The approval from the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board to allow Shell Canada to drill two oil wells on the edge of the Scotian Shelf is raising alarm bells among some in the fishing industry.
John Davis of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, which represents some inshore fisheries, said the board's decision requiring Shell to move in technology to control a potential subsea blowout within 12 to 13 days — instead of the original proposal of 21 days — doesn't allay fishermen's concerns.
"Nothing has changed. The board hasn't shrunk the size of the Atlantic Ocean," said Davis.
"The capping stack is still in Norway. The mandate of the CNSOPB is to protect the environment on the Scotian Shelf while exploration drilling takes place. They are simply not doing their job."
The capping stack refers to equipment that brings a well under control during a subsea blowout.
Davis is concerned Shell will drill its wells where the province's lucrative fishing industry in concentrated.
'Why take the risk?'
An even greater worry, he said, is the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board currently has nine offshore leases up for auction and all of that territory is "directly on" the Scotian Shelf.
"Four of those leases are directly in the major fishing banks of the Scotian Shelf," said Davis, the former head of an anti-drilling group called the No Rigs Coalition.
"Two are contiguous to the moratorium area of Georges Bank, two are to the northeast of Georges Bank and one takes in the southern part or heel of Browns Bank. The Scotian Shelf industry is under assault from the oil and gas industry."
Richard "Bee" d'Entremont, the co-owner of Acadian Fish Processors Ltd. of Lower West Pubnico, said the fishing industry in the province is worth "well over" $1 billion.
"Fish stocks have never been as healthy as they are right now — why take the risk?" he said.
A few years ago, the businessman participated in a trip to Norway to see how oil and gas exploration co-existed with the fishery there.
Taking leases off the table not an option
"Everywhere we went, they did not drill in sensitive areas," he said.
"Sensitive areas are where fish are spawning. What we are seeing now in Nova Scotia is exploratory wells that are way too close. People are ignoring the fact we have the world's highest tides on the Bay of Fundy.
"Any oil spill from a well on the Scotian Shelf in the south of the province, it wouldn't take very long with the storm tides we have in our area for a blowout to make a mess not only in the Bay of Fundy but the Gulf of Maine right up to the U.S. coast."
Because of that risk, d'Entremont wants the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board to withdraw four of the leases currently up for bids. These include a lease within 100 kilometres of Georges Bank, another to the northeast of Georges and a third sitting south of Browns Bank.
Stuart Pinks, the CEO of the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, said taking the leases off the table is not an option because the federal and provincial governments have agreed all ocean territory — except the area of Georges Bank covered by a moratorium — is now open to potential drilling.
Fisheries concerns 'well recognized'
Pinks said if a company bids on a parcel, that's the point at which the environmental assessment process kicks in and the regulator would put restrictions on when and where a company could drill, taking into account spawning grounds as one example.
"The concerns of the fisheries are well recognized," said Pinks.
"The board takes pride in going through the environmental protection measures and often imposes additional requirements on oil companies.
"We will not issue an authorization unless we believe the drilling can be done properly to protect the environment and to protect safety."
Pinks said the process of identifying which parcels the board intends to advertise for lease to oil companies is shared with the petroleum board's fisheries advisory committee three years before the parcels are put up for auction.
There is also a public comment period open to everyone.
Tensions among groups
The advisory committee of about 20 people, which meets quarterly, is supposed to be the liaison between the regulator, fishermen and fishing companies. The Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association and Acadian Fish Processors Ltd. are members of that association.
D'Entremont claims communication has broken down and that his company was never consulted about leases that would allow drilling on the Scotian Shelf.
Davis, meanwhile, said the advisory committee has been "dysfunctional" for some time and the board knows it.
Not so, according to Pinks.
"I was very surprised to hear that comment," said Pinks. "The fishery advisory committee has been a long standing committee the board has relied on for sharing of information, sharing of concerns and of advice."
After years of sometimes heated debate, tensions between the lucrative fishing and oil and gas sectors show no signs of abating.