Mahone Bay Mayor David Devenne says his opposition to offshore drilling boils down to one simple message: “We can’t eat oil.”
That’s why the town council, along with the municipalities of Shelburne and Lunenburg, have written letters to federal and provincial ministers urging a suspension of offshore exploratory drilling underway by British Petroleum (BP) hundreds of kilometres away. The drilling has resumed this week after a one-month suspension following a spill of drilling mud in late June.
The south shore has been the target of a concerted lobbying effort by the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia, or CPONS, a group of concerned residents that is funded in large part by the Council of Canadians.
CPONS co-founder Peter Puxley says the industry represents an “enormous risk” to the economy of southwestern Nova Scotia, and he believes the communities along the south shore could lead the charge in putting a halt to the drilling.
“The municipalities were instrumental in getting the moratorium on the east coast of the U.S.,” said Puxley, who is a former journalist and the former research and policy director for the NDP under Jack Layton.
“We believe the municipalities in Nova Scotia should be taking up the cause of having the right to speak on this issue, because their residents depend on a clean ocean for their living.”
On its website, CPONS argues that the potential value of the oil and gas industry to the province is less than economic impact from tourism or fisheries. The group compares oil and gas royalties that were paid to the province of Nova Scotia between 2000 and 2016, which it says was $1.9 billion, with the annual value of seafood exports ($1.8 billion) and tourism activity ($2.6 billion) in 2016.
The royalties represent a fraction of the overall industry value. The department of energy has commissioned analysis that estimates there could be 121 trillion cubic feet of gas and eight billion barrels of oil offshore, and says that through royalties, taxes, and other payments, the province has received $4 billion directly over the last 20 years.
Still, Puxley isn’t buying the idea that there could be an oil boom in Nova Scotia.
“There’s a myth that this is an enormous payoff,” he said.
“We should be investing in our traditional industries, in the fishery and in tourism. Those are the places where we have the biggest payoff, where the smaller communities get the biggest payoff.”
Dalhousie University geologist Grant Wach disagrees with that.
“The companies wouldn’t be undertaking billion-dollar investments unless they thought there was the economic return for them and their partners,” Wach said.
Wach has worked in the petroleum industry in the past, and says oil and gas companies support research projects his students are working on at Dalhousie. He has no ties to BP.
He says the potential payoff for Nova Scotia is high, and he calls the risk “very low.”
“The companies have spent a lot of time and effort trying to minimize any sort of risk,” he said.
“They have all sorts of experts, drilling engineers, petroleum geoscientists that look at all components of this.”
Mahone Bay’s mayor cited the CPONS figures in explaining why his council agreed to send a letter to federal and provincial ministers, asking for a halt to drilling until further consultation is done. Devenne is also calling on neighbouring municipalities to join the movement.
“The fisheries provide more revenue to Atlantic Canada than what this oil industry will provide to Atlantic Canada,” Devenne said. “But it goes far beyond the dollars and cents. It’s the quality of life for the people who are living here. It’s the impact on tourism for the people who make a living from the tourism business in Atlantic Canada. The risks appear to be too high for the return that we are likely to get.”
“And unfortunately, the petroleum boards that we deal with are so heavily weighted in favour of the petroleum industry that one has to question the objectivity of their assessment of risk for this drilling business.”
The Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) is a joint agency of the federal and provincial governments and is responsible for the management and conservation of offshore petroleum resources.
The CNSOPB declined to provide an interview. Instead, a spokesperson for the board sent Global News a list of the opportunities for public comment on the BP exploration project. The project was also subject to a federal environmental assessment that concluded in February.
WATCH: Ethan Hawke joins call against offshore drilling
In a statement, the CNSOPB said: “We recognize that as part of the regulatory process, it is important to understand the perspectives, concerns and opinions of Indigenous groups and stakeholders. We are committed to ensuring they have an opportunity to be heard and to participate in our decision-making process.”
The provincial minister of energy and mines, Derek Mombourquette, says he has “full confidence” in the CNSOPB. The province has committed $11.8 million over four years to the Offshore Growth Strategy.
“There have been consultations since 2012. The offshore petroleum board did that in consultation with the environmental assessment agency,” the minister said.
“So, at that point, they reached out to stakeholders across the province — fishers, First Nations communities, and other key stakeholders — to prepare for this project.”
BP has been granted approval to drill up to seven exploration wells between 230 and 370 kilometres off the southeast coast of Nova Scotia.
The West Aquarius drilling rig is currently located 330 kilometres off the coast of Halifax. A recent spill of synthetic-based drilling mud at the site seems to be stoking fears about the potential for disaster.
“It seemed to suggest to council that all of the protections that the oil industry claims to have in place don’t seem to be as effective as they might be,” Devenne said.
“This is not a big winner economically, and certainly not in the age of climate change when we should be getting out of oil and gas and into alternatives,” Puxley said.
Wach agrees that it’s time to cut back on oil and gas use, “but we’re hooked on hydrocarbons, we’re hooked on energy,” he said.
“If we can develop an economy here in Nova Scotia for things like tidal and wind energy, and start to develop and transfer that technology worldwide that would be awesome.”
He says he’d rather see Canada develop its own oil and gas rather than continue to import.
“All we can try and do is get people the information and let them make some decisions, but really I would suggest that the risk is very low,” he said. “And (there are) going to be some great opportunities for Nova Scotia, just like in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Newfoundland.”
Wach invited municipal politicians and residents from the south shore to contact him with any questions they have about the offshore industry. Meanwhile, Puxley continues to pitch his message to municipalities.
“We’re saying you should get involved because what’s at risk is your local economy; the people who spend money in your businesses, the people who come here to live because of the environment, the people who are depending on tourism for a living,” he said.
“These people need your support and defence, and they also need the truth. And they’re not getting the truth at the moment.”