The federal and Nova Scotia governments agreed Thursday to extend a moratorium on oil and gas exploration on Georges Bank, one of the most productive and ecologically sensitive fishing grounds off the East Coast.
The drilling ban, in place since 1988, was set to expire in 2012. But Premier Darrell Dexter said it would be extended for another three years to Dec. 31, 2015, to allow for more study.
"This is a balancing act between the environment and the economy," Mr. Dexter told a news conference. "I have heard the public's concerns and I am confident that extending the moratorium will put people's minds at ease."
The NDP Premier said the decision brings Canada in line with a similar decision recently taken by the U.S. administration. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced that a drilling ban on the U.S. side of Georges Bank, which stretches across the border between Nova Scotia and Maine, would be extended to 2017.
But a decision to reverse that position could come as early as 2015 - the same year the Canadian ban expires.
Mark Butler, policy director for the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, said he was elated with the Canadian decision.
"Extending it was the right thing to do for the ecosystem, it was the right thing to do for the fishery," he said.
Still, Mr. Butler said he would have preferred to see Canada take a leadership role and extend the moratorium beyond three years.
"We have to get out of this endless cycle of studies and public consultations," he said. "While science and changes in the industry are important, the value of Georges Bank doesn't change. ... We need to make that a permanent decision to protect Georges Bank."
Meanwhile, the federal and provincial governments have agreed to continue studying the potential impact of offshore exploration. The research results are expected later this year.
"In order to make the right decision, we need more time to get the best scientific information available," said provincial Energy Minister Bill Estabrooks.
Mr. Dexter said the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought the matter of offshore drilling activity to the forefront of public attention, but it wasn't a key factor when the time came to decide on whether to extend the moratorium.
"The event there had little effect on this decision," he said. "It was something that raised awareness, but we were on a track to make this decision."
Georges Bank is perhaps best known for its abundance of haddock, halibut and scallops. But this vast, shallow stretch of the sea floor is also home to rare and endangered species of whales and turtles that migrate through its nutrient-rich waters about 100 kilometres offshore.
However, the petroleum industry believes Georges Bank could also contain a vast store of natural gas.
Paul McEachern, managing director of the Offshore Technology Association of Nova Scotia, said the extension is a good idea.
"All we ever asked for on this is a dispassionate scientific review," Mr. McEachern said from his office in Halifax. "If the government needs additional time to do that, we understand why they've asked for the additional time."
Mr. McEachern said he was pleased the government chose not to extend the moratorium beyond three years. Previous governments put off dealing with the issue for longer time frames, hoping to avoid any tough decisions, he said.
"That leads us to believe that [the NDP]should be taken at their word when they say they're serious about having an honest look at ... the evidence on both sides," he said. "Let's let those scientists do their analysis without undue pressure from any side."
The decision alleviates a political headache for the governing New Democrats, who were criticized by environmentalists who noted the party was staunchly opposed to lifting the ban while in opposition, but took a more moderate line once they gained power last summer.
Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau, a former commercial fisherman, found himself in the centre of a political storm when he suggested technological advances could allow energy companies to operate on Georges Bank without causing damage.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: