By Colin Jeffrey
Most of us may not realize it, but oil and gas development is well underway in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Newfoundland has led the charge, issuing eight exploratory leases along its southern and western coasts. Quebec has also issued exploratory leases, although they have been suspended until the province negotiates a working agreement with the federal government. At first glance, it may appear that increased fossil fuel development is inevitable considering the growing international demand for hydrocarbons. Such development may also appear to provide a welcome boost to our provincial economies, offering jobs and prosperity. However, in reality offshore oil and gas drilling poses unacceptable risks to our environment, our economies, and hence ourselves.
As a member of Save Our Seas and Shores, an Atlantic Canadian non-profit organization working to protect the health of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, I would like to describe three reasons why I am opposed to offshore drilling. To begin with, offshore drilling pollutes marine environments. First there is the risk of large oil spills, which can pollute marine ecosystems for decades. Even under ideal cleanup conditions it is estimated that only 15 per cent of the spilled oil is recoverable. Winds above 40 kilometres (common here for half of the year), sea ice and storms can all bring cleanup efforts to a standstill. Then there are the frequent smaller spills of oil, gasoline, drilling fluids and other toxic ingredients. According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, three oil rigs on the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland have produced 337 spills since 1997, dumping an estimated 430,000 litres of toxic pollutants into the ocean. Eventual leaks from capped wells can also contribute to marine pollution for decades.
Oil and gas development is often encouraged for its supposed economic benefits. However, there is little evidence that the majority of fossil fuel revenues remain in the regions where drilling takes place. Much of the revenue generated flows directly to extraction companies and their investors. While provincial governments benefit from production royalties, this money is not always spent wisely or in ways that benefit the regions where extraction takes place. In addition, there is now significant evidence that renewable energy production offers more substantial economic benefits than the production of fossil fuels. For instance, a recent comprehensive study of the economic impacts of both renewable and fossil fuel energy in America concludes that "all renewable energy sources generate more jobs than the fossil fuel sector per unit of energy delivered." Energy efficiency measures in particular are found to produce jobs with minimal investment costs.
Finally there is climate change, a looming disaster that we would all like to forget about. Unfortunately, ignoring this problem is certainly not going to make it disappear. On the contrary, if we do not begin to substantially cut our greenhouse gas emissions now our world as we have known it will disappear. With a current rise in global temperatures of 0.8 degrees Celsius, climatologists estimate that if we stopped pumping carbon into the atmosphere tomorrow the earth would continue to warm a further 0.8 degrees from the greenhouse gases already up there. Since it is widely accepted by scientists that more than two degrees of global warming could irrevocably change our environment and create runaway climate change impacts, we have very little time in which to scale back our use of fossil fuels and begin converting to a renewable energy economy.
In today's polluted and carbon-saturated world, fossil fuel extraction is a dangerous and antiquated energy production system. Fortunately, we have alternatives. Renewable energy systems offer a chance to create clean energy that provides better local economic benefits. In the process, we could reduce climate change impacts and ensure that our waters continue to sustain our tourism and fishing industries. Save Our Seas and Shores has started a petition that calls on the provincial government to place a moratorium on offshore oil and gas development within Prince Edward Island's territorial waters. For those interested in signing the petition, it will be available at the Charlottetown Farmer's Market on March 16 and printable copies can be found at http://peiwatershedalliance.org/web/?p=573
Colin Jeffrey of West Covehead holds a master's degree in resource and environmental management from Dalhousie University.