What the Nova Scotia government has planned for Cape Cod

By Timothy Gillespie

Be careful choosing your friends...
Crimes and misdemeanors on Georges Bank

One of the luxuries of living on or around Cape Cod is that there were once certain things you could count on. The New York Times would ignore much of what matters to you, Times readers will invade your peace and quiet in the summer, and you could count on a cooperative and friendly attitude from your neighbors to the east in Nova Scotia.

If they have their way, the current Nova Scotia government will put anend to the twenty-six year, cooperative ban on oil and gas drilling offyour coast on the Georges Bank.

You can stop counting now.

Numbers one and two will probably never change, but your formerly friendly, Bluenose buddies have plans for you, my friend, plans you should probably take a look at, because it is not likely to end well.

If they have their way, the current Nova Scotia government will put an end to the twenty-six year, cooperative ban on oil and gas drilling off your coast on the Georges Bank.

  • Gone will be the sense that there is at least some place in North America the big oil companies cannot control,
  • Gone will be the safe assumption that thick oil sludge or thinner "drilling water" won't be splashing onto your grandkids on shore or floating aimlessly in the middle of one of the world's most fecund marine spawning sites and gone will be the security that the multi-million dollar herring fishery which provides hundreds of jobs to Massachusetts families will survive.

Georges Bank is a large elevated area of the sea floor which separates the Gulf of Maine from the Atlantic Ocean and is situated between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia

With ninety per cent of the existing offshore oil lease lands yet to be exploited, with the inherent dangers of mixing massive oil and gas rigs with delicate ecosystems supporting multiple marine species and with a 26-year history of collective protection of the Georges Bank, it boggles the mind of some to understand the sudden move by the Nova Scotia department of energy to press for an end to the moratorium.

Even though Canada only controls 20 per cent of the Bank and the U.S. the lion's share, none of the thousands of plant and animal species there seem to recognize international treaties and, according to marine experts, are all likely to suffer the same fate from whatever occurs there.

Our Yarmouth may do in your Yarmouth
One answer to the mystery may lie in the once-vibrant, but now sleepy town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, poised on the very tip of the mainland of the virtual island province. If you had a very big spyglass, you could look due east and see it now. It's the place where the big Cat Ferry from "the states" lands each day during the summer and, even though the rich history there is based in the fishery and shipping, its main industry for years has been tourism.

The town has been ruled by a small, but powerful group of business types and politicians who have had things their way in the region for decades. These gents include town councilors, mayors and deputies, industrial commission and development agency CEOs and a local construction company owner who also happens to be the provincial politician for the area and who, until just days ago, was the minister of energy. We'll call them "The Boys".

It is probably no secret on the Cape that the number of folks getting on the Cat Ferry on the U.S. and getting off in Yarmouth has taken a precipitous tumble in recent years. The drop from several ferries each day from two U.S. ports, to an ever-dwindling passenger load shuttled on one ferry alternating between them was enough to utterly shake the town at its roots and put the fear of God into folks for their very existence. Seeing the writing on the seawall, last year, The Boys hired one of their pals - not through a published or tendered process, mind you - to do a comprehensive study of the future of the Port of Yarmouth and, lo and behold, the solution was "offshore oil & gas development support." No matter that there was no offshore industry anywhere near the town to support, this was the conclusion.

Looking at Georges Bank like a hungry coyote would look at the last young spring lamb in a dwindling flock.

It seems The Boys now started to look at Georges Bank like a hungry coyote would look at the last young spring lamb in a dwindling flock. He would eat it in a heartbeat with nary a thought to the consequences. That the minister of energy held one of the two key positions which could trigger a review of the oil and gas drilling ban probably seemed too good to be true.

Ten years ago, Canada conducted a comprehensive and fairly transparent review of the Georges Bank issue and came to the conclusion that it was too risky to mix oil and gas with a vibrant habitat and fishery and added ten years to the moratorium. Three other things occurred. An expectation of thorough, science-based and open assessment of the risks and benefits of oil and gas production was created and a date of January, 2010 was legislated for a formal decision by the province and federal government about how to proceed with another review - with a final decision mandate by New Years Eve in 2012.

The last part of that picture was a mandate during the "ensuing period" to do several things: to develop and gather more information on the Georges Bank ecosystem specifically related to petroleum and fishing activities; to encourage the petroleum and fishing industries to work together on the former and to create a public repository for all of the information gathered. There is no record of any of this having been done.

How do the minister and his right-hand man on the portfolio - a senior bureaucrat, known to have pro-drilling sympathies - begin this august and serious assessment about the future of one of the most economically and environmentally important areas in all of North America? He starts by making pronouncements at various energy conferences in the U.S. and Canada that oil, gas and fishing might be a good mix on Georges Bank. He even trots out a former fisherman opponent to agree that it might somehow work now when it didn't ten years ago or twenty years ago.

Phase 2 would be consultations with industry and scientists, right? Not really. What came next was a ten-day, caviar and chardonney-fueled trip to Norway for the minister, his personal assistant, several aides, a federal fisheries expert and natural resources bureaucrat, the Yarmouth economic development CEO, an avidly pro-drilling Yarmouth lawyer and politician, another Yarmouth politician, three fishermen - including our drilling convert from above - and a former coastal management consultant. One participant described it as "a great, long party."

If this group were playing poker on a Mississippi steamer, they'd all be shot in the heart for stacking the deck.

If this group were playing poker on a Mississippi steamer, they'd all be shot in the heart for stacking the deck. Granted, Norway has done some very progressive things when it comes to co-habitation of oil and fish and there was much to be learned by a group really wanting an education. They could have learned a lot from many in the fishing industry there, but no meetings were arranged. Not one. The environmental movement in Norway is robust and has had the oil and gas industry and the management of habitat and fisheries in their sights for some time. Lots to be learned there also about habitat, fish and fuel, if that was the reason for the expense-paid trip. But gain, not one meeting between The Boys from Nova Scotia and the scientists from Norway. Not one.

This is not to say there were not any meetings. There were plenty. Meetings with officials from the Petroleum Directorate. Meeting with the officials from the Petroleum Safety Directorate. And meeting after meeting with a variety of oil and gas industry executives, who, according to reports from those on the international field trip, apparently painted a rosy picture of the prospect of sucking petroleum products from the briny, deep blue depths of Georges Bank.

We have to believe that the picture was a rosy one, but the only one talking about it is the admittedly anti-moratorium lawyer, who, between bites of Norwegian salmon in a fine Oslo dining room, safely ensconced from the prying eyes of other Bluenoses, was anointed by the minister as the chairman of the "steering committee" for the Georges Bank review.

A private, no-competition $150,000 contract to create and manage the "Oceans First Task Force". George Orwell would be very proud.

Assessing the threats and benefits of oil and gas on the Georges Bank
But the committee was apparently part of a larger scheme to assess the threats and benefits of oil and gas on the Georges. Just prior to the trip, the minister awarded the development group headed by his buddy - and partner in private Yarmouth real estate development holdings - a private, no-competition $150,000 contract to create and manage the "Oceans First Task Force". George Orwell would be very proud. Buddy then handed another non-competition contact to yet another one of The Boys to oversee this Task Force. The title of this manager of what was supposed to be an unbiased assessment for the value of the Bank to Nova Scotia is Offshore Energy Opportunity Officer.

Within days of the public reports about the Task Force,... the minister was reassigned

The contractual mandate for the group to work with all stakeholder groups, hold public meetings, review all similar projects in Nova Scotia and disseminate pertinent information to the public and present comprehensive reports to the minister. Notwithstanding this heady task list, prior to the first meeting of the task force, the lawyer chairman issues a news release saying that, based on the Norway escapade, the Task Force steering committee has concluded that "oil and gas can be developed on Georges Bank with minimal effect on the environment." Enough said.

On getting wind of the task Force, the provincial newspaper, the Chronicle Herald, called the minister to task for his secret group force and spelled out clearly how the important job of a reasonable assessment was being rent asunder with obviously "poisoned politics." Gee, do you think?

There are many who suggest that a better model for Nova Scotia on the pluses and minuses of offshore drilling is not Norway, but its Maritime neighbor, Newfoundland. If so, we would do well to look at the recent reports that show an oil spill incident rates there well over 600% of the projections made by the oil companies in their successful pitches to drill. We should also look at the terms of the Canadian Atlantic Accord Implementation Act, which regulates those drilling platforms and would any placed on Georges Bank. The deal cut by big oil with often desperate provinces wanting royalties at any price includes provisions with embargo the massive rigs from Canadian laws overseeing shipping, fishing, environment and natural resources. The only safeguards are overseen by a Petroleum Board composed of industry professionals.

Within days of the public reports about the Task Force, the steering committee and the seemingly unseemly way the Georges Bank issue was being addressed, the minister was reassigned other duties in the government. He remains one of the Boys and safe bet would be one that saw him and has colleagues pulling strings in the department of energy and elsewhere to see that Georges Bank becomes an industrial suburb of Yarmouth. With the foregone conclusions quite evident, the Task Force might as well never even meet and just submit their formal report saying "drill, baby... drill."

There is again off the coast of Cape Cod, a beast so old, so deadly and so bent on destruction that you cannot even imagine it.

Nova Scotia is deperate
So, if you think of Nova Scotians as cuddly, if eccentric, neighbors who have for years had great admiration and affection for our friends in the "Boston states", think again. What you having staring at you today from across the Gulf of Maine is a province growing desperate for economic development with a government apparently willing to compromise a fair and open assessment of the risks inherent in disturbing Georges Bank - and the U.S. and Canadian fishing industries there - in order to cozy up to an oil and gas industry unwilling to drill on 90% of what they already have access to but decidedly eager to have their way with those last, tasty little morsels of land and ocean.

One is reminded of the voice-over from theatrical trailer for the unforgettable film, Jaws. Today, it would read something like this: "There is again off the coast of Cape Cod, a beast so old, so deadly and so bent on destruction that you cannot even imagine it. That beast now has a partner that once was your friend and neighbor. Whatever you do, stay out of the water."


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