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Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)
Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Politics

East Coast offshore oil regulation fraught with federal-provincial bickering Add to ...

Like so much in this country, regulation of the East Coast offshore oil industry has been fraught with federal-provincial bickering.

When Chevron discovered oil at Hibernia in 1979, both Ottawa and St. John's claimed jurisdiction. After years of federal-provincial battles, then prime minister Brian Mulroney and premier Brian Peckford signed the Atlantic Accord, an agreement to share management of Hibernia and future developments. The accord established the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB).

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Each government appoints three board members, and must agree on a chairman. But that agreement can be hard to achieve, particularly in the venomous political atmosphere of Newfoundland's small capital.

Premier Danny Williams came to power in 2003 promising to derive more benefits from offshore oil - and he wanted a political ally at the helm of the C-NLOPB. A year later, he tried to appoint his political ally, Andy Wells, then mayor of St. John's. Federal natural resources minister John Efford - no friend of Mr. Williams - rejected the suggestion, arguing Mr. Wells did not have the required experience.

Current chair Max Ruelokke emerged as a compromise candidate, but Mr. Williams was not interested in compromise. Eventually, it took a court ruling to award Mr. Ruelokke the job.

The Premier appointed Mr. Wells to the board, and the voluble politician quickly became a constant critic of Mr. Ruelokke, accusing him of being "a flunky for the oil companies" and an incompetent "bureaucratic hack."

Mr. Wells moved on two years ago, but his belittling of Mr. Ruelokke as an industry toady served to undermine public confidence in the board. Mr. Ruelokke complained that Mr. Wells' attack was undermining the public perception of impartiality at the board.

The board needs all the credibility it can muster now, as it struggles to reassure the public that a Gulf-like incident could not happen here, and that it can protect worker safety while managing economic benefits from offshore oil.

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