said any development that happens in the Labrador Sea should take into consideration the fishery.
“Oil and gas have been pursuing opportunities really aggressively throughout and around the province; there doesn’t seem to be much pause given to impacts on the fishery.
“I know we’ve talked to harvesters in Labrador who’ve seen seismic vessels in areas — again, nobody knows the impact that seismic will have on the fish and the fisheries in that area. So, it’s always a concern when there’s not much considering or any level of consultation done with people who can be impacted by it.”
Based on what’s happened on the Grand Banks with oil exploration, Sullivan said he doesn’t expect that there will be much pause to explore in the Labrador Sea.
“There’s been no consideration for people who are fishing, and obviously the oil and gas industry has had considerable influence on what the rules are for these ocean protections. So, it can’t explain — I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me — that it makes sense that you can’t put a hook in the water, but it’s OK to do seismic blasting, drill holes and potentially have oil spills in an area. You know, there’s no level of explanation that can account for those different rules except favouring one industry over another.
“If you’re talking about protecting an area, it’s either worth protecting, or it’s not.”
‘Massive data gaps’ in Labrador Sea
Currently, a working group co-chaired by the C-NLOPB and the Nunatsiavut Government (NG) is updating a previous environmental assessment of the area that was completed in 2008.
Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady said the updated strategic environmental assessment needs to be completed “before considerations are made associated with future oil and gas activities.”
Rodd Laing, director of environment with the NG, said it’s important to ensure data gaps are filled, so that decisions are made on the best available knowledge.
“If there’s an absence of data it doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be impacts, but the data needs to be collected or filled in order to assess what the issues are,” he said.
"If there’s an absence of data it doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be impacts."
Laing said there are “massive data gaps” in the Labrador Sea.
“And a lot of the data that does exist in this environment has been industry-driven. So, it’s piecemealed and related to different project areas or developments that have happened. And that doesn’t lead to an ecosystem-based approach when it comes to collecting data and ensuring that impacts are identified.”
It’s something DFO research scientist David Cote is hard at work on.
“It’s really hard to try to mitigate or predict what’s going to happen when you don’t know exactly what’s there. So, a big part of what we’re doing is to be able to get some information so that we can potentially manage risks if there is encroaching development from a variety of industries, including oil and gas.”
Concerns about ‘persistent’ spills
Even with a strategic environmental assessment for the area, some wonder whether the process is adequate.
Kuehnemund said WWF-Canada was recently a part of a regional environmental assessment for the province’s offshore, and she felt there was a lack of any real assessment of impacts, with no areas set off limits for development — including protected areas or data deficient areas — and no true accounting of the climate impacts of drilling.
While she said the federal government has shown leadership in ocean protection — seeing a national increase from just under one per cent of the country’s oceans protected in 2015 to 13.8 per cent today — she said that’s not so much the case in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I think there is still the prioritization of economic interests, and that may be getting in the way of the province aligning with national goals and objectives related to ocean protection.”
"Conditions are such that you can’t really clean it up."
Kuehnemund said people should question whether there should be any exploration and development for oil and gas in the Labrador Sea at all.
“This is a very harsh operating environment, and very dangerous in terms of the ability to protect an area from oil spills.”
It’s a concern echoed by Memorial University physical oceanography professor Brad de Young.
“If there is more active oil exploration, or if there were a major spill event of some kind, (it) would be more challenging to deal with in the Labrador Sea depending on when it happens — because, of course, for six months of the year there’s nothing you can do about it in the Labrador Sea.
“Conditions are such that you can’t really clean it up, and so these spills could be quite persistent, and release contaminants deep into the open ocean, and then that’s it. There’s nothing we could do except sort of watch it happen.”