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

As the Bay du Nord offshore drilling project awaits approval from Ottawa, the provincial government continues to suggest that Newfoundland's oil is a climate-friendly alternative to crude from elsewhere in the world.

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

It's also, subsequently, generating billions of kilograms of greenhouse gases.

Despite that, politicians repeatedly espouse the environmental virtues of the province's crude — a posture that has raised the stakes of a long-awaited federal government decision on Bay du Nord, an ambitious project that would move the province's offshore oil industry into deep waters never yet drilled off Canada's East Coast.

The Bay du Nord oil, buried under more than a kilometre of seawater in an area of the Atlantic known as the Flemish Pass, is allegedly "the cleanest in the world," as Liberal MP Ken MacDonald told reporters late last month.

He's not the only one framing the crude as a good thing for the climate, a marketable replacement for so-called dirtier oils around the world. The provincial government, too, took a hard line on its petroleum resources last year, calling its offshore deposits "low-carbon" over a dozen times in a 35-page oil and gas industry report.

"It is not in Canada's or the world's best interest to limit low-carbon oil production from Canada and encourage high-carbon oil development in other parts of the world to meet the energy demand," the report argues.

But just how clean can oil get?

"When they say the cleanest oil in the country or the greenest oil in the country, well, what they're actually saying is that the production of oil is going to produce less greenhouse gas emissions," said Jean Phillipe Sapinsky, an assistant professor at the University of Moncton and researcher with the Corporate Mapping Project, which follows 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."

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 taken from Newfoundland's offshore is, technically, "a green comparison to, for example, the tarsands, which are very energy-intensive to produce and process."

But like Sapinsky, Mahdavi explains most greenhouse gases in a barrel of oil don't come from the extraction process. The entire procedure, from taking it out of the ground to exporting it, accounts for only about 15 per cent of a barrel's total emissions.

"So you can have the absolute cleanest oil produced," Mahdavi said, "and you can still only absorb one-sixth of the emissions problem."

Oil off Newfoundland's shore is often considered a light, sweet crude, with a consistency anywhere from maple syrup to water, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Unlike bitumen from Alberta's oilsands, it usually doesn't need extra processing to force it through a pipeline.

So when politicians talk about "clean oil," Mahdavi said, "there is some meaning to it, in the sense of the carbon intensity of oil."

Those include geological components, he says: how much sulfur is in the oil, for instance, or how "heavy" or thick the product is.

But when the oil is actually burned for energy — as jet fuel, gasoline or furnace oil — the differences between types of crude all but 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 with 466 kilograms of carbon emitted from diluted bitumen from Alberta's oilsands.

That's a difference of six per cent.

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.

Does Canada's climate plan keep us pumping oil?

No oil is truly clean.

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

Kinder, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, said it's true those policies are better than a lot of oil-producing regions.

"But the bar is low."

Kinder has been following greenwashing in the oil industry for over a decade. He points to Ezra Levant's 2011 book, Ethical Oil, as kickstarting an argument in support of Canadian crude that has today entered the mainstream.

Levant's was largely viewed as a fringe position at first.

"That's changing," Kinder said.

"Certain elements of this argument have been adopted as common sense. That's something that you see in some of the discussion around [the Bay du Nord] project in particular, is that you can make statements about the cleanliness of oil without much qualification, when it demands qualification."

Fossil fuel expansionism is then justified, he explains, under those climate plans and regulations; as long as some carbon is sequestered, for instance, or some profits are invested into renewable energy, then it's viewed as politically acceptable to keep extracting the oil.

"There's a commitment to a certain kind of future embedded within these new projects," Kinder said, "that says we are still going to be relying on oil."

'I think they don't get it'

In Sapinsky's eyes, investing in oil and gas alongside renewables, as the province intends in the coming years, isn't 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 harshest costs of climate change, no country can embark on any new carbon-extractive projects.

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

"What we need is to wind down the industry. It's critical right now, and the economic impacts, especially on Newfoundland, will be disastrous.… So it doesn't balance out to say we're going to make money from extracting oil, where we're going to be hit by climate change and the economy is going to collapse. Because that's what we're looking at."

Oil prices are volatile; demand, uncertain. Profit for the province, or even breaking even, from the Equinor-led project isn't assured at all, according to Sapinsky.

"I think they don't get it," Sapinsky said bluntly, pointing to repeated lobbying from oil and gas companies, citing a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study that found industry players met with Canadian politicians more than 11,000 times between 2011 and 2018.

In those perpetual meetings, politicians "keep hearing that it's going to bring money. It's good for jobs," Sapinsky said.

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

"It's currently easier to ship oil from an offshore oil platform out. That's a process we know how to do," he said.

"But if you're planning for the future saying, all right, we have this untapped resource, a very windy place that can provide electricity not only for everybody there but for people elsewhere — why not do that? And why not support that with investment in transmission or storage? We have all that tech. It just requires government support."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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