Saturday, March 15, 2003
Playing fast and loose with offshore development
By Dean Jobb
THE BOARD THAT regulates Nova Scotias offshore oil and gas development should branch out into the casino business.
It certainly knows how to gamble.
Last week the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Boardâ or CNSOPB for short, gave two oil companies the green light to conduct underwater seismic testing off Cape Breton.
The board, as its name suggests, is a joint federal-provincial body that regulates offshore oil and gas activities.
And while the boards mandate includes protecting the environment, development is a top priority. Its handling of the Cape Breton file is a case in point.
Back in 1998 it granted Calgary-based Hunt Oil a licence to explore a 5,800-square-kilometre chunk of sea floor off Cape Bretons east coast.
The following year Corridor Resources of Halifax was cleared to explore 2,500 square kilometres along the islands west coast, from Cheticamp to Port Hood.
To figure out if theres oil and gas out there, both companies insist they need to carry out the seismic tests. Repeated blasts from arrays of air guns, towed by a ship, are used to develop images of the rocks beneath the ocean floor.
If not for the lobbying efforts of fishermen, environmentalists and the tourism industry, no assessment of the potential impact of this work would have been carried out.
Ottawa and the province caved to the pressure and ordered the board to conduct a public review in the fall of 2000. The result was the formation of a 14-member advisory committee to assess the effects of the proposed seismic work.
The committee, made up of supporters and opponents of offshore development, filed its report last month. On March 6 the board announced that, based on the report, seismic work could commence this fall, subject to a number of conditions.
A close look at the committees detailed report, however, reveals deep divisions over whether the risks of proceeding with the tests outweigh the possible harm to the environment and existing industries.
In fact, all three representatives of the fishing industry refused to sign off on the report. And fishermen have the most to lose if the tests disrupt fish spawning and migration.
The fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence supports 12,000 fishermen and 9,000 fish plant workers, accounting for 15 per cent of the countrys commercial catch. On Cape Bretons east coast, the fishery pumped almost $28 million into the economy in 2000 alone.
The advisory committee carefully reviewed the scientific evidence of the possible effect of the air-gun blasts on fish, shellfish, whales and endangered species like the leatherback turtle.
Time after time, as each species was examined, the committee split on whether the risk of harm was worth the possible boost to the local economy if commercial reserves of oil and gas were found.
There is a near absence of scientific evidence of how sound affects snow crab, the most valuable species caught off Cape Breton, the report notes. The same goes for lobster, the acknowledged backbone of the local fishery.
But fishermen know from experience that the shellfish respond to sound. Crab and lobster catches tend to drop in the days after a thunderstorm.
Cod and hake migrate through the test zones late in the year. Herring - a lucrative commercial species and a vital part of the food chain - have swim bladders sensitive to the impact of sound.
The committees report is replete with warning flags and offers recommendations that range from proceeding with testing to imposing an oil-and-gas moratorium, like the one protecting fish-rich Georges Bank.
The CNSOPBs approval, despite the lack of consensus, is contingent on Corridor and Hunt completing the work between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, 2004.
Seismic ships must stay at least 10 kilometres offshore, avoid whales and phase in their air-gun blasts, to encourage species to swim away. The results of a Newfoundland study of the impact of exploration on snow crab may prompt further restrictions.
The payoff could come many years from now, if commercial reserves are found and developed. Those are very big ifs.
Is the potential risk to the established fishing industry worth the gamble? Its far from a safe bet..
Globe and Mail
N.S. oil test plan draws ire
Seismic exploration effects cause concern
By KEVIN COX
Friday, March 7, 2003 - Page B5
HALIFAX A Nova Scotia tribunal has enraged many environmentalists and fishermen in the province by giving the yellow light to two controversial applications to explore for oil off Cape Bretons shores.
After a fractious four-year debate over the potential economic and environmental impact of exploration activity on marine life off Cape Breton, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board yesterday gave conditional approval to Dallas-based Hunt Oil Ltd. and Halifax-based Corridor Resources Inc. to begin seismic work this fall.
Before permits are issued, however, the board wants to see the results of a study on the impacts of seismic shooting on snow crab off Newfoundland.
The board will restrict the seismic testing firing soundings into the seabed to try to locate petroleum deposits to the period between Nov. 1, 2003, and Feb. 28, 2004, and will not allow any activity within 10 kilometres of the shore.
But fishermen and environmentalists insist the seismic shooting will disrupt the spawning patterns of scarce fish such as cod and damage valuable shellfish populations such as lobster and snow crab. There are also concerns that the noise will injure sensitive whales in the area.
Elizabeth May, executive-director of the Sierra Club of Canada who was a member of the working group that provided advice to the board, said seismic activity should not proceed because there isnt any scientific data on its impact on sensitive fish, crustacean and whale populations.
Ms. May said the board is allowing petroleum exploration to take place off Cape Breton when such work is banned all along the northeastern coast of the United States.
This is gambling with a very valuable ecosystem on which tens of thousands of people depend, Ms. May said.
Ms. May is appealing to the federal government to overturn the boards decision. If no action is taken, opponents of the exploration would likely have to take legal action, she said.
Osborne Burke, a fisherman from Ingonish, N.S., said the concerns of the fishermen about the impact of the proposed exploration activity have never been addressed.
He said the federal government is now considering closing the cod fishery around Cape Breton to save the depleted stocks, but the board is willing to allow exploration activity in the same area.
It boggles the mind that the federal government is thinking about shutting down the cod fishery for the stocks to recover and then this board is going to allow another activity with potential impacts, said Mr. Burke, president of the North of Smokey Fishermens Association.
During a public review on the proposed oil activity, some Cape Breton politicians and labour leaders insisted that oil exploration is needed to develop offshore industries for the economically challenged area.
March 7, 2003
Board OKs seismic testing off C.B.
By Eva Hoare / Business Reporter
Two oil and gas companies could conduct seismic work before the end of the year in a marine area off Cape Breton considered environmentally sensitive and believed to harbour decades-old munitions. In a decision decried by a host of environmental groups and wartime researchers when it was released Thursday, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board said seismic exploration can go ahead as long as nine conditions are met. The work must be done between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, 2004, and cant take place within 10 kilometres of shore, the board said.
Board spokeswoman Barbara Pike said the regulators ruling, which could be modified based on the results of an ongoing snow crab study, came after reviewing a report of the Cape Breton Ad Hoc Working Group. The ad hoc group was set up last year after a public review recommended oil and gas exploration off Cape Bretons east and west coasts be studied further. But a high-profile member of the working group contends she and other members never approved seismic testing, although a news release from the petroleum board suggests they did. They were careful to choose their words carefully to not overtly lie, but they distorted our recommendations, said Elizabeth May, president of the Sierra Club of Canada. Mitigation measures would not eliminate the risks to marine stocks if this goes forward.
The companies that want to work in the area - Hunt Oil Canada and Corridor Resources - and Energy Minister Ernie Fage welcomed Thursdays news. But the Ecology Action Centre, area fishermen and researchers worried about disturbing decades-old military munitions were among those who did not. Allowing sea floor exploration by seismic testing, test well drilling or other transmission activities in areas known to contain viable chemical and biologic weapons may present concerns of national security, said Myles Kehoe and fellow researcher Michael Ojoleck of Inverness County.
The two, who said they gave that information to the ad hoc group, slammed the decision in a news release. They said exclusion zones should have been established around potential munitions sites, adding that Defence Minister John McCallum said his department would supply information about the areas.
That detail was given with the intent that these areas be avoided during exploration activities, said a letter from the minister. The effects on the environment and the toll on human and marine life and health will only be measurable in the days and years following disturbance of these chemical weapons, the researchers said.
Im angry, said Mark Butler, spokesman for the Ecology Action Centre. Basically, this is the thin edge of a big wedge. Mr. Butler said even with conditions attached, the companies can ultimately have complete access to the areas. When you open up an area, you open it up, particularly with the petroleum board being the prime regulator, he said. Mr. Butler had no kind words for the province either. But Mr. Fage said the decision takes significant steps to protect the marine environment. This is a directive to operators to proceed with caution, he said in a release. The conditions around acquiring seismic data are extensive and address a number of issues regarding the impact this activity could have on the environment and the fishing industry.
Seismic surveys use pressurized blasts of air bubbles to create undersea sound waves and gather images of potential hydrocarbons. The results are used to draw geological maps for the oil and gas firms. Mr. Butler said the DFO describes the region as sensitive year-round. Theyre saying it can be done safely between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28. Those things (organisms) dont suddenly disappear after Nov. 1. Glen Miller of Hunt Oil said Thursday his firm, which holds two parcels off Cape Breton, is encouraged by the conditional go-ahead. Weve always believed that the petroleum industry and the fishing industry can co-exist successfully, Mr. Miller said from Hunts Calgary offices. Hunt will study the criteria before making a formal application to do work, he said. It wasnt clear Thursday whether Hunt would start seismic work on Nov. 1, he said.
Norm Miller, president of Corridor Resources of Halifax, said the decision allows activity to go forward on a cautious basis. I think its keeping the door open, which I think is very important, not only for our companies, but for the province. In an interview from California on Thursday, Mr. Miller said its too soon to know if Corridor would start Nov. 1. The board has indicated it wants to await (results) of a crab study. Well look at our business plan for this year and see if it makes sense for us to get a program this fall, or . . . 2004.
Mr. Butler, whose group is concerned about the impact on whales, plans to launch a protest with the federal Fisheries and Environment departments. The board will require the oil companies to use a 30-minute ramp-up procedure to give marine animals time to leave the area before they begin testing. They also must have fisheries and trained biological observers on board, and have to stop work if whales are sighted within a kilometre of the vessel. Operators, before getting the go-ahead, must tell the board and DFO how theyll minimize risks to cod and provide compensation should fishing gear be damaged.
March 8, 2003, p. F2:
Oil decision flies in face of facts
Kelly Toughill in Halifax
Cape Breton Island joined the deep south of the United States and several Third World countries this week when it became one of the few places on the globe where oil exploration is allowed close to shore.
The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board ruled Thursday that two oil companies can begin seismic testing within 10 kilometres of Cape Bretons scenic Cabot Trail and near Sydney. The ruling was a crushing blow to environmentalists, fishermen, and tourism operators who have fought almost four years to keep oil rigs out of the Gulf of St.Lawrence and away from their shores.
Elizabeth May, the smart, feisty, outspoken director of the Sierra Club of Canada, thought this was one problem that was more or less solved.
May sat on an expert working group to advise on the issue. She says the board simply ignored the advise it was given by the group, which warned there were no proven economic benefits to the oil projects and that the testing threatened several marine species already on their way to obliteration.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans told the board that the Gulf of St.Lawrence and Cabot Strait are some of the richest fishing grounds in Canada and a migration route for thousands of animals, including endangered whales, leather-back turtles and cod. But the board largely ignored that advice, ruling that underwater sound blasting could begin this fall.
That fishery supports 20,000 people in the Gulf of St.Lawrence and another 5,000 in Sydney Bight, May says. How can they pit that against the pipe dream of economic development from oil and gas? Our report should have tied the board in knots.
The issue was never really a jobs-versus-environment argument, though some tried to portray it was such. Officials with the two oil companies promised that if they strike oil or gas off Cape Breton, oodles of jobs will flow to the island, which has some of the starkest poverty in Canada.
But Nova Scotia has heard these promises before. A gas project far off shore near Sable Island was also supposed to spark an economic boom. It has done nothing of the kind. In fact, Nova Scotia cant even use that gas. It is piped directly to New Brunswick and then on to New England.
May and others worry the seismic testing will destroy larvae and baby fish crucial to the fishing industry, disrupt the migration patterns of sound-sensitive whales and do other damage scientists can only imagine.
And thats just the testing part. If oil or gas is discovered, she expects an entirely different set of problems: spills, tankers and sheer ugliness polluting one of Canadas most beautiful places.
Kayak companies, outfitters and cottage owners cringe at the thought of oil rigs or gas plumes close to the Cabot Trail, a winding trek of small villages and majestic cliffs that lures tourists from around the world with its beauty.
May says there are few other places that allow the oil and gas industry to operate close to scenic shores.
None of the northeastern U.S. states allow it. In Florida, oil companies cant operate within 160 kilometres of land and yet the board is suggesting only 10 kilometres for Cape Breton.
The West Coast is similar, with moratoriums or outright bans stretching form Alaska to California.
Only the Gulf of Mexico states Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana allow rampant oil development near their shores, May says. The result is that their shores are a mess. Several Third World countries allow oil rigs close to shore, a consequence of their desperate need for US cash.
May says the buffer zone wont even keep the rigs out of view, much less protect beaches or animals from spilled oil or seismic damage.
We arent giving up, but this is a real setback and a blow, she says.
This could be a precedent across Canada that it is open season for the oil and gas industry. Its very, very scary.