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By Charles Mandel | November 25th 2015

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 08.55.47A handful of protesters from Sum of Us, Greenpeace, the Ecology Action and the Clean Ocean Action Committee delivered a massive 233,000-signature petition to the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) opposing what they said were extremely lax safety standards around Shell’s drilling program. Currently, if a subsea oil well blowout were to occur, the company would be allowed to take 12 to 13 days to contain it. Shell’s original proposal suggested it could take 21 days to get a capping stack to the site.

“It looks like Shell is getting a free pass at Nova Scotia’s expense,” said Rosa Kouris, Sum of Us’ Canadian campaigns director. “We have a multi-billion-dollar, well-regulated and fully sustainable fishery which is being put at unnecessary risk and a quarter-million people think this is totally unacceptable.”

While presenting the CNSOPB with the petition, protesters wielded signs with large numbers on them representing the length of time Shell is allowed to spill oil in the water, and the number of signatures on the petition.

Shell plans to drill two exploratory wells 250 kilometres off the south shore of Nova Scotia. The first phase of the program is expected to last 10 or 11 months. For the work Shell has contracted the Stena IceMAX, a mobile offshore drilling unit.

Shell has six exploration licences in the region. It plans to spend $1-billion in the first six years of the nine-year licence period and substantially more if the first exploratory well yields hydrocarbons.

“You have to take into account the probability of having a blowout is extremely low,” Stuart Pinks, the CNSOPB’s CEO, told National Observer.

“Our determination at the end was all reasonable precautions to protect safety and the environment had been taken, which is a requirement of the legislation and the regulations.”

Groups opposed to the drilling maintain that U.S. regulators require oil companies to have blowout capping equipment on site within 24 hours. But in a presentation to the Nova Scotia Legislature Standing Committee on Resources on November 5th, Shell claimed that was inaccurate.

Christine Pagan, the Atlantic Canada Venture Manager for Shell Canada, told the committee that for the Alaska operation the company had a custom-built capping stack that was the only one of its kind in the world and couldn’t be deployed anywhere else.

The capping stack for the Nova Scotia operation is maintained in Stavanger, Norway. It is one of four around the world that a consortium called the Oil Spill Response Limited maintains on behalf of most of the world’s major oil and gas companies.

Pagan told the committee that the capping stack requires specialized facilities, equipment and specially trained personnel, none of which are located in Atlantic Canada. “If we were to need it, it would be ready for loading onto a vessel as soon as we made that phone call.”

Scott Jardine – Shell’s health, safety and environment manager – told the committee that the company didn’t believe the risk warranted or justified a capping stack for the Nova Scotia operation.

“On a daily basis, for example, in the last five years there have been upwards of 75,000 medium-size oil tankers transiting the Canadian waters, where I would suggest is a significantly higher risk of an environmental incident.

“The probability, the scenario, we’re talking about, is extremely low probability and there are mechanisms and barriers in place to prevent it.”

None of this has reassured protestors who want the company to withdraw from an area in proximity to some of Nova Scotia’s richest fishing grounds.

“The offshore oil regulator shouldn’t be putting the profits of the oil company and the oil industry ahead of public safety and that’s why there’s huge public opposition to the project,” Kouris said.

John Davis, executive director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, said Shell’s drilling and potential oil spill could impact five or six major fishing banks. “They’re within a couple of hundred kilometres of every possible fishing ground in southwestern Nova Scotia.”

In the last annual report, fishers in the area landed 95-million pounds of lobster, according to Davis. The same fishing grounds have also produced the highest scallop landings ever recorded in the area and the last three years of Haddock fishing have been the best in over 50 years.

“We have a sustainable fishery because we are well regulated and we take care of it,” Davis said. “We demand the oil industry be well regulated too.”

Davis criticized the CNSOPB for not having a comprehensive resource development plan for the Scotian shelf that takes into account a multi-billion fishery in the area rather than just handing out oil leases in a piece-meal fashion.

Davis noted that on the west coast of the U.S., the regulator told Shell they had to have a capping stack ready to put in place in 24 hours. “That’s what the regulators demanded and the oil industry accomplished. Our regulators aren’t even asking the oil industry to be capable of cleaning up a major oil spill if they have one.

“It’s ludicrous. It’s beyond reason,” Davis said.

Pinks said there’s no legislative requirement in the U.S. or Alaskan waters for capping stacks, only a proposed rule. But a capping stack was put in place for the Alaska operative as Alaska’s remote geographic location meant it could take several weeks to deploy a capping stack if it was to come from another place in the world.

“It could be in those weeks the ice moves back in and then you would not be able to deploy that capping stack until the following drilling season, so you could have many months, six to eight months of uncontrolled blowout that you would be unable to respond to because the capping stack arrives too late,” Pinks said.

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