November 16, 2015
Your Nov. 7 Weekend Focus: “Oil, Water and Old Harry” got it wrong when it implied that oil prices are the most important obstacle to oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The implication of this slant is that if oil prices rise, we will see development go ahead. The article also got it wrong when it implied that the threat of one oil well was insignificant to the Gulf’s ecology and economy. Finally, the article also ignored the fact that a single well, as damaging as it could be, is merely the toehold for future development, and that in the context of global climate change, it is imperative we shift away from these dangerous fossil fuel projects.
Groups have been fighting oil and gas development in the Gulf long before oil prices dipped. As the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore petroleum board acknowledged in 2010, they had never received such an intense public response to a project before they announced they were considering exploration at Old Harry in the middle of the Gulf.
This is because the Gulf is a unique place that is particularly vulnerable to oil development — and many people, from fishermen to scientists to national environmental groups such as Sierra Club feel strongly about this. This opposition will outlast the vagaries of oil price fluctuations.
Granted, because there has been no arm’s-length, ecosystem-wide assessment for oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it is difficult to figure out what the whole story is.
Although a single ecosystem, parts of Gulf waters are considered jurisdiction of five eastern provinces and the federal government. The Gulf is also considered traditional territory for indigenous communities that have fished and lived on its shores for millennia. Our previous federal government’s lack of ability or willingness to play a co-ordinating role to oversee complex, inter-jurisdictional issues like the Gulf has added to the confusion.
As I write, consultations are underway in Quebec to assess the impacts of developing provincial petroleum resources, and mirror legislation has been passed provincially and introduced federally to create a management scheme similar to our offshore Accord Act — potentially opening up the Quebec portion of the Gulf to development.
Similarly, consultations are underway in Newfoundland to assess fracking, and the area that has experienced the most intense interest from fracking companies is located in the Gulf, off the West Coast of Newfoundland.
As we witnessed when the BP spill spewed billions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, quickly followed by a toxic brew of dispersant chemicals designed to hide the oil under the surface (chemicals that oil companies can now be permitted to use in Canada), an exploratory well can have devastating impacts.
Only one-quarter of the three billion barrels of crude spilled in the BP disaster is accounted for, and tar balls still wash up on beaches. Mangroves that are nurseries for sea life — similar to the salt marshes in our Gulf of St. Lawrence —have been damaged or destroyed. Dolphins have been poisoned by the oil, and marine mammal strandings have spiked since the spill.
Oil and chemical traces are found in fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico, with unknown consequences for their development and the food chain. Imagine the impact of a similar spill on the marine mammals, sea turtles and fish that now live in our Gulf — which is six times smaller in size than the Gulf of Mexico.
As the BP spill illustrated, one exploratory well is certainly enough to damage our Gulf and the communities it supports. But one well would probably lead to others, increasing the risk with each additional project.
In the weeks leading up to UN negotiations on climate change in Paris, we need to acknowledge that some oil will need to be left in the ground to secure our future. Highly significant ecological areas such the Gulf should be top on our list to declare off-limits, whether oil is at $40 or $400 a barrel.
Gretchen Fitzgerald is director, Atlantic Canada chapter, Sierra Club Canada Foundation.
Source: Chronicle Herald