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Project deferral, oil prices troubling for N.L. economy during pandemic

Unknown-2The global COVID-19 pandemic is spelling trouble for Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil and gas industry, adding to existing economic challenges in the cash-strapped province.

Premier Dwight Ball acknowledged last week the province is experiencing “tough times,” referencing deferred investment on projects and historic lows in oil prices.

Equinor and Husky Energy announced the decision to defer the Bay du Nord offshore development project due to falling oil prices and economic downturn as countries respond to the novel coronavirus.

A statement from Equinor Canada says planning on the project will continue with adjusted timelines.

The project in the Flemish Pass Basin, about 500 kilometres east of St. John’s, was announced in 2018 but not yet officially sanctioned. Equinor had set a target of 2020 to decide.

The Bay du Nord project was expected to deliver first oil by 2025. It was a key part of the province’s plan to rapidly increase offshore oil and gasdevelopment, including a goal to double production to more than 650,000 barrels a day by 2030.

Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady said the news is disappointing, but she said it’s a positive sign that the project is deferred rather than cancelled during such a tumultuous time.

“These are difficult times, there’s no doubt, and it was difficult to hear that they’re deferring their decision,” Coady said by phone. “I remain kind of optimistic that things will move into a better place as we move forward.”

She said she remains encouraged by exploration ongoing in the province’s offshore.

Ball urged the federal government to take quick action on financial support for provinces on Wednesday but said Ottawa should not respond with a one-size-fits-all approach.

“My message to the federal government is, it’s urgent to get this money moving,” Ball said on Wednesday.

Larry Short, a chartered professional accountant who owns an investment firm in St. John’s, said the situation adds up to a “body blow” for the province’s finances.

“All the bad parts of the Bible have been delivered upon the province, and all the same time,” Short said by phone Thursday.

Short pointed to the immediacy of the COVID-19 crisis, the billions over-budget Muskrat Falls hydro project that accounts for a third of the province’s debt and the oil price collapse as serious challenges to the province’s budget that can’t be ignored much longer.

“We’ve got three major problems here that have suddenly come home to roost, and the province is going to have to really struggle to get through them over the next period of time,” he said.

He said the effects may not be seen until the government tables its budget, likely in the summer after a Liberal Party election set for May that will determine the new party leader and premier.

But with the federal government experiencing financial difficulties of its own, including major blows to Alberta’s oil-reliant economy, Short said Ottawa won’t be in a position to assist Newfoundland and Labrador financially as it normally would.

While prices are being hit hard right now by barrels of cheap oil from Russia and Saudi Arabia, he said Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore might be left standing as a profitable and desirable drilling site once prices rise again, as the industry is less susceptible to disruptions like pipeline project delays.