Newfoundland Petroleum Board gives go ahead to oil and gas exploration in Gulf of St. Lawrence

K’JIPUKTUK (Halifax) –  Just last week the National Geographic ran a story about the lush diversity of life in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, life that persists despite overfishing, climate change and other man-made pressures. The story featured gorgeous photos.

Environmentalists in Nova Scotia are becoming increasingly worried that oil and gas exploration will soon put all this beauty at risk.

They look at the release yesterday of a Strategic Environmental Assessment by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) as another nail in the Gulf’s coffin.

The assessment includes an area in the Gulf known as Old Harry, about 80 kilometers east of the Magdalen Islands and right on the cusp of the territorial boundary between Québec and Newfoundland. The northern tip of Cape Breton is roughly 130 km south of Old Harry.

Old Harry is believed to contain 2 billion barrels of oil, which makes it almost twice the size of the Hibernia oil field. It also holds 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The report’ suggest that oil and gas exploration can proceed in principle as long as measures are put in place to mitigate the many risks the report identifies. Measures that will be spelled out on a case by case basis.

Mary Gorman is a spokesperson for theSave our Seas and Shores coalition (SOSS), a group that wants a total ban on all oil and gas activities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“This is a report that is almost schizophrenic,” Gorman tells the Halifax Media Co-op. “The report goes on for hundreds of pages about how sensitive this region is and then it comes up with recommendations that are completely disconnected from the report itself.”

Gorman is not surprised.

“You have a Board that has never said no to any project, and you have the largest oil and gas industry service provider in the world writing the report, this process has been a fait accompli since the beginning,” says Gorman.

Gretchen Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club agrees with Gorman’s analysis. She believes that the Petroleum Board’s dual mandate of promoting offshore oil and gas development and protecting the environment can not be reconciled.

Fitzgerald also points to flaws in the report itself.

“There are certain things that the report doesn’t address, like the possibility of an oil spill when the Gulf is frozen over, and scientists have said that there is no way to mitigate that,” says Fitzgerald.

“The Newfoundland ferry was stuck in the ice a couple of times this winter and can you imagine a massive cleanup in that kind of environment? We are not ready for that, and the [federal] Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable development had raised that issue in a study.”

This is not just a Newfoundland story. All five provinces bordering the Gulf of St. Lawrence could be affected by the Newfoundland decision if an oil spill were to occur.

An earlier story in the Halifax Media Co-op describes how water originating at the Great Lakes and brought to the Gulf via the St Lawrence River doesn’t just exit neatly into the Atlantic Ocean. Like a flushing toilet it swirls and it moves around.

Exploration could start as soon as next year.

Corridor Resources has applied for permission to drill for oil and gas in the Old Harry area. An environmental asssessment of that particular project is expected to be completed in a matter of months, if not weeks.

Environmentalists consider the Strategic Environmental Assessment a set back, rather than a defeat.

Sylvain Archambault, spokesperson for the Coalition St. Laurent, a broad inter-provincial coalition of environmental groups and coastal communities, believes that the findings of the strategic assessment can be used to hold the CNLOPB to account when it concludes project-specific evaluations.

“If you read the report there are so many sensitive biological and ecological zones, so many species at risk, so many gaps in scientific knowledge, so many stress factors already there. Reading all that it is hard to believe that the [Corridor Resources] project can go ahead,” says Archambault.

Archambault mentions a determined indigenous resistance to oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as another hurdle that exploration proponents will face. An alliance among Innu, Maliseet and Mi’gmaq First Nations in Québec released astrongly worded statement this afternoon, blasting the CNLOPB for its lack of consultation with Aboriginal peoples.

Archambault also tells the Halifax Media Co-op that he has reasons to believe that opposition to oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is set to grow in Newfoundland in the coming months.

There is also the matter of an independent evaluation of the Corridor Resources project that was mandated by then federal Environment Minister Peter Kent.

Former New Brunswick liberal leader Bernard Richard found to his surprise that the independent review he was hired to lead was first postponed and then cancelled by the CNLOPB.

Both Gorman and Archambault say that they will continue to press for that independent review to occur.

“It is never the end of the battle,” says Gorman. “Now is the time for our politicians to step up to the plate and start representing the people who have placed their faith in them, the fishermen and the small business tourism industries, and the 50,000 renewable jobs that these groups represent, our First Nations also.”

“We will press for the independent review that this board arbitrarily abandoned,” says Gorman. “And we need to press the feds to take a look at this entire offshore regulatory structure, clearly these Boards are incapable of both promoting development and protecting the environment.”

“We are dealing with the mentality of greedy competitors who are only looking at these waters as exploitable assets, without considering renewability and the sacredness of biodiversity.”

Here is the link to the story on the Media Co-op website.