A former New Brunswick ombudsman who was asked to consult with an anxious public about an oil well proposed for the Gulf of St. Lawrence says he recently learned his review has been terminated and he fears that whatever replaces it will be far less comprehensive.
Bernard Richard was hired by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) to obtain public feedback from people living in the Gulf region about Corridor Resources Inc.'s plans to conduct exploratory drilling at the Old Harry site off the southwest coast of Newfoundland.
Mr. Richard was told in January, 2012, that his review was being postponed while the board updated its own strategic environmental assessment for the entire offshore area of western Newfoundland. It was clear to all, including Mr. Richard, that the larger study could have an impact on his consultations about the Old Harry project. So "nothing had happened in about nine months," Mr. Richard said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail.
"But I certainly learned that it [his review] had been terminated when somebody alerted me to a posting on the board's website," he said. "That was a couple weeks ago." The posting was dated Feb. 28, 2012.
Mr. Richard is now concerned that a review like the one he was supposed to conduct is no longer on the agenda.
"A spill in a gulf, particularly of the nature of the St. Lawrence, could potentially have more far-reaching effects than a spill [in the Atlantic Ocean] 200 miles east of Newfoundland," he said.
"Although we will need oil for many decades to come, there may be some places where we shouldn't be drilling," Mr. Richard said. "My process would have helped find some kind of answer to that question. But, since I never completed it, I really don't know. At some point we will learn, but maybe we will learn at a very great cost."
Activists who oppose drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence say they are dismayed to learn that Mr. Richard's consultation had been cancelled.
"Now that this review has been terminated, we are deeply concerned there will be no legitimate, independent public review of seismic and deepwater drilling in, arguably, the most beautiful and sensitive breeding area in Canada, where over 2,000 species spawn, nurse and migrate year around," said Mary Gorman, a founding member of the Save our Seas and Shores coalition.
"What has happened with Richard is proof of the conflict of interest these boards (like the C-NLOPB) are in as both promoters of development and alleged protectors of the environment," she said.
In 2011, when memories of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico were still fresh, the C-NLOPB decided it wanted an additional level of scrutiny of the Old Harry proposal and even asked Environment Minister Peter Kent to engage the federal government.
The minister rejected the request saying he believed, along with an update of the environmental assessment for the larger offshore region, a project-specific assessment "that will include extensive public consultation can adequately address the issues."
It is the companies themselves that conduct project-specific environmental assessments so, in this case, the job was left to Corridor. But the board asked Mr. Richard in August, 2011, to gauge public opinion about Corridor's findings.
It was an unusual measure of oversight – public consultations normally take place toward the end of the approvals process and, for a well of the size and duration being proposed by Corridor, they usually amount to little more than Internet feedback. Mr. Richard was instead being asked to hold public sessions in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Corridor complained to the board, saying it was unreasonable for the company to be conducting a project-specific environmental assessment, and for Mr. Richard to be reviewing that assessment, ahead of the assessment of the larger offshore region. And the board agreed, suspending Mr. Richard's work, then terminating it a month later.
Sean Kelly, a board spokesman, said the larger assessment was expected to take more than a year to complete – a first draft is not expected until next month – so there was no purpose in keeping Mr. Richard's contract in place all that time.
Former Chevron executive Scott Tessier took over on Monday as CEO of the C-NLOPB. It will be up to the new management to decide how to proceed, and there eventually will be a public consultation about the Old Harry project, Mr. Kelly said.
It is unclear what form it will take. It could be as simple as online feedback, Mr. Kelly said, or it could be broader than that.
Certainly there will be a project-specific review including public consultation, said Mr. Richard. "But I think what they were asking me to do is not likely to happen because it was an additional hurdle for the project proponent."