By Mariah McCooey–The province is still as gung-ho as ever about developing offshore oil in Hecate Strait, but at least one high-profile consultant is wondering “where’s the beef?”
Steve Simons, the communications director for the province’s Offshore Oil and Gas Team maintains the team has no intention of backing down from the fight to have the moratoriums lifted.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said, “the minister (of Energy and Mines, Richard Neufeld) has been re-appointed.” He also said the commitment to exploration was part of the government’s re-election platform. “We are still working with communities and First Nations,” said Mr. Simons, but in spite the lack of solid agreements, he denied that there were any significant obstacles – only “opportunities.”
However, former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, who was in office during the time when that province’s offshore was being developed and now runs a consulting firm in Qualicum Beach, is calling the province’s bluff.
“They have to say that,” he said, referring to the Offshore Team’s unwaivering commitment. “it’s their mandate, to be pro-active.”
Mr. Peckford himself was the former chair of the Pacific Offshore Energy Group, an industry and government-sponsored program to educate the public about the offshore industry. Although Mr. Peckford was instrumental in setting up Newfoundland’s offshore industry, he is having some major doubts about the likelihood of it happening here.
According to Mr. Peckford, it’s all a lot of talk and not a lot of reality.
“Neufeld is gung-ho. But it flies in the face of everything they know. They can’t do it on their own. Where’s the beef? Where’s the talks? Nothing’s in place. No framework for agreements,” he told the Observer in a telephone interview from his home.
As far as Mr. Peckford is concerned, there are numerous obstacles to offshore development. One is the politically fragile situation in Parliament right now, with the federal Liberals clinging to a minority government. It’s extremely unlikely they would undertake something as contentious as lifting the 33-year old moratorium, according to Mr. Peckford.
“The federal government won’t even think about lifting the moratorium until they have a majority, and even then, cautiously,” he said. And even though the province has repeatedly indicated it would lift the second, provincial moratorium, the drastically reduced Liberal majority in the legislature would make even that difficult. Not only that, the three ridings most likely to be affected by offshore development have all swung to the NDP, he said. This includes our North Coast riding, which elected Gary Coons; Mr. Coons has openly denounced offshore oil and gas development.
Also, there just isn’t the groundswell of public support required for the project to move ahead, Mr, Peckford said. The federally-commissioned Priddle report concluded last year that 75-percent of respondents were opposed to offshore development.
But perhaps most important is the government’s lack of real commitment to negotiating with First Nations. Mr. Peckford believes strongly that consultation with First Nations groups has to happen meaningfully and early on in the process.
“I keep trying to explain, there’s three parties, they’re all involved (the province, Ottawa, First Nations).” First Nations should be equal architects, not brought in as contractors afterwards, he said, and to neglect this obligation is a major mistake.
“They are paying lip service to consultation,” he said, “but they are not serious about it. And it won’t work without it,” he said, “Unfortunately, in the last few years, the provincial and federal governments have made certain moves, but not the right kind of moves.”
It’s got to go further, said Mr. Peckford, who thinks they have just “not got the message” about how crucial it is to have First Nations support for a project.
Generally, Mr. Peckford is unconvinced by the province’s bravado.
“As far as anything happening now, notwithstanding the message from the province, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that it’s stalled for now.”
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