Gros Morne National Park's status as a world heritage site may be in jeopardy due to plans for controversial oil exploration on Newfoundland's west coast, CBC News has learned.
Black Spruce Exploration wants to use hydraulic fracturing — the so-called fracking process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth — to find oil and gas in Sally's Cove and other areas, which lie just a few hundred metres from the boundaries of the park.
On its website, UNESCO describes the park as "a rare example of the process of continental drift, where deep ocean crust and the rocks of the Earth's mantle lie exposed. More recent glacial action has resulted in some spectacular scenery, with coastal lowland, alpine plateau, fjords, glacial valleys, sheer cliffs, waterfalls and many pristine lakes."
The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture has contacted Ottawa over the potential environmental impact that fracking could have on the park.
Guy Debonnet, the UNESCO unit chief for North American heritage sites, said the issue is on the group's radar.
"Very clearly this is an issue of concern to us," he said.
Even if the plans are approved in Canada, Debonnet said it may not be enough to satisfy UNESCO.
"There is a possibility of de-listing the site from the world heritage list. Of course, we are not talking about this issue for the moment. There are also other procedures in the convention," he said.
UNESCO keeps tabs on review process
The organization released its recommendations online on Friday.
Debonnet is recommending that the world heritage committee monitor the developments when it holds its annual meeting in Cambodia in June.
He also said UNESCO is keeping tabs on Canada's environmental review process.
"The fact that there is also a plan to use fracking techniques with very known potential environmental impacts, this issue is of concern to UNESCO," he said.
The recommendations state that the possible impacts of drilling and hydraulic fracturing include "offshore leakage reaching the property, pollutants affecting pristine lakes on the property, and the risk of rock fall from high cliffs caused by shocks during hydraulic fracturing, including areas of the property with high visitation."
UNESCO also recommends sending a special mission to the park and surrounding areas to assess the potential risks.
While Black Spruce Exploration is following the appropriate review process, the federal environment commissioner has warned about the lack of a proper regulatory framework for fracking in Canada.
The company also submitted its fracking and drilling plans for environmental review with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, but nothing has been presented to the Newfoundland and Labrador government yet.
Site shouldn't be disturbed
Alison Woodley, with the watchdog group Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the site should be left alone.
"Oil and gas development doesn't belong in that setting," she said. "So we'll be recommending that a buffer zone be implemented around the park."
Woodley said her group is pleased UNESCO is watching developments closely.
"We think it's incumbent on both the federal and provincial governments to take those concerns seriously, and come up with a solution that will protect Gros Morne in the long run – both for the sake of the environment, and for the sake of protecting the economies of those western Newfoundland communities," she said.