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Offshore oil exploration not “top of agenda” at Atlantic premiers' meeting

Anti-oil coalition group continues call for moratorium on the Gulf of St. Lawrence

by Stephanie Taylor

The Gulf of St. Lawrence as seen from the Ceilidh Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, NS [Photo: Jimmy Emerson]
The Gulf of St. Lawrence as seen from the Ceilidh Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, NS [Photo: Jimmy Emerson]

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) - Unemployment insurance, apprenticeship programs and economic growth were among topics discussed at the Atlantic province’s premiers meeting — but no word on the state of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of the St.Lawrence. 

The issue of oil and natural gas exploration off Newfoundland’s west coast has been a long battle fought by the Save Our Seas and Shores Coalition— a group of fisherman, First Nations and environmentalists from across the provinces that are calling for a moratorium on the gulf to protect it from future development. 

Co-founder Mary Gorman says she’s upset after having spent the past 15 years trying to make politicians more aware of what devastation oil and gas production could mean for the gulf’s fragile ecosystem. 

“We are trying to protect vital spawning nursery and migratory regions that have existed since time immemorial," said Gorman.  “Our governments and oil companies are not prepared to protect the babies of this world, whether they be marine babies or humans that are going to have to live with this fall out.” 

She says 85 per cent of the waters in Atlantic Canada are controlled by oil and gas companies. 

“We have been spending 15 years trying to protect a measly 15 percent of Canada’s east coast waters,” Gorman said. 

Last week, members of Prince Edward Island’s coalition branch met with Premier Robert Ghiz, who promised to table the question of placing a moratorium on the gulf at the Atlantic Premier’s meeting in Saint John, N.B.

The issue was definitely addressed although it was “not at the top of the agenda,” according to the premier’s press secretary Guy Gallant.

He says it was unclear what stance each premier took on the issue.

For Gretchen Fitzgerald of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, the meeting offered the perfect chance for leaders to come together and decide on the best collective action to take in order to protect the gulf. She says the gulf is a shared eco-system and should be monitored by a panel of decision-makers, rather than one offshore petroleum board. 

“You can’t look at the Gulf of St. Lawrence and draw little dotted lines through it and think that means anything to the ecosystem or even the economies of this region,” Fitzgerald said.  “Having a healthy gulf means having a healthy fishery, having a healthy tourism industry. Having a reputation for a clean, healthy, environment is critical.”

She said Newfoundland’s offshore petroleum board recently gave approval for future oil and gas drilling. Corridor Resources Inc., an Eastern Canadian energy company, could begin drilling as early as this year, Fitzgerald warned. 

The company first acquired its licence to explore for oil and natural gas at Old Harry, an undersea area in the gulf in 1996. The company later released a report in 2011 with detailed plans to drill one exploration well within Old Harry, calling it, “ one of the largest undrilled geological structures in Canada.” 

The area has the potential to hold up to 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and five billions barrels of light oil, said Kathryn Patterson, Executive Assistant to the President and CEO of Corridor. 

“The Old Harry prospect represents a major potential economic opportunity for Eastern Canada,” she said. 

The 2011 report says drilling would impact marine life, including fish and sea turtles, as well as affect the region’s commercial fisheries, but “there are no known special or unique areas in the project area.” 

Gorman says she and the coalition battled Corridor four years ago when they proposed on shore drilling on Cape Breton Island. But it’s clear to her that oil and gas development in the gulf is fuelled by nothing more than ignorance and corporate greed. 

“The Gulf of St. Lawrence has counter-clock wise currents,” she explains. “It only flushes into the Atlantic once a year. It has among the windiest regions in North America. When you couple those three components together, you have a situation where the the possibility of containing or cleaning up an oil spill is virtually nil,” she says. 

Patterson says the company is confident they have the proper safety protocol to assure there is no risk of oil spill in the gulf. 

“Hundreds of such wells have been drilled safely under the waters of Eastern Canada, where governments and the industry have co-operated in developing one of the most robust and effective regulatory regimes in the world,” she said. 

The potential for an oil spill and displacement of marine life is as frightening to Fitzgerald as is likelihood of more companies that will move into the area once development is open.

“We will continue to do what we have always done,” Gorman says, who says the coalition will keep rallying until they are heard. 

A recent study shows a lack of information on the Gulf of St. Lawrence's capacity for oil and gas exploration deemed the region unfit for drilling.

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