SpruceRoots Magazine - November 2003

by Ian Lordon

The intrigue around BC’s offshore oil and gas prospects thickened recently as the Royal Society of Canada conducted three workshops in October to identify scientific gaps that need to be addressed before the moratorium on offshore drilling can be lifted. The workshops took place in Vancouver and Prince Rupert and capped an eventful year that began with an announcement from the throne in BC’s Legislative Assembly that the 2010 Olympic flame would burn gas piped from beneath the province’s offshore waters.

And while most industry experts believe Gordon Campbell’s ambitious vision is unlikely to unfold that quickly, even with the aid of performance enhancing drugs, the proclamation did seem to accomplish one important end: it knocked the federal government off the fence on the issue of the moratorium on offshore development.

In March, federal Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal announced Ottawa was preparing to examine the issue in detail and promised to establish two panels. One to conduct public hearings and consultation throughout the province to feel the public’s pulse on offshore development, and the second to identify gaps in scientific knowledge relating to a potential industry. In itself, the announcement didn’t give away which direction the federal government was leaning on the issue, but not long afterward Ottawa’s intentions came into clearer focus.

In May, Prime Minister in-waiting Paul Martin told the Vancouver Sun “I believe that in this day and age it is perfectly reasonable to expect if that kind of project is going to go ahead, and there’s a great deal of merit in the project, that the environmental considerations be fully satisfied. And I believe they can be.” Days later Dhaliwal appointed a sitting director of Talisman Energy (a major offshore exploration corporation) and former Shell employee (Shell holds exploration rights to a large portion of BC’s offshore waters) named Roland Priddle to chair the panel charged with hearing from the public.

Later still, in July, Dhaliwal assigned the scientific review to the Royal Society of Canada and a panel led by Dr. Jeremy Hall, a professor from Memorial University in Newfoundland, and declared:

“I have given a commitment to all Canadians that the science review will be objective, credible and conducted at arm’s length. The RSC, through its Expert Panel Committee, has a record of delivering highly respected, independent science reviews on behalf of governments and other organizations.”

Unfortunately Dhaliwal failed to provide any assurances that public consultation would be objective or credible when he named the remaining two members of the panel given the task. Priddle would be accompanied by Don Scott, former mayor of Prince Rupert and a vocal proponent of offshore oil, and Dr. Diana Valiela, a lawyer from a Vancouver firm which caters to clients from the petroleum industry.

Meanwhile the province was not content with issuing declarations. While Dhaliwal was stacking the public consultation panel with oil industry sweethearts, BC Energy Minister Richard Neufeld and our own North Coast MLA Bill Belsey accompanied a delegation of First Nation and Coastal community leaders on a three-day tour of Cook Inlet’s offshore industry in July.

The trip was paid for by the province and the group visited two oil rigs, a natural gas refinery, and met with reps from the Alaskan government and local First Nations. The BC contingent also included two Haida Gwaii residents, Old Massett village councilor Leo Gagnon, and Skidegate Band councilor David Crosby.

The tour was clearly orchestrated to paint a rosy picture of the industry since Belsey was quoted in the Prince Rupert Daily News claiming Cook Inlet has proven oil and gas can develop safely and sustainably upon his return. The group must never have met with Bob Shavelson, executive director of local conservation group the Cook Inlet Keeper, who raised some disconcerting questions about the trip in a Vancouver Island newspaper, the North Island Gazette, a short time later.

“Did the delegation visit any of the hundreds of toxic waste sites created by oil and gas operations? Did anyone tell them Cook Inlet is the only water body in the U.S. where oil companies dump billions of gallons of toxic waste into rich coastal fisheries each year?

Did they know the oil platform they visited was not dumping toxic wastes only because citizens sued to protect their fisheries?

Did they hear about the government study that found a broad array of toxics in native subsistence fish and shellfish? Did they know about the crash in the Cook Inlet beluga whale population, and oil industry efforts to undermine stronger beluga protections?

Did they learn the largest oil producer in Cook Inlet is being prosecuted for over 550 violations of our Clean Water Act? Did they hear about the recent job cuts to improve the oil industry’s bottom line? Did they learn how the oil industry recently played a central role dismantling our coastal resource protection law?
I imagine not.”

But hey, if anything the American adventure in Iraq has taught us that when it comes to oil, anything goes, and a little schmoozing and rhetoric is pretty small beer compared to preemptive war and military occupation.

There was certainly more rhetoric to come over the summer when federal Environment Minister David Anderson began casting aspersions about Dhaliwal’s science review panel claiming the workshop schedule did not appear to be long enough to thoroughly examine the available information.

“There’s no question that this is a very tight and difficult time frame. The busiest time of the academic year is the first six weeks of the fall term. We’ll see whether the Royal Society is right, but the jury is still out on this one. If it proves to be too tight, credibility will be impaired.”

Anderson has emerged as one, perhaps the only, prominent politician within either level of government who has consistently resisted the lure of potential royalty windfalls that might accompany offshore development, a position which hasn’t endeared him to slick boosters like Neufeld.

“I’m not exactly sure why he’s against this, but he his,” Neufeld publicly wondered. “It would be nice if Mr. Anderson started viewing BC as the place he comes from. And it would be nice if people could start earning as much as Mr. Anderson does.”

Rhetoric aside, we can only hope the academics on the science review panel neglect their students this year because they will digest what they learned from the workshops which concluded October 31st, along with any written submissions received before mid-November, and report their findings early in 2004. It’s expected that’s when Priddle and company will begin touring BC communities in what will surely be an earnest effort to tap public sentiment on the issue.

Here at home, alarmed by news of Dave and Leo’s trip to Cook Inlet, and the fact that a corporation operating on behalf of the village council had recently won a contract to gather information destined to guide an eventual decision on the moratorium, I recently paid a visit to Old Massett’s economic development office to find out what the heck is going on.

There I met John Disney, a former fisherman, former boat captain, now captain of what he affectionately calls the ‘department of miracle-workers.’ Disney knows only too well that the resource-based economy that once provided for many locals now provides for many fewer, and he’s casting about for new opportunities to provide revenue for the village and gainful employment for its residents.

“I was pulled in here to create an economy. We’ve been used to a traditional resource economy— i.e. fishing and logging. The fishing has virtually disappeared. Twenty years ago we had 54 boats out of this community, now we have two. So we can almost count that one out and logging is spiraling down fast. So I’m searching around for a new economy, we have this huge massive oil and gas economy just sitting out there…”

Only there’s a hitch.

“It has massive politics around it. It has to be recognized right away that the Haida are, as we speak today, one hundred percent against it. Over our dead bodies is that going to happen.”

A troubling predicament, but Disney’s figured a way around it, a way the Haida can have their cake and eat it too.

“The light goes on. I talked to people in the oil patch, and I talked to people in government, and I suddenly realized it doesn’t matter if we ever drill for oil and gas. That decision doesn’t matter. What is going to happen is that industry and government are going to need between five and ten years of assessment work done. Somebody in the world is going to do a whole lot of assessment work around Haida Gwaii. It’s going to be related to, but isn’t to do with drilling. Even if the final decision is that we won’t, we still have to do the work. The opportunities out there are huge and we have to figure out how to take advantage of that without selling out the farm.”

So Old Massett established a consulting outfit called Haida Environmental, struck a partnership with a mammoth international firm called Golder and Associates, and bid on some assessment work related to the offshore industry. A few months later and Old Massett was in the consulting racket, winning a contract to do a baseline assessment of the health of marine ecosystems in the Queen Charlotte Basin.

Golder will provide the Haida with training, expertise, and support, and the Haida will develop capacity to pursue future consulting work while ensuring the assessment incorporates local knowledge about the area.

As far as Leo Gagnon’s trip went, Disney said he returned with a report for the rest of the council that was informative but skeptical. It was a chance to see the industry in action, even if the itinerary carefully avoided any stops that might cast offshore drilling in a negative light. To Disney the trip wasn’t anything extraordinary, only the latest attempt to woo the Haida and make them more cooperative on the issue.

“That tour up to Alaska, that was nothing. We’ve had bigger things offered to us. We had a guy come up here on his own dollar, this was at the beginning of it, very small, there was about four people in his company but he wanted us to work with him and he wanted to be our front person dealing with industry and government. That didn’t fly.

The next people that came in here, they were worth maybe fifty million bucks. Their offer was we’ll fly you and your council the whole works up to Alaska and show you what we’ve been doing. So now the stakes went up. The first guy wanted an hour of our time, and now they’re offering us a $50,000 trip for nothing and this isn’t even the big boys.

Shell will probably come in and the way Shell operates they’ll give you ten million and say okay now can we talk about some stuff? And you can do whatever you want with that, that’s just pocket money. It’s going to be a very, very difficult decision in the future because they are going to have massive goodies to give you.”

In late October, four Haidas and Port Clements mayor Dale Lore were flown out to the east coast to get a look at the offshore industry there, along with dozens of other community reps from around the Queen Charlotte Basin. Disney said this trip could provide a more accurate picture of the industry because the tour was billed as being more unfiltered.

“This isn’t scientific data, this is real data. This is reality. They can come back and say hey we talked to fishermen, we talked to people working on the water, and you’re going to get the stories. And whether it’s good, bad or indifferent that’s what we’re going to find out. It’s valuable to get somebody from your own community doing something like that. It’s definitely not hurting anything.”

Gathering good information to guide future decision makers is what Disney sees as his role in the offshore debate. The question of opening the waters around Haida Gwaii to drilling, when it finally comes time to answer it, will be difficult if only because in a community that’s suffered through tough economic times for so long the money that might accompany it could be hard to resist.

“What we’re charged with in this generation is to find out the truth about what could or couldn’t happen there so that the future generation can make a good decision. It’s so easy to get caught up in this hype. Are you for or against? Are you good or bad? We’re so far away from anything like that it’s not even funny. And really you or me won’t even have influence over this. All I can say is that I hope I can gather good data for you so the guy who makes the decision makes one that is based on good information.”

And if he can make a little money for the village and create some employment and training opportunities then so much the better. As for the answers to the big questions like whether or not to lift the moratorium, and at what price, Disney leaves those to the leaders who will have to make them.

“I think Guujaaw and those leaders are doing a great job of keeping the brakes on everything. They’re saying just take it slow, we’re against this, but we’re listening. Take it slow because these are going to be big decisions. There’s only a handful of people here and they’re taking on huge responsibilities without any resources, only their wits. The next ten years are going to tell so much, and the leaders are going to be vital.” •