Have you ever dreamed of winning the lottery? Imagine you are holding a winning ticket in your hands. You’ve checked and re-checked the number and, sure enough, you have a ticket worth one million dollars. Now, imagine crumpling up and throwing away your winning ticket. Who knows (you think) there may be a bigger jackpot down the road! Sure, there has been no announcement of another lottery. In fact, the lottery corporation has stated that they have no plans to hold another lottery and, if they did, no idea of the size of the jackpot. But, you don’t let that stop you. So long, million dollar winning ticket – hello, complete and absolute uncertainty.

However unlikely you think this scenario, it’s exactly what the provincial government did when it turned down an offer from Parks Canada to conduct a feasibility study for a marine park on the South Coast of the Island. Note: they did not turn down the offer to establish a park.

They turned down the idea of studying the idea.

From my understanding, this is the first time in the history of Canada that a province has rejected such an offer.

The quiet demise of a great idea

The idea for a marine park on the South Coast of the Island originated from the late Jon Lien (“the Whale Man”) around 2003. He spoke with local leaders who, genuinely interested in the idea, submitted a report to Parks Canada outlining their support for further study. Over much of the next decade, local residents tried to engage the provincial government on the issue. Government delayed for years until February 2012 when they sent Parks Canada packing. Their reason? That the area may support aquaculture or oil and gas industry in the future. That’s the only reason that’s been given. More surprisingly, they neglected to tell anyone that they nixed the idea. A full year passed before their decision came to light. A Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society report, published in May 2012, looked at the progress of 12 potential marine parks including the “South Coast Fjords”, despite the fact that the provincial government had quietly abandoned the idea several months prior. Local residents only found out about the decision through the media, and they are not happy.

Nor should they be. A 2011 report on the economic impact of National Parks included a review of marine parks. They found that, despite the fact there are relatively few marine parks in Canada, they generate more than 2,300 jobs across the country. The historic communities along the South Coast, including Burgeo and Ramea, were particularly hard hit by the decline of the fishery. Stable, long term jobs associated with a marine park were a major selling point with local leaders. These opportunities are lost now. And for what? Well, let’s look at the potential for oil and gas development along the South Coast.

Burgeo would have been one of several communities to benefit from the establishment of a marine park on the Island's South Coast. Photo by Douglas Sprott.
Burgeo would have been one of several communities to benefit from the establishment of a marine park on the Island’s South Coast. Photo by Douglas Sprott.

In a word, that potential could be described as “little to none”. Now I am not a petroleum geologist, so I found an extensive report on the subject (published by the provincial government, no less). The report, called “Sedimentary Basins and Hydrocarbon Potential of Newfoundland and Labrador” (2000) looks at the level of potential and exploration activity associated with marine “basins” around the province. Simply put, a basin is an area with similar geology. For example, most of the major oil finds off the east coast of the Island are in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin (e.g. Hibernia, Terra Nova, White Rose, etc.) The basin off the South Coast is called the Sydney Basin. It largely consists of Carboniferous sediments and, according to the report, “…no discoveries have yet been made in the Carboniferous rocks of Newfoundland.” But, oil is often found in unexpected places. One indicator of potential is the level of interest shown by industry. Yet, of the 157 wells dug around Newfoundland up until then, a grand total of “0” were dug in the Sydney Basin. Furthermore, the Sydney Basin is not adjacent to the coastline of the South Coast – it’s well offshore. The “South Coast Fjords” proposal was so young that potential boundaries or size had not yet been determined – that was the purpose of the now-cancelled feasibility study. I firmly believe we could have done both – we could have designed a marine park that excluded any – so far imaginary – areas with oil and gas potential. Remember, Parks Canada was simply asking to conduct a feasibility study which they were willing to pay for 100%.

No, the reason why the provincial government willfully abandoned this excellent opportunity was ideology. I’ve said it many times here in this column – the Dunderdale administration has an immature and unsophisticated take on protected areas. They view them as liabilities that lock areas away from development. The evidence for this is in their refusal to establish protected areas, their contravention of legislation to establish and maintain the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council, and so on. The provincial government (and, indeed, the Premier) have the lowest approval ratings in the country. They would like you to believe that this state of affairs is simply because we’re not listening to their message or appreciating all the wonderful things they’re doing for us. They fail to see that it’s decisions like this one, and their subsequent disrespect for the interests of the local residents, that are what’s really driving their race to the bottom.

Hopefully, in a few years we can begin to repair our reputation as the protected areas idiots of the country. Don’t throw that winning lottery ticket out yet – keep it safe and un-crumpled until a more mature and knowledgeable administration comes to power.