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6/24/2010 in Headline News Bookmark and Share

Tougher environmental laws needed, prof tells parliamentary committee

Legislation surrounding offshore oil and gas drilling and production in Canada must be improved to help prevent economic and environmental disasters like the one occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental studies Professor Gail Fraser told the Standing Committee on Natural Resources in Ottawa June 17.

The committee adopted a motion initiating a study of the emergency response assets and the adequacy of the current regulatory regime of offshore oil and gas drilling and production in Canada. This study is intended to assist the committee in determining whether or not a more in-depth study of the future direction of offshore oil and gas drilling in Canada is required to prevent any economic and environmental disasters, such as what is now occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.

Right: Gail Fraser

Fraser was introduced to the committee as being in a position to provide valuable information on the current state of emergency response assets available and the adequacy of the current regulations governing the industry. Her background is in marine and freshwater avian ecology with a research focus on oil and gas extraction. Her work aims to understand the impacts of offshore oil and gas on the marine environment in eastern Canada. This research is done in collaboration with the Alder Institute, a non-profit organization in Newfoundland whose primary objective is to translate science into public knowledge.

In her address to the committee, Fraser highlighted the lack of transparency in the environmental management of offshore oil and gas in Newfoundland & Labrador. She maintained that existing legislation does not support openness and transparency and therefore prevents public scrutiny. To support this argument, she cited examples of access to information requests she and her colleagues submitted concerning offshore oil and gas pollutant data and environmental assessment methods. These requests were denied on the basis that the information was “privileged” under the Canada-Newfoundland Atlantic Accord Implementation Act.

She pointed out that similar barriers to transparency exist in the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Accord Implementation Act. “There are two steps which could be taken to improve the current regulatory system – amend relevant sections of the accord acts to allow full disclosure of environmental information and require independent technical and biological observers to be on board both exploratory and production operations at all times,” said Fraser.

She said the lack of transparency in the accord represented legislative conflict between the Atlantic Accord and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which has a stated aim to facilitate public participation in environmental assessment. She then raised concerns about the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board’s (C-NLOPB’s) status as the lead government agency for overseeing offshore oil and gas activities in the area. Since the C-NLOPB describes itself as “arms length from government” it would not appear to be positioned to uphold international treaties for the Government of Canada, yet offshore oil and gas activities affect migratory birds, which are subject to treaties such as the Migratory Bird Convention Act.

Fraser said she believes the current regulatory regime of offshore oil and gas drilling and production in Canada is inadequate by design. Though she acknowledged that no matter what precautions are taken an oil spill is ultimately inevitable, she said it is crucial to plan for the worst and to ask the question “is the worst tolerable?”

“In my professional opinion, a more in-depth study of the future direction of offshore oil and gas drilling in Canada is required to help prevent any economic and environmental disasters,” said Fraser.

To view a video of the meeting of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources June 17, including Fraser’s speech, click here.

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