We saw what happened when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months. Imagine a similar incident in an inland sea one-sixth the size of the Gulf of Mexico.
It's a very real fear for people in the five provinces along the Gulf of St. Lawrence — Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia — as well as the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board recently approved a permit allowing Nova Scotia-based Corridor Resources Inc. to explore for oil and gas at a location called the Old Harry prospect in the Gulf, halfway between the Magdalen Islands and Cape Anguille in western Newfoundland near the Quebec border. The company began seismic testing this fall and could start drilling as early as next year.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence represents about two-thirds of Canada's overall national maritime-related gross domestic product. It provides a unique and fragile environment for more than 2,200 species of invertebrates and 19 species of marine mammals, and it is culturally, biologically, and socially important for the people of Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
Scientific studies, as well as reports by the governments of Quebec and Canada, have concluded that even during the oil and gas exploration phase, sound waves from seismic surveys can disturb and damage marine wildlife, including endangered species such as blue whales and cod.
But drilling causes the most concern. Computer simulations by the David Suzuki Foundation's Quebec office show that a spill of 10,000 barrels of oil a day over 10 days in different seasons could have a devastating impact on all five provinces along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, affecting tourism, fisheries, and marine life. In the Magdalen Islands, which are near Old Harry, fishing directly and indirectly affects 75 per cent of the local population and generates annual revenues of about $78 million. A spill in this area would have a catastrophic effect on the people of the Magdalen Islands.
Because a spill would affect all the Gulf of St. Lawrence provinces and territories, one jurisdiction should not be allowed to exploit the resources without approval from all the other jurisdictions that would be affected by an accident.
Researchers estimate that only about 15 per cent of any oil spill can be cleaned up, and the damage can last for years. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaska coast, its effects are still being felt.
The Quebec government recently released the results of a strategic environmental assessment that concluded the negative impacts of oil and gas exploitation in the estuary of the St. Lawrence would far outweigh the benefits. That led to a ban on exploration in the estuary but not in the Gulf itself. Quebec already had a moratorium on exploration in its Gulf waters, but that could be lifted by late 2012 if the second part of the strategic environmental assessment concludes that the benefits of exploration outweigh the risks.
Given the importance of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the provinces that border it, and indeed to all of Canada, we just can't afford to risk a spill like the one that devastated the Gulf of Mexico. The David Suzuki Foundation has joined other organizations in calling on the federal and provincial governments to develop an integrated management plan for the Gulf and to impose an immediate moratorium on oil and gas exploration and drilling for the entire Gulf. You can help by sending a letter to federal and provincial government representatives supporting this call.
Our dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable. In burning these fuels for energy, we cause pollution and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, which threatens the health of humans and all life on Earth. And exploration and drilling threatens the health of our waterways and all the life that depends on them. The sooner we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, through energy conservation and by developing cleaner, renewable sources of energy, the better off we'll all be. It will certainly be better for the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the people who live there.