Friday, May 7, 2010

Will oil drilling on Georges Bank endanger the Bay of Fundy? Canada faces deadline decision

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Richard Gaines
Staff Writer, Glouchester Times.

Across the Gulf of Maine in Nova Scotia, tension is building ahead of a decision due by month's end on whether to open for review and possible reversal a moratorium on petroleum exploration and drilling in the Canadian portion of Georges Bank.

But even if the provincial government decides against a new study of the pros and cons of drilling for oil and gas under the Canadian sector of the unique fishing grounds it shares with the United States, a spokesman for the Nova Scotia Department of Energy yesterday cautioned against drawing conclusions from that option.

"The decision whether or not to hold a public review is independent of whether to extend the moratorium," the department's Matt Lumley said in a telephone interview.

Energy Minister Bill Estabrooks was quoted in a story last month in the national news agency, The Canadian Press, as intrigued by possibilities of exploring for energy under Georges. Outside the Gulf of Maine basin most ocean areas are open to oil and gas development.

"I'm open to all the possibilities," said Estatbrooks in the April 24 story.

In the same story, Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau, a former commercial fisherman, was quoted as also feeling obligated to authorize the evaluation of the possibilities of drilling into the prized fishing grounds which extends into the ocean like a giant lobster claw from underneath Cape Cod.

"It's one of the most sensitive areas in the world and I've taken those concerns to our caucus," he said. "But in fairness, when government is faced with a decision they have to go out and do the evaluation.

Both ministers are members of the New Democratic Party, a left, progressive, social democratic party that before its election last year to govern Nova Scotia had opposed energy exploration in the Canadian sector of Georges.

The article was published weeks after President Obama extended the U.S. ban on oil and gas exploration in its larger Georges sector for five years through 2017 but opened vast swatches of the mid-Atlantic south of New Jersey to central Florida to oil exploration.

The comments did not note the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico of the BP oil platform that killed 11 workers and began uncontrolled leaking of crude oil that is now described as representing an unfolding ecological catastrophe.

The disaster did not come up in Lumley's nuanced explanation of the situation facing the provisional government in the weeks leading up to the mandated decision by June 1 whether to institute a new evaluation of the options for the Canadian portion of Georges.

It is a decision that is seen as having vast implications for the U.S. section, now under intense fish stock recovery controls written by the National Marine Fishery Service and its regional instrument, the New England Fishery Management Council.

Breaking with the United States to allow drilling in the Canadian side, said Peter Shelley, director of Conservation Law Foundation's Advocacy Center, "would be a real disaster for us, even it if were only exploratory drilling because of the currents, and once there's a spill, the entire fish production lives in the currents.

"I'm disappointed the Canadians are making these noises," he said. "I can't blame the Canadians for looking at their options."

Shelley said he worried that "if one side goes into drilling, the other side would go. The logic for protection disappears and herd mentality takes over."

The Canadians last conducted a review, this one mandated by law, of the options for Georges in 1999. The three-person panel took written and oral testimony from diverse interests including petroleum representatives and Massachusetts' U.S. Sen, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry and Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and Bill Delahunt before concluding that drilling was a bad bet.

"In considering the risks to Georges Bank, the unacceptability of potential harm is the most important factor," the panel wrote. "The arguments that point to the great value of Georges Bank, ecologically and as a fishery, weighed against a lack of public need for limited benefits from petroleum exploration are persuasive.

Mark Butler, policy director for the Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ecology Action Center, a part of the NoRigs3 Coalition that is fighting to maintain the moratorium, told the Times "the issues haven't changed."

The Hague Line that split Georges between the United States and Canada was established in the International Court of Justice and named after its location in The Netherlands in 1984, resolving overlapping claims to Georges that were intensified by the possibility that, along with the great ecosystem proximate to the countries' fishing ports, natural gas might be found beneath the sandy ocean floor.

The fight that led to the original moratorium in the 1980s marked the last time fishing and environmental interests were aligned. Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com