The Gulf of St. Lawrence will soon hear oil industry’s boom: Greens
2 August 2012
Over the phone, Lindy Weilgart plays a recording of the sonic blasts oil companies use to explore for fossil fuels beneath the seabed.
The muffled low-frequency buzz sounds ominous but much quieter than what a whale or a dolphin, which use sounds to mate and hunt, would hear in the ocean, said Weilgart, an internationally recognized expert in the field at Dalhousie University.
“These are extremely high pressure air guns that release an amount of air, and that cause a hugely loud sound,” said Weilgart.
The sound of the air gun’s explosion has to travel through the ocean, then through hundreds of kilometers of bedrock and finally all the way back up to the surface, where it’s recorded.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence, an inland sea home to blue whales, humpback whales, belugas and countless kinds of fish, has remained largely free of these sounds in the past.
But things are about to get loud, said Weilgart.
As part of Ottawa’s push to boost Canada’s petroleum sector, the contentious spring budget included measures to turn the Gulf into a new oil frontier despite little success in the past and worries among coastal communities in four provinces that an oil slick could destroy fisheries and ecosystems. The budget measures received royal assent in late June.
Now the federal Green Party is trying to rally opposition to oil and gas exploration. Leader Elizabeth May, who began her own career in environmental advocacy in the Maritimes, hosted a news conference in Halifax this morning on the risks of oil exploration.
“The Gulf of St. Lawrence is inappropriate for oil and gas development,” said May in a phone interview after the news conference. “It should be a no-go zone.”
The Gulf is home to thousands of bird and fish species whose ecosystem would be irrevocably damaged by exploration or an accident, said Mary Gorman, the head of Save our Seas and Shoreline, an activist group focused on oil exploration around Nova Scotia.
The Gulf’s counter-clockwise currents only empty into the Atlantic once a year so an oil spill would spread over five coastlines during that time, she said.
Ottawa named the Gulf by name in its spring budget as a target region for petroleum exploration. The budget also amended the Coasting Trade Act so that foreign seismic exploration vessels can now travel in Canadian waters.
But it’s the Gulf’s environmental regulators that really have the Greens worried.
Four separate regulators work in the Gulf.
The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) govern the waters off those provinces’ coastlines.
The National Energy Board covers pretty much everything else, except for waters off the Quebec coast, which will soon be jointly managed by Ottawa and that province after they signed an agreement in 2011.
At the moment, oil exploration along Quebec appears to be quiet.
The provincial government is currently waiting to finish a study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, before allowing a moratorium on the exploration and extraction method to be lifted.
However, the minister in charge of natural resources indicated this week that onshore oil exploration on Anticosti Island, which sits in the northern part of the Gulf, will not be subject to a moratorium.
Most near-term conflicts over exploration will likely occur closer to the Atlantic provinces, where past exploration has taken place.
There is currently only one viable exploration site in the Gulf, Old Harry, off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland & Labrador, which received and environmental assessment from the CNLOPB last October.
“No significant residual adverse environmental effects, including cumulative environmental effects, will occur as a result of the Project,” says the assessment, which was outsourced to Stantec, an engineering firm.
The CNSOPB and the CNLOPB, created in the aftermath of petroleum discoveries off those provinces’ coastlines in the Atlantic Ocean, don’t have the technical capacity to perform environmental assessments, said Gorman.
“By the terms of their creation, they exist to promote offshore oil and gas exploration,” she said. “The idea that they’re going to do rigorous assessments is a joke.”
And, on top of that, Canada’s policy on seismic exploration and marine animals is not protective enough for a region teeming with as much wildlife as the Gulf, said Weilgart, the expert on marine animals and seismic blasts.
“Canada’s policy is appalling,” said Weilgart, who provided advice to the federal government in 2005 when the policy on the issue was created.
In Australia, if a seismic exploration vessel spots a marine mammal two kilometers away, it has to stop blasting, she said.
In Canada, that same condition kicks in only if the vessel spots a whale at 400 meters, she said. And it only applies to endangered species.
“It’s not precautionary at all,” said Weilgart,