Environmental groups are calling on the federal and provincial governments to ban offshore drilling around Sable Island and launch an immediate public inquiry into the pros and cons of oil and gas exploration near the treasured national park reserve.
The demands are outlined in a petition signed by more than 60,000 people, dropped off at the local office of Halifax MP Andy Fillmore by the Council of Canadians, Sierra Club Foundation of Canada, Clean Ocean Action Committee and Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia on Thursday.
“A spill on the Scotian Shelf is a spill on the most productive multi-species fishery in North America,” said John Davis, director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, in an interview.
“We’re putting a renewable resource that has sustained our communities for over 300 years at risk for a finite resource that might last a couple of decades and provide them with a few royalty checks in Halifax.”
In October, Parks Canada launched a national public consultation to help develop a management plan for Sable Island, a sensitive ecosystem known for its wild horses, massive grey seal colonies, and hundreds of birds and plant species. Part of that consultation included debate into whether camping should be allowed in the park and how visitation should be monitored.
But earlier this week, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum (CNSOP) Board issued a call for bids for oil and gas exploration off the coast of that very same island.
Sable Island’s designation as a national park reserve means that no oil and gas drilling may take place on the island itself or within one nautical mile of its shores, but wildlife and climate change activists say that buffer zone isn’t good enough.
“What if this was around Banff National Park, one of our most iconic national parks? What if you could see drill rigs as you climbed a mountain, or what if you knew there was actually fracking or drilling going on underneath Banff?” asked Gretchen Fitzgerald, director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation’s Atlantic chapter.
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The petition asks the federal government to work with the province to ban offshore drilling in the region, on the basis that its basin lies on high-pressure formations with a history of blowouts, and the damage done to species at risk and commercial fisheries should an oil spill occur, may be irreversible.
Failing that, argue the environmental groups, the provincial minister of energy and mines, Derek Mombourquette, has the authority to veto any bid decisions approved by the CNSOP Board under the CNSOP Resources Accord Implementation Act.
Reached by phone, Mombourquette said he would have to double-check what powers he has under the act. Either way, he said he is confident in the ability of the CNSOP Board to make sound decisions within a strict framework of environmental and technical rules, and would not override its authority provided an application is in line with those rules.
“We’ve been looking at the resource activity in that area for a very long time,” he told Global News from Sydney, N.S. “There’s a very strong environmental record and we will continue to ensure that any as exploration wants to take place in the future that they follow the rules and the environment is a top priority.”
From Ottawa, Fillmore sent a written statement confirming that he will be “watching this issue very closely” and will meet with the leaders of Thursday’s action in the coming days.
“Protecting the environment and ensuring the responsible management of our petroleum resources are a fundamental part of Canada’s regulatory system for all offshore oil and gas activities,” he wrote. “Regarding the Call for Bids issued this week, if any successful bids are received they will be required to undergo a rigorous environmental assessment. The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board must also consult with Indigenous groups and the public. Going forward, I will be watching this issue very closely.”