Nova Scotia

Construction of Canso spaceport stalled, but CEO says project not grounded

Construction was supposed to start last year on a spaceport near Canso, N.S., that would use rockets to launch satellites into orbit. Maritime Launch Services CEO Steve Matier says that hasn't happened, but the project is not sitting idle.

Steve Matier says government red tape and pandemic caused delays, but Maritime Launch Services pressing ahead

Maritime Launch Services has said it wants to launch satellites for use in near-earth imaging, communications and scientific experiments from a spaceport in Canso, N.S. (Maritime Launch Services)

Construction has yet to take off on a spaceport that was expected to launch satellites into orbit as early as this year from the northeastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia.

The COVID-19 pandemic and red tape are being blamed for the delay, but the CEO of Maritime Launch Services says its project near Canso is not sitting idle.

"We are moving forward with the initiative, for sure," said Steve Matier. "It has been a bit of a hard year for everyone with respect to the pandemic, of course, and things certainly haven't gone as quickly as we had hoped and planned, but I'm looking forward to a much more productive 2021."

The company is required to provide a progress report every Jan. 31 under the terms of an environmental assessment approved in 2019. However, according to a recent freedom of information request, MLS failed to provide an update to the province last year.

Matier said there was little to report at that time, but since then, the company has been negotiating a Crown lease with the Department of Lands and Forestry and has begun some survey work on the property.

Steve Matier, left, has previously said rockets could lift off from Canso as early as late 2021 or early next year, but is not yet ready to say what the new timeline will be. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Now it's time to ramp up the activity associated with the compliance pieces," he said.

In an email, the provincial Environment Department said it accepted that not enough work had been done on the project to warrant a report last January. An update for 2020 is expected by the end of this month, it said.

Matier has said rockets could lift off as early as late 2021 or early 2022. He said he is still looking for investors, but some of the delays have been due to red tape.

"When I started this initiative, I had expectations about how quickly different government agencies would be able to act or react or do what I expected to be the next parts, and I've learned a lot that these things can take a lot longer than one thinks or expects," Matier said.

Matier said there's been progress on talks with potential suppliers and customers, but it's too soon to provide a new timeline for construction.

No new timeline

"I wouldn't want to have to commit to something now and have to change it again," he said. "Hopefully after the next series of steps occur and we go public with that information, then I think it will be clearer what our expectations are."

Details of the freedom of information request, which was provided to an unnamed public interest group just before Christmas and posted to the government website last week, also reveal some of the negotiations over other terms under the environmental approval.

For example, the province requires the company to have liability insurance and post a security deposit for future rehabilitation of the property.

In a December 2019 internal memo, the Environment Department discussed how much liability insurance would be sufficient and noted there was no precedent to support its decision "as this is the first orbital spaceport regulated and operated in Canada and there is little prior Canadian experience with the use of toxic chemicals proposed by MLS."

Liability insurance under discussion

According to the memo, insurance varies at similar facilities in other countries. It said New Zealand requires as little as $11 million US, while the highest amount was in the United States, which requires $500 million US.

The memo said the "MLS proposal is in line with these amounts, however, the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services suggested to LAF [Lands and Forestry] that for the phase covering launch activities, 250 million should be considered as a minimum."

The Environment Department said in an email to CBC News that the amount of liability insurance is still under negotiation with the company.

Matier said the amount of insurance mentioned in the memo has not been presented to his company and there have been no negotiations yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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