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Lobsters v. Gas & Oil on Georges Bank

October 12, 1998
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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 &amp 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 develops.

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

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