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Oil was first discovered off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1979, after more than a decade of exploratory drilling.

Three other big finds followed, all of them in the shallow waters of the Grand Banks. But it still took a long time before oil started to flow – in 1997, at Hibernia.

In 2013, further out into the North Atlantic, a new discovery was made at Bay du Nord. Several more nearby came thereafter, and Norway’s state-owned Equinor says it could start producing oil in the area in 2028. It is awaiting approval from the federal cabinet, which is due next week.

Once in operation, Bay du Nord’s production could peak at 200,000 barrels of oil a day – about the same as a large oil sands mine. But pulling oil from the ocean floor will emit a fraction of the greenhouse gases. Equinor says Bay du Nord can be Canada’s cleanest oil.

Last August, Ottawa’s Impact Assessment Agency concluded Bay du Nord would not likely cause significant adverse environment effects. The Liberal cabinet, however, has twice delayed a decision on the project. A lot is at stake, particularly for a have-not province. Equinor estimates it could spend $10.9-billion on Bay du Nord, and generate 11,000 person years of employment. The Newfoundland government, whose finances are in tatters, could reap $3.5-billion.

All of this comes as the latest United Nations climate report again urged “immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors” if humanity has a hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, and as the Liberal government detailed its newest plans to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. This includes an oilpatch pumping more crude, but simultaneously slashing emissions. For that to happen, Canadian barrels must go from dirtier than average to cleaner than average.

Within all this stands Bay du Nord. The world has to get off oil but, for years to come, the world is going to burn a lot of it. Does it make sense for Canada to forgo domestic production for which there is demand – demand that will otherwise be met by Russian, Venezuelan or Iranian oil?

In Canada’s ambition to produce cleaner barrels, Bay du Nord could help tilt the equation in the right direction. For the broader industry, another lever is cutting methane emissions. Another challenging opportunity is carbon capture, which may prove expensive, in need of taxpayer subsidies, and not in place until the late 2020s, even if things go well.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is trying to figure out the details of a cap on oil and gas emissions. They have to decline – but how? The details are vexing.

Bay du Nord is a good example: Does Newfoundland get to add oil, and relatively modest emissions, at the expense of new production in Alberta?

Yet even as the Liberals talk about this cap, they made it clear last week they are not trying to reduce Canada’s oil output, absent an actual decline in global demand.

They don’t want “carbon leakage” – that is, oil blocked in Canada replaced by oil pulled from the ground or the ocean elsewhere.

But if Canada is going to remain a leading producer, even a growing producer, our oil has to get a lot cleaner, and fast. Canadian oil is already produced under strong rules, compared with autocrat-approved alternatives; making it the cleanest on the planet is a goal that should be shared by politicians of all parties.

Unfortunately, Canada’s polarized politics doesn’t leave a lot of room for such a middle-of-the-road approach. The left demonizes crude, the right lionizes it, and both miss the point.

The difficult, paradoxical truth is that, in a global economy that continues to be powered by oil, and in a country rich in oil, we have to strike a tough balance: profiting from oil for as long as we can, while getting us and the rest of the planet off it as quickly as we must.

In such a world, Bay du Nord appears to be a project that deserves the green light.

In the near future, competing to sell barrels as global demand falls will become ever more challenging. To meet the challenge, Ottawa, the provinces and industry have to do things such as accelerating the goal of getting the oil sands to net zero emissions by 2050. Why not much sooner?

Keep Canadian oil viable by making it as clean as can be. Right now, it isn’t. And getting there will take a lot more work.

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