Lobsters v. Gas & Oil on Georges Bank
International gas producers are sailing into a political storm
as they pursue their next drilling target off the East Coast, the
Canadian half of Georges Bank between Nova Scotia and New England.
Three wholly-owned arms of senior U.S. gas suppliers -- Texaco
Canada, Chevron Canada and Amoco Canada -- are out to persuade
Canadian federal and provincial authorities to let a moratorium on
resource exploration on Georges expire.
The embargo, imposed after a hard fight in 1988, runs out as of
Jan. 1, 2000. The companies are backed by the Canadian Association
of Petroleum Producers. All have dispatched agents from the
Canadian gas capital of Calgary to press for an end to the drilling
ban. Battle lines are being drawn before an inquiry launched by the
Canadian governments, titled the Georges Bank Review, under John
Mullally, a prominent Nova Scotia civil servant. Meetings are under
way with community and industry representatives to define issues
for forthcoming public hearings.
The American half of the 33,700-square-kilometre bank was
included in June among touchy areas from Florida to Alaska that
were ruled off limits to oil and gas hunting until 2012 due to
environmental concerns. Canada, however, will make up its own
mind, say inquiry aide Maurice MacDonald and Andrew Parker, manager
of offshore operations and environmental affairs at the Canada-Nova
Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board.
No well has ever been drilled on Georges. But strong industry
interest dates back to the 1960s, especially on the Canadian side
of the region. Pre-moratorium surveys by seismic vessels convinced
the Geological Survey of Canada that Georges ranks with the Sable
Island region as a target, by harboring up to 10 Tcf of natural gas
and two billion barrels of liquid byproducts. The projections are
forecast to rise sharply if the industry is ever allowed to use its
latest seismic search technology.
Texaco, owner of the most Georges leases with 8,900 square
kilometers dating back to the 1960s, is keen. In Calgary, president
Terry Frazier says "we certainly consider it a key asset for Texaco
Canada. We are very, very interested." The Sable Offshore Energy
Project and Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline, now under
construction, make Georges a "strategic location" within reach of
markets on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. "We think the potential for
significant results is there." But many fishermen, who rate Georges
as still among the most prolific hunting grounds on the planet,
remain as keenly opposed to drilling as ever.
On the docks at the regional fishing capital of Yarmouth, James
Muise is eloquent. Does he want the moratorium lifted? "No." Why
not? He fishes a five-pound lobster out of the day's catch and
holds it out to his visitor from Natural Gas Intelligence. There is
the answer, he says - there are tonnes more like this, and leave
them alone. "They get a major spill - that ruins our business for
many years." Do the fishermen realize accidents are rare? The
Canadian gas and oil people reportedly are telling the Nova
Scotians there have been only six blowouts per 1,000 wells in the
Gulf of Mexico, most were minor and the record is improving. Muise
said, "It wouldn't take much of a spill to ruin us."
The fishery has shrunk, but it remains a mainstay in Nova
Scotia. "This is still a year-'round industry," according to Denny
Morrow, executive director of the South Western Nova Scotia Fish
Packers Association and co-chairman of a resistance coalition
called NORIGS 2000. His packers group alone has 58 plants with 10
to 300 workers each. "And go count the boats, then multiply each
one by three or four people."
Seafood exports earn $850 million a year for Nova Scotia.
Lobsters alone fetch $150 million for the Yarmouth region. Scallops
earn $80 million. Saltfish net $80 million.
"We certainly don't want to be portrayed as anti-development,"
Morrow says. "The fishery has cooperated in the Sable project. But
this particular area is different, and there may be others." Think
how big business would feel if the tables were turned, he says:
"It's as if somebody came along and said to the Royal Bank, 'We can
create some jobs - just let us work out of your vault.' That's our
vault out there, Georges Bank."
The verdict against drilling is not unanimous. There are
prominent converts to ending the moratorium like Dick Stewart, an
ex-sea captain and manager of Atlantic Herring Co-op, an alliance
of fishing masters. Since the 1980s, when he was a leader of the
original NORIG coalition that won the moratorium, he says "things
have changed a lot both in the oil and fishing industries." From
others like his son Gordon, who goes to sea as a fisheries observer
of offshore operations elsewhere in Canadian waters, Stewart learns
that "none of the horrors we feared came about.
Whales and porpoises swim right along with the seismic vessels."
In the 1980s "we had the whole fishing industry in NORIG. Now a lot
of people know better. This can be done right and create a lot of
employment that is sorely needed." Stewart is echoed by brother
fishing stalwarts like Laurie Wickens, a veteran of 35 years at
sea. "We need the jobs around here. The oil industry don't hurt
nothing. Who says? The world says it. Has it hurt the North Sea?
Has it hurt Sable Island?"
Stewart and Wickens are in the minority so far. A vote at a
meeting of 50 Canadian fishing and processing groups went against
the gas industry by 49 to one. Morrow predicts peers from the
American side of Georges will join the resistance as the case
The would-be drillers hope the minority can still prevail. What
are the odds? "That's like predicting oil prices," said the
president of Texaco Canada. Frazier is only sure that "all parties
are involved and talking on a constructive level. It's a strategic
issue for the area. Additional projects on top of Sable are
important to the future of the industry there." But nobody can
predict politics - least of all the politicians."
Gordon Jaremko, Calgary