International gas producers are sailing into a political stormas they pursue their next drilling target off the East Coast, theCanadian half of Georges Bank between Nova Scotia and New England.Three wholly-owned arms of senior U.S. gas suppliers — TexacoCanada, Chevron Canada and Amoco Canada — are out to persuadeCanadian federal and provincial authorities to let a moratorium onresource exploration on Georges expire.

The embargo, imposed after a hard fight in 1988, runs out as ofJan. 1, 2000. The companies are backed by the Canadian Associationof Petroleum Producers. All have dispatched agents from theCanadian gas capital of Calgary to press for an end to the drillingban. Battle lines are being drawn before an inquiry launched by theCanadian governments, titled the Georges Bank Review, under JohnMullally, a prominent Nova Scotia civil servant. Meetings are underway with community and industry representatives to define issuesfor forthcoming public hearings.

The American half of the 33,700-square-kilometre bank wasincluded in June among touchy areas from Florida to Alaska thatwere ruled off limits to oil and gas hunting until 2012 due toenvironmental concerns. Canada, however, will make up its ownmind, say inquiry aide Maurice MacDonald and Andrew Parker, managerof offshore operations and environmental affairs at the Canada-NovaScotia Offshore Petroleum Board.

No well has ever been drilled on Georges. But strong industryinterest dates back to the 1960s, especially on the Canadian sideof the region.Pre-moratorium surveys by seismic vessels convincedthe Geological Survey of Canada that Georges ranks with the SableIsland region as a target, by harboring up to 10 Tcf of natural gasand two billion barrels of liquid byproducts. The projections areforecast to rise sharply if the industry is ever allowed to use itslatest seismic search technology.

Texaco, owner of the most Georges leases with 8,900 squarekilometers dating back to the 1960s, is keen. In Calgary, presidentTerry Frazier says “we certainly consider it a key asset for TexacoCanada. We are very, very interested.” The Sable Offshore EnergyProject and Maritimes &amp Northeast Pipeline, now underconstruction, make Georges a “strategic location” within reach ofmarkets on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. “We think the potential forsignificant results is there.” But many fishermen, who rate Georgesas 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, JamesMuise is eloquent. Does he want the moratorium lifted? “No.” Whynot? He fishes a five-pound lobster out of the day’s catch andholds it out to his visitor from Natural Gas Intelligence. There isthe answer, he says – there are tonnes more like this, and leavethem alone. “They get a major spill – that ruins our business formany years.” Do the fishermen realize accidents are rare? TheCanadian gas and oil people reportedly are telling the NovaScotians there have been only six blowouts per 1,000 wells in theGulf of Mexico, most were minor and the record is improving. Muisesaid, “It wouldn’t take much of a spill to ruin us.”

The fishery has shrunk, but it remains a mainstay in NovaScotia. “This is still a year-’round industry,” according to DennyMorrow, executive director of the South Western Nova Scotia FishPackers Association and co-chairman of a resistance coalitioncalled NORIGS 2000. His packers group alone has 58 plants with 10to 300 workers each. “And go count the boats, then multiply eachone by three or four people.”

Seafood exports earn $850 million a year for Nova Scotia.Lobsters alone fetch $150 million for the Yarmouth region. Scallopsearn $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. Butthis particular area is different, and there may be others.” Thinkhow 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 cancreate some jobs – just let us work out of your vault.’ That’s ourvault out there, Georges Bank.”

The verdict against drilling is not unanimous. There areprominent converts to ending the moratorium like Dick Stewart, anex-sea captain and manager of Atlantic Herring Co-op, an allianceof fishing masters. Since the 1980s, when he was a leader of theoriginal NORIG coalition that won the moratorium, he says “thingshave changed a lot both in the oil and fishing industries.” Fromothers like his son Gordon, who goes to sea as a fisheries observerof offshore operations elsewhere in Canadian waters, Stewart learnsthat “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 lotof people know better. This can be done right and create a lot ofemployment that is sorely needed.” Stewart is echoed by brotherfishing stalwarts like Laurie Wickens, a veteran of 35 years atsea. “We need the jobs around here. The oil industry don’t hurtnothing. 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 ameeting of 50 Canadian fishing and processing groups went againstthe gas industry by 49 to one. Morrow predicts peers from theAmerican side of Georges will join the resistance as the casedevelops.

The would-be drillers hope the minority can still prevail. Whatare the odds? “That’s like predicting oil prices,” said thepresident of Texaco Canada. Frazier is only sure that “all partiesare involved and talking on a constructive level. It’s a strategicissue for the area. Additional projects on top of Sable areimportant to the future of the industry there.” But nobody canpredict politics – least of all the politicians.”

Gordon Jaremko, Calgary

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