iPolitics featured a personal and well-researched piece on the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the wake of Farley Mowat’s passing and what is means for our battle. We miss you, Farley!
By James Munson | May 10, 2014 9:30 am
In losing her friend Farley Mowat this week, Mary Gorman may have also lost the biggest fight of her life.
In the summer of 2011, the Cape Breton environmental activist introduced Mowat to one of his final acts as a green crusader – helping in the campaign to stop oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
For the past decade, petroleum firms and their regulators have been dipping their toes into the Gulf, a body of water with a cyclical current that has sustained abundant fisheries for five provinces, not to mention a robust tourism industry from Gros Morne and Cape Breton national parks to the Gaspe and the Baie des Chaleurs.
Many attempts have been abandoned. But like the tides themselves, they keep coming back. On Monday, a monumental report that is meant to prepare the waters for the next incursion was released in Newfoundland — just two days before Mowat died.
“It’s just the timing,” said Gorman, audibly emotional during a telephone interview on Thursday morning. “I hope that Farley didn’t know about their decision…I know he would have been utterly devastated,” she said.
Mowat, renowned for his writings as a naturalist and as one of the environmentalist movement’s earliest iconoclasts, had spent summers in Cape Breton since at least the 1970s, according to Gorman. He was a natural fit for Gorman’s Save our Seas and Shores campaign, which had already earned the support of actors Jason Priestly and Ethan Hawke, also property owners on the Gulf’s Nova Scotia coastline.
“He was only too willing to help because of his profound passion,” she said. “Farley was a tireless defender to the very end of his life and he recognized that our Gulf is one of the most precious ecosystems of this earth.”
But Mowat is now gone. In his wake the Western Newfoundland & Labrador Offshore AreaStrategic Environmental Assessment Update, a 713-page overview of the Gulf’s social and environmental importance, sets the stage for the campaign’s next battle.
The pressure is coming from Newfoundland because of an oil prospect called Old Harry off the westernmost tip of the island. The license for Old Harry was awarded to Corridor Resources Inc., which has onshore explorations leases along the St. Lawrence River and Anticosti Island from the Quebec government, in 2008.
It will be years before a drill hits the ocean floor because Corridor is still in the midst of completing its environmental assessment for Old Harry. After the assessment, it has to receive an approval to drill a well and an operations authorization, which require detailed safety, contingency and financial plans.
But in the meantime, the Strategic Environmental Assessment gives Old Harry and nine other exploration blocks off the western Newfoundland coast a yellow light to move ahead, according to Sean Kelly, spokesperson for the Canada-Newfoundland & Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, the regulator that is overseeing the exploration in Newfoundland’s waters.
The common refrain among federal leaders when anxiety over oil exploration in the Gulf was brought to their attention in recent years was to wait and see what the strategic environmental assessment said. It was described to media as the process that would provide the wisdom needed to proceed.
The assessment is above all else an exhaustive list of the Gulf’s wildlife, from zooplankton to blue whales to coastal birds. There are over 40 maps of different creatures’ habitats, not including the dozens that show where specific fisheries take place.
Then there’s an extensive look at all the human values, from the towns and villages along the coasts to the national parks already protected by Ottawa, the unexploded ordinance sites and the shipping lanes.
The Gulf’s wind speeds, currents and ice formations get an examination too, right down to a map of iceberg sightings, including growlers and bergy bits.
This existing reality is juxtaposed against the offshore petroleum industry’s own footprint. Of these, the most contentious in Gorman’s view is an oil spill.
“Despite oil and gas activity technological advances, as well as enhancements in the associated safety, environmental protection and regulatory practices that have been achieved, the possibility (and prevention) of large spills remains an ongoing concern and key priority for both offshore oil and gas operators, spill responders, regulators and the public,” says the assessment.
A well blowout or other type of spill would be most dangerous – and have the greatest likelihood of impacting a large swath of the Gulf – during winter months when layers of ice cover its waters.
“While conventional methods to clean up oil (e.g. skimmers and containment booms) may be hindered by the presence of ice, oil spills are also often contained by ice…except in conditions of high currents,” it says.
With regards to the threat oil and gas exploration will present to specific ecological or human values, the assessment leaves that up to the regulatory processes for specific projects, like the one Old Harry is now undergoing.
As for many of the more overarching problems – like the need to perform a gap analysis of the Gulf’s oil spill response infrastructure – the assessment leaves that for another day.
It’s a disappointing outcome for Gorman, who feels not only that oil and gas exploration should be stopped but that the bodies that are meant to make that determination don’t go far enough to protect the environment when they say yes.
Aside from Old Harry and the Newfoundland licenses, there are more exploration projects in the Gulf coming in the medium to long term.
Quebec is in the midst of negotiating its own offshore petroleum board with Ottawa. Federal ministers have made repeated assurances to the media that the talks are progressing.
With Mowat gone, Gorman’s campaigning just became a lot lonelier.
“It’s just a huge loss,” she said.