Canadian Federal Government Opens Up to Offshore Oil & Gas

Federal government decision threatens Canada’s marine life.

Environmental groups from coast to coast condemned the federal government in mid-November for eliminating regulations it had recently put in place to protect Canada’s marine life. 

Federal Environment Minister Stéphane Dion has announced that the first exploratory drilling in an offshore area will no longer require a comprehensive study under theCanadian Environmental Assessment Act. Ocean drilling will now only require a screening. 

This erosion of a full environmental assessment procedure reflects demands from industry to make it easier to conduct business, but it may have serious implications for the marine ecosystem. “There is nothing positive about weakening the public and regulatory overview of industry activities in our oceans. The oil and gas industry doesn’t have a good track record and we cannot assume they will police themselves,” says Gretchen Fitzgerald, Marine Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. 

“This is a disappointing move by the government that caters to the oil industry while failing to care for Canada’s marine mammals and fish stocks,” says Bill Wareham, acting director of marine conservation with the David Suzuki Foundation. “At a time when we need the government to lead the way in sustainability, they have abandoned a precautionary approach. Our marine environment is already under stress, this will only make matters worse.” 

Sierra Club of Canada east coast marine campaigner Bruno Marcocchio is equally dumbfounded by the news. “The government has made a complete U-turn here. Two years ago, they saw the wisdom of comprehensive studies prior to exploratory drilling. With the first comprehensive study barely completed, it makes no sense to backtrack on this requirement.” 

One exploratory well can impact a distance as far as 1000 metres from the drill site. Spills and blowouts can also occur during the investigative phase. For example, in August 2004, 354,000 litres of drilling mud leaked out of an exploratory well off the coast of Nova Scotia. As a result, more than three hectares of seafloor was smothered by the spill. 

Hazards like this make people in British Columbia nervous about offshore oil and gas activities. “If the federal government is making exploration easier for the oil and gas industry, it is a good thing we have a moratorium in BC,” says Oonagh O’Connor, offshore oil and gas campaigner with Living Oceans Society. “We must remember that the people of this province have sent a clear message to government that they do not want offshore oil and gas exploration on the West Coast.” 

—Press Release, , November 2005 Ecology Action Centre, Halifax, Sierra Club of Canada, Ottawa, Living Oceans Society, Sointula

[From WS November/December 2005]

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