Politicians’ snake oil hopes and dreams meet economic, environmental reality

NS Government

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner May 7, 2018.

You can draw a neat, straight line.

Start with the October 5, 1971, front page of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, with its photo of a beaming Premier Gerald Regan holding a tiny vial of oil supposedly sucked to the surface during offshore drilling off Nova Scotia. Above the photo across the entire top of the page, there’s an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-I-feel-fine, three-and-one-quarter-inch red headline. It fairly screams, “IT’S OIL.”

And then let us end — for the moment — with a much more muted Canadian Press wire service story in a much more muted Herald from last Thursday. It features a photo of our current premier, Stephen McNeil, his hands outstretched in supplication or frustration. The whinging headline above reads: “McNeil to Pitch Federal Panel on Offshore Oil, Gas Exploration.”

What connects those two stories, 47 years apart, is the still unshakeable, unsupported and unfortunate conviction that the path to our economic salvation will only come through big-ticket megaprojects like oil and gas development.

Forget for the moment that it’s nearly 50 years on from our IT’S-OIL moment, and we are still among Confederation’s poorest stepchildren. In fact, the day before McNeil’s presentation to the National Advisory Panel on Marine Protected Area Standards — during which he begged the panel to permit offshore oil and gas exploration, even in environmentally protected marine areas — Statistics Canada reported Nova Scotia’s real GDP growth last year was just 1.2 per cent, compared with the national average of 3.3 per cent, ranking us first for the worst GDP growth in the country.

Oil and gas has not saved us. Still, we live in hope, and dreams — and in the face of reality.

“Many international companies believe we have resources off our coast that we have not tapped into, and we want the ability to do so,” McNeil told reporters.

The problem is that there is another straight line we can draw.

That line begins just under a decade before IT’S-OIL. During the first World Conference on National Parks in Seattle in 1962, delegates passed Recommendation 15, urging global governments to “examine as a matter of urgency the possibility of creating marine parks or reserves to defend underwater areas of special significance from all forms of human interference.”

Fast forward to late 2015. In his mandate letter to his Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard,newly crowned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed him to “work with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to increase the proportion of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected to five per cent by 2017, and 10 per cent by 2020… to better co-manage our three oceans.”

Oops.

There are good reasons to doubt Ottawa’s claim it had protected 7¾ per cent of Canadian oceans by the end of 2017 — up from less than one per cent just a year earlier — and there are even better reasons to worry the oil and gas lobby will be successful in eviscerating whatever protections are put in place. In January, the environmental newsletter DeSmog Canada, published the results of freedom of information requests showing “a disturbingly close relationship” between the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. That relationship, it says, “provides clues of how a ‘marine protected area’ [off the southwest coast of Newfoundland] ended up allowing offshore drilling.”

Industry isn’t the only group lobbying Ottawa to pretend offshore exploration and drilling won’t violate international standards for marine protection.

“We want to make sure we work with the national government to achieve their objective of looking for marine protected areas,” mumbles McNeil before adding the “but” that changes everything. “But it has to be done with a thought that Nova Scotians deserve to maximize the value of the resources off their coast.”

In other words, we’re all for marine protected areas so long as the rules don’t actually protect those areas from those who want to exploit them — and those who might benefit from that exploitation.

While it’s more than merely unlikely oil and gas will ever pave our path to economic salvation, it never hurts for a politician to be able to recreate that illusory dream in the run-up to another election.

Last year, Shell shuttered two deep water exploration wells off Nova Scotia because it didn’t detect commercial quantities of oil in the two-kilometres deep waters

Last month, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board announced it has authorized BP Canada to begin preparations to drill a new exploration well off Nobva Scotia.

You may remember Shell from its controversial seismic testing off our coast in 2014, and BP from its Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

We live in political hope. And economic dreams. And just hope the dreams don’t turn into environmental nightmares.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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