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News :: Environment
Georges Bank committee says no to premature drilling conclusion
07 Jan 2009
Government-funded task force jumps the gun on Georges Bank oil & gas drilling recommendation
Georges Bank Task Force members dispute early conclusions of safe oil & gas drilling...

Shelburne, Nova Scotia - Jan 7, 2009: A premature conclusion that "oil and gas can be developed on the Georges Bank area with minimal effect on the environment" has riled Oceans First Task Force committee members before any public meetings are held.

Task Force steering committee members and industry observers are surprised and dismayed at the recent - and they say, premature - assertions by the committee chairman that, based largely on a government-sponsored trip to meet with oil industry executives in Norway, the committee has concluded that drilling and fishing can coexist peacefully. Yarmouth lawyer Clifford Hood has been named by Energy Minister Richard Hurlburt as the chairman of the "Oceans First Task Force", funded by a $150,000, two-year grant from the Nova Scotia Department of Energy.

The group is charged in its contract with the department with examining economic opportunities from offshore oil and gas operations in the sensitive Georges Bank region, including environmental and social risks, then reporting back to the government.

The contract with the South West Shore Development Authority includes the hiring of an offshore energy opportunity officer and SWSDA has hired former Yarmouth harbour master Garth Atkinson as what Hood refers to as " a researcher" on the project. When first questioned about the funding, a senior department official told NST that "we have never heard of Oceans First and we are not funding something like that." Subsequent inquiries to the department resulted in documents being produced which showed otherwise.

Hood says that the task force is still in the steering committee stage and includes representatives from the fishery, unions, business and environmentalists. Hood would not divulge the names of the committee, but NST has learned that it includes several players who are known to support offshore drilling in the region. The committee will be expanded soon, according to Hood "to include a broad, community-based consultation group from South West Nova Scotia."

Who's Who... Hood said in a news release that the steering committee began their work with a trip to Norway for "intensive discussions with industry and government." Those attending the government-funded trip included Energy Minster Hurlburt, Health Minister Chris d'Entremont, several department staffers, SWSDA CEO Frank Anderson and chair Rod Rose, Yarmouth politician Bryan Smith, Yarmouth fishermen Sandy Stoddart and Hubert Saulnier, fish processor Bee d'Entremont, representatives of DFO and Natural Resources Canada plus Dan Earle of the Tusket River Environmental Protection Association. No one from Shelburne County was invited to participate in the junket, despite the fact that the area is home to home to one of the most lucrative fisheries in North America and that the harbour and surrounding areas would almost certainly be the home for any on-shore natural gas or oil facilities.

It's a road trip... Norway is seen by many as an international model for coordinating the many competing interests in the ocean habitat and committee members were told by government officials that the trip was in part to discuss how to protect important spawning areas. But, to their surprise, the expense-paid Norway trip was exclusively focused around oil and gas drilling and that the group did not meet with any fishing industry or environmental experts. The group met with representatives of the Norway Petroleum Protectorate, the Safety Directorate and Petrocan Norway.

Discussions with the department about forming the task force began in the spring and, despite the contractual mandate to conduct a thorough assessment of the situation and prior to any local, scientific or fisheries consultations, the steering committee has, according to chairman Clifford Hood, already concluded that "it is possible to conduct seismic testing and oil and gas drilling in sensitive areas," and that "oil and gas can be developed on Georges Bank with minimal effect on the environment."

Bruce Cameron, who is overseeing the project for the department, refused to comment on record about the Task Force.

Locals only... Public meetings with "stakeholders" and interested parties are planned for communities throughout Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne Counties, says Hood. "We are trying to make something in this region," he told SCT, "and not get overwhelmed by a Halifax-centered mentality." As for including the well-respected Ecology Action Centre or other groups located outside south west Nova Scotia, Hood expressed little interest. "God bless the EAC," said Hood, "but they are not the only people who know anything about oceans."

Hood, who was previously a petroleum engineer, admits to generally having a pro-drilling stance on the issues at hand. "I was vocal about being opposed to the moratorium ten years ago, so people won't be surprised where I stand today." Hood also told SCt that he feared that any science that pointed to danger from oil & gas production for the ecosystem or fish stocks, "would just give folks a reason to stop the exploration and drilling."

What about the fisheries?... in the lengthy assessment in 1999 surrounding the review of the existing Georges Bank oil & gas moratorium there was extensive review and industry consultation prior to any assessments made about effects on fish stocks in the region. "There is a definite rebounding of fish stock in the Georges Bank," says Denny Morrow, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fishpackers Association, representing more than forty fish processors in the area."A huge haddock biomass is there, as well as scallops and cod and the lobster stock is terrific." It's the one place between cape Cod and Newfoundland that there is a palpable recovery of the groundfish stock, he adds.

There is also strong indication, says Morrow, that the large herring population fished by U.S. East Coast fleets are spawning on the Canadian portion of the Bank. "For this committee to say oil & gas development is OK there with no facts whatsoever behind them is laughable." Morrow says that, rather than taking an objective look at the economic and environmental issues at hand, it appears as though the Task Force is being used politically to build support locally for a lifting of the moratorium.

Who's doing what to who?... Hood's release about the conclusions reached by the steering committee based on the Norway trip came as a surprise and disappointment to some of the attendees. "I would never draw those sorts of conclusions without fully assessing the facts and the science," says senior DFO scientist Ted Potter, who will be heading up the DFO-led federal internal study group to assess the Georges Bank moratorium issue.

Garth Atkinson told SCT that he met several times with the head of the DFO work group and discussed with him the Task Force. Potter says that he has never even met Atkinson, but that the Oceans First researcher called him in November to "pick his brain" about the work group, but never mentioned anything about the Task Force.

Dan Earle, former coastal planner and environmentalist, says that the assertions by Hood do not represent the work of the steering committee, as the issue was never discussed in any meetings. In fact, says Earle, there has been little activity with the committee since the Norway trip. "One issue we did have was the lack of independent science surrounding the impacts of seismic testing. We asked to have someone come to us to make a presentation and were told it would be looked into." Earle and his committee members have heard nothing back from Hood or Atkinson or SWSDA.

90 days and counting... The contract requires Hood, Atkinson and SWSDA to produce the results of the 2008-2009 work plan delivered by March 31 and to have a 2009-2010 work plan by January 31. A department spokesman told NST via emails that, although the department was not aware of who would be doing the work for the Task Force and that they have no responsibility to ensure SWSDA lives up to its responsibilities with respect to regional representation on the group, that the Minister and staff expect the "deliverables" timelines of January and March to be adhered to.

The March 31 report includes a review of oil and gas experience in eight Nova Scotia counties, reviewing capabilities in southwest Nova Scotia, establishing a skills assessment methodology, description of work with stakeholder committees and information sessions, plus dissemination of results of the public sessions.

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