By Tina Comeau
A coalition confident that a continued extension of a moratorium on Georges Bank is vital to protect this lucrative spawning and fishing area from oil and gas exploration is less confident in the federal government’s stance on the issue.
Not only does the Norigs 3 Coalition want more than just verbal assurances from federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver that a moratorium is in place until Dec. 31, 2015, it also wants action in the form of federal legislation to extend the moratorium well beyond this.
The Nova Scotia off-shore resource is a shared jurisdiction of both the provincial and federal governments. In December 2010 the Nova Scotia House of Assembly passed an Act in a unanimous, all-party vote to extend the moratorium to 2022. This Act instructed the province’s energy minister to have talks with the federal government’s minister of Natural Resources, with the aim of these talks being to strike ‘mirror legislation’ at the federal level.
But Norigs 3 says these discussions, for whatever reason, did not begin until December 2012 and although they continued into the spring of 2013 there has been no progress made to date.
The coalition – which is made up of fishermen, First Nations and environment groups – says in a letter dated Dec. 19, 2012, sent to Nova Scotia Energy Minister Charlie Parker, Oliver said he is open to exploring options and following the lead of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly.
The coalition wants action, however, not just talk.
When a moratorium was first put in place in the late 1980s and then extended again in 1999 – with an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2012 set – Norigs 3 Coalition chairperson Denny Morrow says those moratoriums were entrenched in legislation. This, the coalition says, is what is lacking now, despite an agreement struck by the provincial and federal governments in May 2010 to extend the moratorium to Dec. 31, 2015. As far as the coalition is concerned, Georges Bank is now vulnerable to gas and oil exploration and lacks protection.
Morrow says the coalition questions why the federal minister prefers to maintain only a verbal promise to extend protection until 2015. He says verbal promises, unlike legislation, can be broken. The coalition is also concerned with the short three-year extension to 2015 as opposed to immediately striking a longer extension of 10 years that is entrenched in legislation.
“The three years of added protection depends on both governments keeping their verbal promise,” Morrow says. “Obviously, with a Nova Scotia election likely this year and a federal one likely by early 2015, new governments would not feel bound by those promises.”
Asked by this newspaper about the federal government’s position on the issue of mirror legislation to extend the moratorium to 2022, the response from the federal department of Natural Resources was this:
“There is currently a federal policy moratorium on all oil and gas activity on Georges Bank until 2015. This complements a provincial statutory moratorium that runs until 2022.The extension of the policy moratorium until 2015 was a joint decision between the federal Minister of Natural Resources and the Nova Scotia Minister of Energy,” said department spokesperson Joshua Kirkey.
“Canada will continue to work closely with the province of Nova Scotia on decisions related to the Georges Bank moratorium beyond 2015," added Kirkey. "At present, the Government of Canada and the Government of Nova Scotia have all of the instruments necessary to enforce a full moratorium.”
Georges Bank is considered the most productive spawning and fishing ground in Canadian Atlantic waters. Georges Bank is a rich feeding ground for whales, seabirds and a wide variety of marine life. The Bank straddles the international boundary between Canadian and American waters.
One of the features that makes Georges Bank so productive is a strong, circular current that holds nutrients and early stages of marine life on the shallow bank. That same circular current would also hold any oil pollution coming from the Canadian side and spread the damage into American waters.
The US government continues to prohibit any oil and gas exploration or development in its Atlantic off-shore from Florida to Maine. Over 80 per cent of Georges Bank is in American waters and extends almost to Cape Cod. New England fishermen have lucrative groundfish, herring, scallop and lobster fisheries on their side of Georges Bank.