Offshore Oil and Gas

The first exploration well was drilled in Canada’s offshore between 1943 and 1945 in eight metres of water 13 kilometres off Prince Edward Island. Hillsborough No. 1 was drilled from an artificial island made of wood cribbing, rock and concrete, and reached a depth of 4,479 metres before it was abandoned without encountering oil or natural gas.

In 1979 two finds marked the beginning of a string of crude oil and natural gas discoveries:

  • The Venture natural gas discovery near Sable Island was the first of six natural gas fields that now make up the Sable Offshore Energy Project, which began production in 1999.
  • The Hibernia crude oil and gas discovery began a new chapter on the Grand Banks. Development approval for Hibernia was received in 1986, but a drop in world oil prices shelved the project until the 1990s.

A half-century of effort was invested before the first commercial quantities of crude oil were produced off Nova Scotia in 1992 from the Cohasset-Panuke project.

There are approximately $353.7 million in exploration commitments for offshore Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia government established the Offshore Energy Research Association to support research into the province’s offshore petroleum geology. The aim is to develop additional knowledge in these areas in the hopes of reducing future exploration risk and costs in the search for offshore oil and gas.

Recent exploration work on the East coast has been focused on targets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, notably off of western Newfoundland and Cape Breton. The most notable area of interest is the Old Harry oil field located as shown in the map below.  

Nalcor Energy’s Exploration Strategy System (NESS) is a map-based geoscience data management tool that allows users to examine the oil & gas potential of Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore. It uses state-of-the-art, map-based technology that allows users to display, filter and analyze a vast array of available geoscience data and information and then export the results to meet their needs.


Regulatory Framework


Offshore oil and gas exploration and development is regulated in Atlantic Canada principally by two organizations that are arms-length from governments and reports to both federal and provincial Ministers of Natural Resources.

For those areas not under the jurisdiction of either of the Boards mentioned above the National Energy Board is the federal organization responsible for regulation.

Environmental Issues


The National Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime was established in 1995 and is built on a partnership between government and industry. Transport Canada is the lead federal regulatory agency responsible for the regime. Transport Canada sets the guidelines and regulatory structure for the preparedness and response to marine oil spills.

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is responsible for conducting spill management under section 180 of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. Specifically, it provides a national preparedness capacity and manages the National Response Team; and, ensures an appropriate response to marine pollution incidents as the Federal Monitoring Officer or On-scene Commander.

Transport Canada has a National Preparedness Plan that lays out the overall framework for the national preparedness capacity to combat marine oil pollution incidents in Canada. The CCG also has a National  Marine Spills Contingency Plan that identifies how CCG will manage the response to a marine oil spill, including the deployment of personnel and response resources. Regional and area response plans are also developed. Learn more on the CCG Environmental Response webpage.

Companies involved in the development of oil and natural gas offshore Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have many measures in place to prevent spills. The brochure "Spill Prevention and Response in Atlantic Canada" was published in 2006 to summarize companies' prevention and response plans.

Environment Canada has published "Oil, Water and Chocolate Mousse about oil, water, and oil spills". Chocolate mousse is a name given to a particular combination of oil and water that sometimes forms when oil is spilled. The book helps young readers aged 12 to 15 understand, in a simple and readable way, the seriousness of environmental degradation.

Seismic Noise

A Joint Industry Program under the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers called the E&P Sound & Marine Life Programme identifies and conducts a research programme that improves understanding of the potential impact of Exploration and Production (E&P) sound on marine life. Research projects are detailed on the programme website. 

Objectives of the program include:

  • Supporting planning of E&P projects and risk assessments.
  • Providing the basis for appropriate operational measuring that are protective of marine life.
  • Informing policy and regulatory development.

Go to top