Archive Message 3075
From: Parker Barss Donham
Date: Wed, 29 Oct 1997 10:23:14 -0400
Subj: Parker's column for Wednesday 10-29-97

29 October 1997

Thank God Mobil didn't ask for the Cabot Trail and the keys to Province House.  The offshore gas review panel probably would have given them away, too.

In Nova Scotia's long, sorry history as a third-world supplicant, the panel's report stands as a further milestone in the abasement of local interests to the demands of foreign capital.

On issue after issue, the five-member panel chaired by Dalhousie's Bob Fournier either capitulated totally to Mobil's demands, or subjected company plans to only the lightest patina of ephemeral reservations and conditions.

The fish-eating grins on the faces of Mobil executives Monday told the story: total victory for the American oil giant; millennial – nay, epochal – defeat for the interests of Nova Scotians.

On the cornerstone issue of timing, the panel rejected requests from proponents of competing pipelines for a few months' delay to complete their own applications.

In short, gas has rested, undisturbed, under the Scotian Shelf for billions of years, but the panel couldn't wait another 180 days to make sure we get it to market in a way that brings the most lasting benefits to Nova Scotians.

The report's release came against a rising chorus of threats from Mobil executives, who warned that the whole project would be thrown into doubt if the panel paused to consider alternative pipelines.  The officials never did explain why Canada's regulatory blessing was so urgent when equally crucial U.S. regulatory approval is at least half a year away.

Mobil's exercise in intimidation recalled bully tactics tried by the president of Stora Nova Scotia's Swedish parent firm, who threatened to close the company's Nova Scotia plant if the province didn't permit aerial spraying of chemicals whose use is banned in Sweden.  The government of the day summoned the courage to stand up to him then, and fifteen years later, construction of a new Stora plant at Point Tupper is nearing completion.

The federal-provincial panel didn't have the stomach to reprise Mobil's claim that six months' delay would jeopardize the project.  It made no finding that delay would be harmful.  It expressed no opinion that the project would die if proponents of other pipelines, free from the vertical integration inherent in Mobil's proposal, were given time to complete applications.

The panel simply, and smugly, declared that it had fulfilled its obligations of procedural fairness.  In other words, we have the authority to ram Mobil's application through, so that's what we're going to do.

This refusal to allow time for prudent consideration of alternatives flies in the face of the panel's own warnings about Nova Scotia's lack of readiness to capitalize on the megaproject.  The report correctly points out that, aside from temporary construction jobs, the project's long-term direct employment impact will be minimal.  Mobil will need only 156 people to operate the offshore production and onshore processing facilities.

Listen to the panel's own, gloomy words:

"The Panel is struck by the lack of vision, from any of the parties that appeared before it, that would capture the full, long-term potential inherent in natural gas production," the report declared.  "If (Sable gas) is truly a 'seed' project for petrochemical industry, then all of the available physical and human resources have to be brought together to make the 'seed' grow."

Gee, sounds like grounds for taking things slow, making sure we get it right.  Read on:

"The obvious sources of (industrial) benefits derive from the use of natural gas as an energy source and, alone or together with the liquids, as a raw material for use in other products," the report declares.  "The liquids alone could form the base for a petrochemical industry in Nova Scotia."

High-sounding phrases, but the panel rejects the one simple step that would do the most to ensure that Nova Scotia reaps industrial spin-offs from the project:  a pipeline toll regime based on the distance the gas has to be shipped.  Instead, the panel endorses Mobil's postage-stamp, one-price-fits-all toll, with only the slight, temporary modifications Nova Scotia was able to wheedle out of Mobil last summer.

Space doesn't permit an enumeration of the environmental threats the panel glosses over, or leaves to the company's good will and self-regulation.

In only one instance does the panel side with Nova Scotians against the interests of Mobil.  It insists on giving industrial buyers the right to purchase gas where it comes ashore, bypassing Mobil's pipeline.  Whether this theoretical right will affect any real-life industries remains to be seen.

Nova Scotia is sitting on the largest untapped reserve of natural gas in North America.  This resource gives us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lever desperately needed industrial benefits for our province.  Doing so will require time, planning, and a supportive regulatory regime.

The federal-provincial panel ruled out all three this week.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Parker Barss Donham. All rights reserved...

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