Over the next week, the global debate around oil and gas development is coming to western Newfoundland’s doorstep.
Due to unprecedented public concerns expressed about drilling at the Old Harry site (just 70 kilometers off the west coast), the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board is holding public meetings on the whether major oil and gas development is appropriate for Western Newfoundland given the environmental risks.
Public meetings were scheduled on very short notice. They started yesterday in Port aux Basques, and are continuing through the week in Stephenville, Corner Brook, and Rocky Harbour. The schedule is here www.cnlopb.nl.ca/news/pdfs/nr20120921_sea.pdf
The meetings represent the only opportunity during this process for local people to have any input, voice concerns, and ask questions in person.
The public consultation provides an opportunity to ask a tough question: are we on the right track given the global climate change implications of oil? As world-renowned economists Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs have argued, fossil-fuel based societies, such as our oil dependent province, are also economic fossils. Truly innovative, forward-looking communities, they claim, are focused on the new energy economy and promoting sustainable renewable energy while dramatically decreasing consumption. These places have a chance for long-term economic stability and healthy communities. The oil-dependent will be left behind.
An equally tough question is whether or not oil and gas development off western Newfoundland poses serious risks to the environment, health, and long-term economic viability of local communities. DFO has pegged the value of the commercial fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at $1.5 billion a year. Yet oil spills and blowouts in other places have shut down fisheries and ruined product reputation for years.
Moreover, oil development is planned along the coast of Gros Morne National Park, our prized UNESCO World Heritage Site. A recent Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society report noted that the tourism sector generates the most revenue in the region, $35 million a year, and employs 1,300 people. Visitors to western Newfoundland come to experience natural beauty, not industrial oil sites. As communities in the Gulf of Mexico learned after the blowout, spills decimate tourism.
More worrisome still are current regulations limiting liability to $30 million dollars. Yet the cost of the Gulf of Mexico spill has run over tens of billions. Further, there are plenty of examples of oil companies fighting to avoid paying compensation to communities. Legal battles played out over decades after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Oil companies and public officials commonly argue that everyone benefits from oil and gas—from construction workers to restaurant servers. But global, historical evidence shows that communities where oil is extracted are often burdened with long-term economic, health, and environmental costs, as well as a decline in quality of life. The communities at the point of extraction seldom experience the majority of the benefits. Most wealth goes to foreign companies or central governments that often don’t use the money wisely or fairly.
These are some of the potential problems posed by offshore oil development in western Newfoundland. Citizens might also ask a few more tough questions.
Does the Board have complete baseline data on all key Gulf species and ecosystems? Does the Board have a complete scientific understanding of the impacts of seismic exploration? Has this research been done by independent scientists, researchers who were not paid by industry?
Will the Board follow the example of provinces like Québec, states like Vermont, and countries like France, to ban hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), given the significant negative human health, environmental, and economic impacts of this industry?
Will the Board halt nomination, leasing, exploration, and development activity until this Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is complete? As noted in the Scoping Document, the point of the SEA is to ensure “the incorporation of environmental considerations at the earliest stages of program planning.” Continuing with oil development activity while the SEA is in progress runs counter to the spirit of the assessment.
Local people have one small window to voice their concerns about the future of western Newfoundland. The debate is too important and the stakes are too high to stay at home.
Angela V. Carter, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo