THE GUARDIAN – 27 August 2015
News of Tory-appointed official follows on Environment Minister granting Shell up to 21 days to stop underwater oil spills
The agency tasked with giving approval for Shell’s deep-water drilling off Canada’s east coast includes a Tory-appointed official who worked for Shell for decades, it has emerged.
Shell’s billion-dollar plans for exploratory drilling 200 km from Nova Scotia’s southern shore have been green-lighted by Canada’s Environment Minister, but they await a final review this fall by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board.
The Petroleum Board includes as a board member Douglas Gregory, who spent three decades working for Shell Canada and Royal Dutch Shell.
Gregory opened Shell Canada’s exploration office in Nova Scotia and oversaw early deep-water seismic exploration off the coast before retiring in 2003.
He was appointed to the Petroleum Board by the federal Conservative government in 2007.
The conflict-of-interest revelations will provoke anger over an already controversial project that has been criticized by fishermen, First Nations and environmental organizations.
In June, Conservative Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq sparked an outcry by approving a plan that would allow Shell up to 21 days to cap any oil blowouts.
In contrast the United States requires Shell to have capping equipment on-site in Alaska within 24 hours.
Shell plans to save money by not keeping the equipment on standby in Nova Scotia, instead shipping it when necessary by boat from Norway.
An underwater oil spill off the coast could do irreparable damage to marine life and the fishing and tourism industries vital to the economy of eastern Canada.
The Conservative government has been widely criticized for overhauling Canada’s environmental laws to make it easier to win quick approval for such resource projects.
Federal environmental reviews of the sort conducted for Shell’s drilling plans now happen with shortened timelines and drastically restricted public participation, and only for projects determined by the federal government.
The Harper government has cut 40 percent of the budget of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and fired hundreds of scientists who contributed to environmental reviews.
“The Canadian system of environmental oversight wasn’t very effective to start with, but the current government has made it much worse. They’ve sidelined departments with an ecological perspective or gutted their scientific capacity, and are moving toward making captive agencies like the Petroleum Board solely responsible for environmental assessments. At this rate, Nova Scotians may be watching in horror as an oil spill continues for weeks,” said Mark Butler, policy director of the Ecology Action Centre.
Since its election in 2006, the Conservative government has appointed dozens of former industry insiders or government officials with no environmental expertise to the agencies that oversee offshore oil and gas exploration.
In what Butler decries as yet further erosion of environment protections, the Conservative government introduced legislation last month that will strip the federal environment assessment agency of its power to continue reviews of oil and gas projects around Nova Scotia and hand authority to the Petroleum Board.
Former Nova Scotia premier and provincial Progressive Conservative party leader Rodney MacDonald was another recent Conservative appointment to the Petroleum Board.
Gregory was a voting member until last year and has since become an alternate, voting when other members are unavailable, while also chairing the Health, Safety and Environment Advisory Committee.
He worked for thirty years as a manager and geophysicist and also did a stint with Canada’s largest oil lobby group.
A communications advisor for the Petroleum Board said Gregory has never voted on an issue that had to do with Shell but could not say if he has formally recused himself from all discussions around the drilling plan.
“Anything related to a conflict-of interest matter would have to be asked of the federal government,” the advisor said.
The federal government referred questions to the Petroleum Board.
A petition calling on the Board to refuse approval of Shell’s drilling plans has gathered more than 50,000 Canadian signatures.
Shell’s efforts to drill for oil further north in the Arctic have faced a global campaign, with US Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton recently adding her voice to the opposition.
- Martin Lukacs writes for the Guardian: @Martin_Lukacs Tim Groves is a freelance investigative journalist: @TimMGroves