Gulf drilling: flirting with disaster

Opinion – The Chronicle Herald, June 10, 2014

by Colin Jeffrey

In the wake of World Oceans Day, marked with actions and celebrations by the United Nations and community groups around the world, Atlantic Canadians should pause and consider how we are treating the ocean in our own backyard.

Of special concern is the recent push to develop oil and gas deposits in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Not content with exploiting the 85 per cent of Canada’s eastern waters that lie outside of the Gulf, the oil and gas industry has persuaded provincial governments to open up parts of the gulf for exploration and development.

However, Canadians have more to lose from petroleum development in the gulf than outside it. With its warm, shallow waters, this inland sea acts as a vital feeding and spawning ground for most of our commercially valuable marine species and contains the largest concentration of krill in the North Atlantic.

In 1973, an interdisciplinary panel report led by Dr. Loutfi of McGill University described the gulf as “biologically, the most productive Canadian marine region” and concluded that offshore development posed too great a risk to an ecosystem of such biological diversity.

Since then, the health of our gulf has deteriorated, with overfishing, land-based pollution and climate-change-driven impacts all playing a role in its decline. Fish stocks that once created thousands of jobs in the region are now managed with the utmost care in the hopes that they will one day increase. Given the current fragile state of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, do we really want to add the known impacts of offshore drilling to the mix?

Most worrying of all is the lack of environmental protection proposed by those overseeing oil and gas development in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Currently, planned development is concentrated along Newfoundland’s west coast. Like many parts of the gulf, this area has an unusual abundance of fish and provides critical feeding, spawning and wintering habitat for several groundfish and pelagic fish species, as well as threatened whale species.

For this and other reasons, it has been designated an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA) by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. One would think that such high biodiversity would persuade the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) to at least place areas of vital marine habitat off limits to petroleum development, but this has not happened.

In May, the CNLOPB released an update of its Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Newfoundland’s western offshore, a document that is supposed to provide strategic planning for future offshore development and ensure environmental protection on a regional scale.

This, it does not do. Using the flimsy excuse that specific protection measures cannot be implemented before actual projects have been proposed, the CNLOPB makes no effort to place critical marine habitat off-limits to oil and gas exploration and development.

The SEA Update area also includes the “Old Harry” prospect, which is expected to be approved for exploratory drilling this summer. Proceeding with drilling here is as likely as anywhere in the gulf to cause real harm. It’s located in water six times deeper than the Hibernia site and surrounded by biologically significant areas.

As Atlantic Canadians, we have relatively little to gain and everything to lose from allowing oil and gas development to proceed in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The economic benefits of these industries are often touted, but increased energy efficiency and renewable energy production offer more substantial economic benefits.

According to a comprehensive study titled Putting Renewables and Energy Efficiency to Work, published in the journal Energy Policy in 2010, “all renewable energy sources generate more jobs than the fossil fuel sector per unit of energy delivered.”

Further fossil fuel production will also increase the severity of climate change, creating substantial negative impacts on our economies and our lives in the coming decades.

When you add in anticipated negative impacts to our Eastern Canadian fisheries, which contribute $3 billion a year to Atlantic economies, one really has to question if offshore drilling in the gulf is our best option for energy development in Atlantic Canada.

Colin Jeffrey is a member of Save Our Seas and Shores — P.E.I. chapter.

Go here to read the piece on the Herald’s website.

Colin’s Op Ed also appeared in The Guardian on June 10th, under the heading:

Oceans Day reminds us to protect the Gulf

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