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An Iceberg floating by an oil rig, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
If BP gets final approval, it could soon be extracting oil from the Northeast Newfoundland Slope Closure marine refuge off Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo by Stephen Barnes/Alamy Stock Photo

Canada Gives BP Okay to Explore in Marine Conservation Area

How protected is a marine refuge, really, if oil drilling is allowed?

Authored by

by Brian Owens

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Earlier this month, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board accepted a bid from oil company BP to explore for oil and gas in an area that includes part of Atlantic Canada’s largest marine conservation area.

The move to open part of the Northeast Newfoundland Slope Closure marine refuge to oil and gas exploration has alarmed conservation groups. It has also highlighted how the confusing variety of approaches that Canada is using to reach its marine conservation goals can result in wildly varying levels of protection.

In August 2019, Canada surpassed its goal of protecting 10 percent of its ocean area—the current total stands at around 14 percent—and reiterated its goal of protecting 25 percent by 2025, and 30 percent by 2030. But not all protected areas contributing to this total are created equal. The Northeast Newfoundland Slope Closure, for example, is a marine refuge, not a marine protected area (MPA).

“Marine refuges are established as fisheries management tools,” says Jordy Thomson, senior marine coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia. “They protect fish habitat from actions like bottom trawling, but they don’t have the same full suite of protections as MPAs. Oil and gas drilling are not kept out.”

Created in 2017, the Newfoundland refuge covers 55,000 square kilometers—half the size of the Island of Newfoundland. It was designated to stop bottom fishing that would destroy cold water corals and sponges, which provide essential habitat for many commercial fish species. But Thomson says oil exploration or extraction would put the ecosystem at risk all the same. “They’ve put measures in place to protect against dragging on the seafloor, but will still allow drilling right through it,” he says. He is also concerned about the damage seismic testing may cause, as well as the potential for spills or leaks from any future drilling operation.

In an emailed statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said that while it created new standards in 2019 prohibiting bottom trawling, oil and gas exploration, dumping, and mining in MPAs, any of those activities may be permitted in a marine refuge, provided the minister of fisheries and oceans is satisfied that any associated risks have been avoided or mitigated effectively. The statement also said that BP’s proposed exploration does not require an environmental impact assessment because a large-scale regional assessment for oil and gas has already been carried out. However, the company’s plan to mitigate any negative environmental effects will be reviewed by the department before final approval is given.

Christopher Lemieux, an environmental geographer at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, says this is an example of how so-called other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), do not always live up to their name. Many OECMs were created in a rush to meet the 10 percent target, he says, which has led to some disorderly thinking in terms of what’s allowed.

“It doesn’t make sense to ban one activity but not another that has a similar effect,” he says. “It’s frustrating and disappointing, and I don’t think Canadians are aware that these activities are happening in what’s counted as protected in Canada.”

Of the 14 percent of Canada’s marine area that is protected, OECMs account for about five percent, with the Northeast Newfoundland Slope Closure marine refuge counting for almost one percent on its own. Oil and gas leases, including BP’s most recent application, cover around one-quarter of the refuge. If extraction goes ahead, the affected areas would no longer be counted as protected, slowing progress toward the 30 percent goal. But Thomson is more concerned about what chopping off pieces of the refuge will do to the quality of the protections for the ecosystem.

“If you have a marine refuge that’s getting chunked up with different levels of industrial activity, I would really question the conservation value of that,” he says.

Lemieux says oil exploration and other commercial activities jeopardize the long-term effectiveness of protected areas, and the current rules around OECMs lack consistency and have too many exceptions to be useful.

“The area being declared as protected in Canada really needs to come into question,” he says.

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