Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Offshore report weak, bad news for Liberal plans

VICTORIA - That was a disappointing report from the Priddle panel on offshore oil and gas development.
And it's going to pose a huge problem for the Liberals' hopes for offshore riches.
The federal panel was supposed to find out what British Columbians think about development off the B.C. coast, and come up with conclusions and recommendations.
The hearings went OK. But the panel members did a poor job of bringing their expertise to the task of analysing the information and coming up with useful recommendations.
Instead, the panel focused mainly on a count. How many presenters were for lifting the moratorium, and how many against.
Mostly people and organizations were against. Three out of four of the almost 4,000 people who presented to the panel opposed lifting the 30-year-old moratorium on offshore development.
But the panel didn't consider the size of the organizations being represented by presenters. Comments by one concerned person, perhaps with only a limited rationale, were given the same weight as major presentations by organizations like the Western Canada Wilderness Committee or the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
The panel didn't attempt to analyze the issues, and decide which were critical. And it failed to come up with a clear recommendation on what should happen next. Instead, the panel outlined four options and threw the problem back to the governments.
The report is still useful. It notes, for example, just how deep the divisions are between people on the opposite sides of the issue and warns of the near impossibility of compromise right now. The panel also found that there hasn't been any sort of broad discussion of the issues involved, and said that needs to begin.
But the report is a lot less useful than it should have been. The panel had the expertise. Roland Priddle is a former National Energy Board chair; Diana Valiela practises environmental and natural resource law, and is expert in salmon management and habitat management; and Don Scott is a former Prince Rupert mayor, with a lot of experience in the economic issues of the north coast.
They didn't do enough.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld reacted crabbily to the report, which poses a big threat to Liberal hopes to have offshore development by 2010.
The federal Liberals are already split on the issue, and in no hurry to lift the ban. They now have more reason to delay, able to point to the lack of support within B.C. for any change. (They'll will also be mindful of the potential lost votes in the Lower Mainland when Paul Martin's minority government once again faces the voters.)
The report makes it extremely unlikely that the moratorium will be lifted without a lot more time and work.
That's also the view of former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, who has been through the process of opening the offshore. Peckford, who lives on Vancouver Island now, says that without broader support governments won't be able to go ahead with offshore drilling. He proposes a two-year review, led by a three-person panel representing both governments and First Nations.
Their job would be to get more information out, encourage discussion, fill the scientific gaps and come up with a recommendation on next steps.
The provincial government wants to go quicker. It sees the potential of tapping offshore oil resources worth up to $110 billion - ten times the potential of the Hibernia field that brought a boom to Canada's East Coast. And it points to the energy industry's success in drilling safely on coastal waters around the world and generally positive scientific reviews on the risks in B.C.
But the moratorium is not going to be lifted anytime soon.
Even with its flaws, the panel's report showed that the B.C. government has to do a much more effective job of increasing public awareness of the issues, and building support, if it hopes to tap the wealth under the ocean floor.
Footnote: The panel came under heavy attack by environmental groups during the hearings, as they complained about Priddle's energy industry connections and Scott's past support for a review of the moratorium. The enviros ended up very happy with the final result.

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