The Quebec government should impose a moratorium on offshore natural gas and oil drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until a risk assessment review is completed and after public consultation, a coalition of environmental groups said Tuesday.

The St. Lawrence Coalition, or Coalition Saint Laurant, is composed of environmental groups organized across five provinces: Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. During a news conference the coalition challenged Quebec Premier Jean Charest's government to not establish a Canada-Quebec Offshore Petroleum Board until a full public consultation of offshore drilling risks has been completed.

Last year's well blowout in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico requires the province to insist on comprehensive reforms in policies that regulate offshore gas and oil ventures, said coalition spokesman Danielle Giroux of Attention Fragile.

"Independent commissions in Canada and the United States, including...the [U.S. commission] on the BP [Deepwater] Horizon well, have concluded that the fact of giving a single agency mandate to promote economic development in this sector while ensuring effective environmental protection and safety of operations created a conflict of interest that should be corrected," Giroux said.

The call for a moratorium comes just a week after Corridor Resources Inc. said it has begun the approval process to drill an exploration well on the Old Harry prospect in the Laurentian Channel (see Daily GPI, Feb. 25).

"The current structure of [provincial approval] boards makes them both judges and parties in the development of the marine oil industry, a situation that has directly challenged the safety of operations for the protection of workers," said Christian Simard of Quebec Nature.

According to the coalition, a report last year that reviewed actions by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Petroleum Offshore Board after a 2009 offshore accident called into question the board's ability to ensure worker safety and energy operations in the marine environment. The independent commission completed a report after an offshore helicopter transport vehicle in 2009 crashed and killed 17 people.

"The offices must minimally pass the test of recent commissions of inquiry, which implies the creation of independent agencies to ensure safe operations and environmental protection," said Karel Mayrand of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Patrick Nadeau, executive director of the Quebec wing of the Societe pour la nature et les parcs du Canada, said it was "inconceivable" that the agency responsible for the safety of oil and gas operations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence not be subject to the highest standards of control and supervision.

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