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Hooded seals sit on a ice pan in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)
Hooded seals sit on a ice pan in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

St. Lawrence drilling plan draws opposition Add to ...

A junior oil company is at the centre of a growing political and environmental battle over Canada's latest energy prospect - the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Halifax-based Corridor Resources is sailing into turbulent political waters as it prepares to launch an oil-and-gas exploration program in the Gulf, over the objections of fishermen and environmentalists, and concerns raised by the Government of Quebec.

If the company finds commercial deposits of oil and gas in the largely unexplored offshore area, it would spark a rush of exploration activity in the ecologically sensitive waters, raising concerns about the impact on fish stocks, whales and other marine life that teem in the warm, relatively shallow waters.

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board is expected to rule this week in favour of Corridor's application for a low-intensity seismic program to survey marine life and the sea floor in the "Old Harry" field - a critical step before it can seek a drilling licence from the offshore regulatory board.

The push to open the Gulf of St. Lawrence to drilling comes in the wake of BP PLC's massive oil spill at a well in the Gulf of Mexico, which spewed 60,000 barrels of oil a day and shut down the fishery for three months, with untold long-term damage. The BP spill has raised concerns about energy development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Quebec has declared a two-year moratorium on exploration activity in its Gulf of St. Lawrence jurisdiction - despite estimates that the amount of oil and gas in the field would supply the province for 25 years - and it has urged Newfoundland to proceed with caution and regard to environmental concerns.

Corridor has conducted two seismic programs of the Old Harry area, and is encouraged by the results. The company has a producing gas well in New Brunswick and exploration properties, both onshore and offshore, throughout Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

"We have a pretty good picture of the structure and we think it's very prospective - a big structure and lots of indicators that are encouraging," Corridor chief executive officer Norman Miller said in an interview.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence has long been eyed as a potential new source of oil and gas, but there has been little activity.

"It's a new frontier play that could have a lot of running room," Mr. Miller said.

But he acknowledges the planned activity is a concern for fishermen and residents of coastal communities, particularly in the wake of the BP spill.

"It spooked everybody and it's sort of like you had a big plane crash and nobody wants to fly any more," Mr. Miller said. He added the company won't begin drilling for another two years, and must get further approval for that activity.

The Quebec government has closed the door to exploration activity in its part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence until a full-scale environmental review can be completed, a process that could take three years. Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams has rejected calls for similar action.

Quebec Minister of Natural Resources Nathalie Normandeau wrote to her Newfoundland counterpart Kathy Dunderdale asking whether additional environmental measures will be taken in the event that a drilling permit is awarded.

"These are concerns that we want addressed," Ms. Normandeau said in an interview. "We want to know precisely where Corridor Resources will be drilling because we suspect they will be drilling close to the Quebec border."

Mary Gorman, a Nova Scotia environmentalist and wife of a fisherman, slammed both the Newfoundland government and Ottawa for moving forward with oil exploration without a full-scale study of how it would affect the fisheries and marine environment. She said there are a number of endangered or at-risk species in the Gulf that could be harmed by the use of air cannons and sonar during the seismic activity.

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