REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 2) The marine environment and sovereignty – lessons for Canada


Part Two of a four-part series. Part One is here, Part Three is here, and Part Four is yet to be published.

HALIFAX (16 March 2004) – JACQUES COUSTEAU once observed that oil spills such as that of the Prestige off the coast of Spain are like smoking – the problem is the cumulative effect over time. Canada is already addicted. The cancer has been caused not by cigarettes but by American oil monopolies, their international shipping clients and a neo-colonial state. And it is metastatisizing.

The Bahamas-registered ‘Prestige’ oil tanker is seen broken in two before sinking into the Atlantic Ocean some 150 miles off Spain’s coast in the Atlantic Ocean Tuesday Nov. 19, 2002. The stricken tanker carrying 77,000 metric tons, 20.5 million gallons, was towed some 244 kilometres, 152 miles, off the coast when it sank creating an environmental disaster off the northwest coast of Spain and Portugal. (AP Photo/EFE/Spanish Navy)

Every oil spill, no matter where it occurs, says the Canadian Nature Federation, “should remind Canada of the need to improve its existing policies and practices regarding the shipment of oil by sea. The Prestige disaster is particularly relevant, as it clearly underlines the magnitude of the threat our oceans face.” It also clearly underlies the magnitude of the threat our nation faces.

Prevention is a responsibility of both ship owners (e.g., from hull structure to trained crew, tanker positioning and speed) and the government, through standards, regulation and enforcement.

However, the marine environment is not just a technical question of pollution abatement and prevention, as some environmental NGOs suggest, or an absence of “political will.” The political questions of sovereignty and its framework are fundamental.

Sovereignty undefined – by design

Canada declared a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone on 1 March 1977 over three oceans: the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Atlantic. The area annexed by the federal government from the world ocean was vast: Canada’s oceans represent almost two thirds of its territorial land mass, and the area of the EEZ covers roughly half of its land mass of Canada, the second-largest country in the world. Approximately 6.5 million Canadians (22 per cent) live in coastal communities. Significantly, however, the Canadian government, together with the US government, never implemented the Third United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS-3) which – after years of bitter opposition from the United States and other great naval powers – made the 200-mile coastal limit part of international law. Implementation of UNCLOS-3 would have required an open public discussion on the difference between an “economic management zone” and a sovereign 200-mile territorial limit. Canada only ratified UNCLOS-3 in 1995, thirteen years after it was adopted in 1982.

Canada borders three oceans and has the longest coastline (almost 250,000 km), the largest archipelago, and the second largest continental shelf (6.5 million km2) of any country in the world. Canada’s oceans represent almost two thirds of its territorial land mass. The area of Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone alone covers roughly half of Canada’s land mass.

Nowhere in Canadian law is it defined as to what precisely a so-called “economic zone” is. This means it is whatever the executive decree or the federal cabinet decides, a precept also known as Royal Prerogative, or ruling by Executive Decree, according to what favours the dominant interests of the day. If that involves organizing the neo-colonial collection of an economic rent from the use of the zone by foreign countries and/or corporate interests, such as in the fisheries and oil and gas, and selling out the interests of the Canadian people and the marine environment, so be it.

Canada cites its variety of acts covering the 200-mile zone and the marine environment – Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Fisheries Act, the Oceans Act, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act – as exemplifying a “fair” system designed to protect “conservation” since it is allegedly “rules-based.” These laws all have lengthy and technically detailed Regulations, each of which states that changes are to be made by “the Governor-in-Council,” i.e., by Order of the Cabinet and not by Parliament.

The federal authorities with its Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and DFO, whose current minister is Halifax West MP Geoff Reagan, claim to include civil society in a consultative capacity about environmental issues. We have a plethora of “stakeholder” groups with the feds, the province, the HRM and NGOs allegedly representing “civil society.” The Act, read more closely, explicitly states this is merely a privilege:

“Public involvement in a screening is at the discretion of the responsible authority and depends on factors such as the nature of the project, its environmental setting and public concerns.” [emphasis added]

“If the responsible authority decides to solicit public input as part of the environmental assessment, this input will be taken into consideration when the responsible authority decides the next step in the environmental assessment process. Where the responsible authority has determined that public participation is appropriate, it must provide an opportunity for the public to examine and comment on the screening report.” (CEAA website)

Let us look at that again: “Public involvement in a screening is at the discretion of the responsible authority.” People have no right with regard to decisions made that affect the natural environment.

For example, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) implemented the entire ITQ policy (Individual Transferable Quotas) for corporatization of the ocean fisheries on this basis, also without reference to Parliament. A sea change in the fisheries was brought about behind the backs of the Canadian people, without debate, discussion or their approval, let alone discussion in the Canadian parliament. All the concessions to the foreign fishing fleets of the North West Atlantic Fisheries Organization, including both the imposition and the lifting of orders to close access to Canadian ports for vessels from designated countries such as Russia or Spain, have also been made on this executive basis. The Regulations are themselves drafted in close consultation with the experts of the corporate interests involved and their specific financial and commercial needs of the day, sometimes together with “consultants” from compliant federal NGOs subsidized by the government.

But the central issue remains the attitude adopted towards defending national sovereignty and the society itself. What has emerged in Canada is a political and moral abandonment of sovereignty disguised as laws and administrative regulations.

Anti-popular uses of an arbitrarily-defined “sovereignty”

An anti-social, neo-liberal offensive has grown to sea as well as on land. This offensive of the most powerful monopolies and the financial oligarchy aims at seizing every aspect of the oceans and extracting maximum profit. It is gutting and privatizing essential marine services of the state, from offshore support services to harbour infrastructure, according to a neo-liberal, anti-national agenda.

One of the main hallmarks of the anti-social offensive is the precept that society has no responsibility towards its members. The fundamental rights of Canadians to a safe environment and benefits from our natural resources together with an independent economy are considered to be merely “costs” which must be sacrificed to support the oil multinationals in the name of “jobs” and other high-sounding ideals.

Every time the coastal communities stand up to defend sovereignty and our nation and demand that the marine environment be protected, they are either viciously arrested – as with the thirteen hook-and-line fishermen from Cape Sable Island in South West Nova Scotia (August, 1997) who were convicted under trumped-up illegal fishing charges by the courts at the behest of the DFO. Massive pressure is also brought to conciliate and participate in “consensus building exercises,” “co-existence” and “strategic partnerships” with the oil and corporate fishing interests and the state, as occurred with the people of western Cape Breton and the Northumberland Strait in their unsuccessful struggle against seismic testing by corporate oil within the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Like many such problems in Canada, this issue has its own history of highly uneven and anarchic development. This particular national problem is pronounced on the Atlantic coast and Newfoundland, due to the subjugation of Canada’s oil and gas sector from production through consumption by the United States.

Irrespective of whether we are speaking of offshore or onshore supply, Canada is self-sufficient in energy resources, but it has been rendered dependent on the interests of the foreign, mainly American oil multinationals. As a result Canada is – absurdly enough – a net importer of fossil fuels. The bankruptcy of the nation in this regard is illustrated by the fact that the estimated “lifespan” of the oil sands in central and northern Alberta alone is more than 900 years at present rates of US consumption and is several times the known reserves in Saudi Arabia.

Today four oil monopolies control almost the entire fossil fuel industry, from pumping crude oil out of the ground to pumping refined gasoline into your car. These molochs make profits at every step of the way through extraction, refining and retailing. Canada is one of the few oil-producing nations in the world that does not have its own public oil company, as Petro Canada, a formerly public company, fell victim to privatization as part of the anti-social destruction of the Canadian nation by the Liberals. According to information released with the 2004-2005 Canadian federal budget in Parliament, the public’s remaining 19 per cent share of Petro Canada, worth $2.8-billion, is to be sold off as soon as possible. The annexation of this economic sector is intensifying as exploration increases on the basis of heightened foreign investment as part of the worldwide struggle to control fossil fuel, and the export of natural gas without limit to the US becomes a principal preoccupation of Canadian energy policy.

The US stranglehold over oil and gas in Atlantic Canada

Historically, the so-called two-price policy began under the Louis St. Laurent Liberal government following World War II at the behest of the United States as part of developing Western oil sources and keeping Ontario manufacturers supplied from those sources. This “national oil policy” divided Canada into two zones, with Canada east of Quebec entirely at the mercy of crude oil imported by Anglo-American oil from Venezuela, Western Africa and the Middle East, rather than domestically produced, refined and transported energy.

Regardless of the toppling of the St. Laurent government by the Diefenbaker forces over the issue of sovereignty and US control of a trans-Canada oil pipeline, pipelines were built from Alberta to Ontario and Quebec. But no pipeline was ever built past Montreal to Atlantic Canada. (The first ever pipeline constructed in the Atlantic region was built at the end of the 1990s to transport natural gas from the Sable Island field directly to fuel United States market.) Following the October 1973 War in the Middle East, the oil-producing states which were members of OPEC tripled the price of oil in retaliation to Washington’s support of Israel. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced his National Energy Policy which, among other things, boosted oil refining capacity in Eastern Canada. Yet, under this “national” policy, the foreign oil multinationals maintained a stranglehold on refining capacity. Retail prices of the gasoline refined from the crude oil could be fixed as well and the consumer made to pay through the nose.

Consequently, about 90 per cent of the petroleum products shipped to or from Canada are destined for refineries in eastern ports. These are:

–   The foreign-owned Come-by-Chance refinery (North Atlantic Refining Ltd.) in Newfoundland;

–   The foreign-owned Imperial Oil Refinery in Dartmouth (Imperial Oil owns about 2,500 Esso stations across Canada), across the harbour from Halifax, which in turn supplies Irving gas stations and fuel oil in Nova Scotia;

–   The foreign-dependent Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, NB, which in turn supplies Imperial Oil gas stations and fuel in New Brunswick, along with the rest of the Iriving chain of gas stations in New Brunswick and into Maine; and

–   The foreign-owned Ultramar refinery on the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City.

Most of the oil spills and the danger of oil pollution are thus also along the coast and shipping lanes of Atlantic Canada.

Disastrous consequences of foreign control over strategic resources

Starting under the brief Joe Clark government with John Crosbie, an otherwise all-American Newfoundland offshore oil mini-baron, as Finance minister and continuing under the Trudeau government which replaced it with the promise not to increase gas prices by eighteen cents a gallon, lucrative concessions to offshore exploration and development were given to the largest Anglo-American oil trusts to find more profitable sources of oil and natural gas. This resulted in a sharp expansion of offshore exploration and production, construction and siting of massive offshore oil platforms, shuttle tankers and new onshore terminals for transhipment to New England markets.

Known as the “megaprojects” approach for so-called economic development, this contributed to rising government deficits, devastation of the marine environment, takeover of space on the offshore fishing grounds, acceleration of the economic decay of coastal communities, and such criminal atrocities as the sinking of the Texas-owned Ocean Ranger drilling platform during a severe storm on 15 February 1982, with the loss of the entire crew of 84, mostly Newfoundlanders, in the Hibernia oil field on the Continental Shelf, about 175 km southeast of St. John’s.

This remains the worst tragedy ever to strike the offshore oil industry of this region and one of the worst slaughters of industrial workers in Canada in modern times. This disaster – far being an isolated event, let alone “accident” – shows how indifference about national sovereignty becomes a life and death question.

The report of the Hickman Inquiry (named after T. Alex Hickman, chief justice of the Newfoundland Supreme Court) published in 1984 documented that although there was a Newfoundland “petroleum directorate” as well as a federal regulatory body responsible for various aspects of the drilling program, neither was explicitly responsible for the safety and security of the workers on the ocean. There existed no rules or enforcement compelling the rig operator to ensure safety checks. The rig’s US owners in Houston accepted the authority of the US Coast Guard over issues involving safety – but there was no Canadian body with authority to regulate or even enforce existing safety orders issued earlier on this rig from that body. No criminal prosecution was ever initiated. The US corporation went free as a bird. The safety and security of the workers was incidental to monopoly right.

Splitting the polity in order to tighten the yoke

At the level of the provinces, despite repeated claims for job creation and offshore training, what emerges is a consistent pattern of Newfoundland and Nova Scotian premiers and cabinets linking themselves to the annexation of the offshore, the continental shelf and the sea-lanes.

Regardless of jurisdictional fights and rivalries between these two provinces, or with the federal government, the extension of their fiefdoms, especially by enhancing the clout of the most powerful local business groups, hand in glove with servicing foreign expansion, remain their polestar. Offshore service contracts were offered and arranged, provincial investment in the oil fields underwritten, risky exploration ventures financed, and bond issues on Wall Street floated. Need manpower? Technical training, “safety” programs and institutes were broadened as other university programs were cut and the people paid through the nose. Increasingly, as popular opposition grew, the provincial and federal governments invested in greenwashing and disinformation, unleashing a political “public” and “environmental assessment process” designed to conciliate the people’s anger and liquidate their struggle by presenting these agencies as neutral and impartial arbiters. This “environmental assessment process” had other aims behind the scenes: to sort out contradictions amongst the powerful, e.g., the differences between the Clearwater Fisheries and the oil monopolies over lifting the moratorium on exploration on Georges Bank off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia.

Canada’s geopolitical role in the U.S. Empire as an international trans-shipment point on the Atlantic Rim: Nothing fortuitous at Come-by-Chance

A MAJOR BENEFICIARY of Trudeau’s National Energy Policy was the massive new oil refinery in Come-by-Chance – located on Placentia Bay, NL about 130 km northwest of St. John’s. This refinery was built in 1970 by a consortium involving members of the Nixon administration, including secretary of the interior Rogers Morton, a former oil executive, and headed by John Shaheen, a director of the CIA. [1] The Come by Chance refinery had major geopolitical significance for American imperialism, the self-proclaimed champion of free trade around the world, and its control of transoceanic shipping of crude petroleum to refineries with access to tidewater.

For this superpower, the sea is but a mere road to move the troops and weapons to bases on distant shores, to annex foreign countries, to blockade countries that refuse to submit to its dictate, to bring the plundered oil and other natural resources along with the cheap commodities back to fuel the capitalist economy, and to export the manufactured goods in the fastest possible time. The sea is a strategic part of the violent struggle for world domination by the monopolies and their client states. The USA annexes entire regions of the world through its control of sea-lanes. The North Atlantic sea-lanes have always been vital to the rise and expansion of each of the modern colonial empires, be French, Spanish, German, British, Russian or American. Through different regulatory bodies, such as the International Maritime Authority of the shipping trusts, these powers dictate regulations governing limits of the territorial sea, trade, shipping, navigation, transit rights through straits, and fisheries exploitation or seabed exploration, demanding that all seafaring and coastal states submit. This is effectively enforced, extended and rendered infinitely lucrative on the World Ocean through the powers and authorities of the World Bank when it comes to offshore development, especially with regard  to developing countries.

Drunk with triumphalist power following the seizure of Iraq, the oil trusts and their allies in the Bush cabinet are demanding the elimination of any barriers to transoceanic oil and naval shipping, something to be enhanced by the common North American security perimeter and the demands for new expenditures for maritime coastal and port “surveillance” under the pretext of “security” and “public safety,” “interdicting the drug trade” and stopping “asylum seekers.” The White House has deemed shipping to be “critical infrastructure” and has placed it under the Homeland Security Department. The Martin government has added a homeland “public safety” department alongside the existing office of critical infrastructure established under the Chrétien government. Under the pretext of the “war on terror,” numerous studies and reports have been prepared, especially by the Senate and a raft of terrorologists, regarding maritime coastal security.

Canada is fully participating and vying for its “seat at the table.” The government has continuously deployed naval and air power thousands of miles from the coastlines of Canada to protect multinational oil tankers in the “vital oil shipping routes” from the oil-rich Arabian peninsula through the Persian Gulf since the first Guld War in 1991 throughout the entire decade of the 1990s to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the auspices of Operation Apollo (aka Operation Enduring Freedom). In short, Canada actively participated in a war of aggression and national subjugation in violation of the United Nations Charter while allowing its own resources and territory at home to be annexed and integrated into the United States.

What is envisioned is a type of full-fledged medieval system based on large-scale refining and production carried out on a global scale. The website of North Atlantic Refining Ltd. expresses this geo-strategy as follows:

“The Refinery’s location and infrastructure provide distinct competitive advantages. North Atlantic Refining is situated closer to the international sources of sweet crude (North Sea and West Africa) and sour crude (Arabian Gulf) than all refineries in the United States. Also, the transshipment terminal for the huge crude oil fields located in the Canadian Grand Banks is situated very near the Refinery, providing an inexpensive and steady supply of crude oil.

“Further, North Atlantic Refining enjoys the benefit of having the largest refinery dock in North America and tankage of 7.2 million barrels evenly divided between crude and products. This allows the Refinery to receive vessels in excess of 326,000 dwt. The premium quality products manufactured by North Atlantic Refining are marketed throughout the world. However, the primary market for the production is the Northeastern United States, which is a structurally short geographic region.”

What is astonishing is that such endeavours are being financed by extracting tribute from the Canadian people and that they are casually justified by governments and the media in the name of addressing people’s concerns about the environment, from oil pollution to climate change.

For example, sulphur pollution is an enormous preoccupation in many pulp and paper towns across Canada as well as around oil refineries. Beginning in 2005, the National Energy Board (NEB) has decreed that gasoline produced or imported into Canada must meet an annual average sulphur content of 30 ppm. Petro Canada, owner and operator of a refinery in Oakville, Ontario is using this as a pretext to close its refinery and eliminate up to 350 jobs, claiming it could not afford the $200-300 million upgrade to the Oakville refinery. Though privatized, Petro Canada is still a company in which the Canadian government has an 18 per cent ownership stake. Whose interest is being served?

At the same time:

1.   $200m is being invested in the Come-by-Chance refinery to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions and to add a 200,000 barrel butane storage facility, presented as an environmental improvement or upgrade. The decisions by the NEB are leading to intensified oil and refined gasoline shipping into eastern Canada and the oil trusts are using greenwashing over sulphur emissions and the concern over global warming to concentrate and further monopolize refinery production in Canada entirely for foreign markets.

2.   The Irving Oil refinery in Saint John has been similarly upgraded to produce more than 250,000 barrels per day, financed by hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, some from the federal Department of the Environment.

3.   The NEB recently allowed Trans-Northern Pipelines, one-third owned by Shell, Petro-Canada and Imperial Oil, to reverse its pipeline from Ontario to Montreal, meaning that it may for the first time ship gasoline refined in Europe, off-load it at the Trans-Northern refinery in Montreal and pipeline it down to the Toronto-area market, replacing the product from the Oakville refinery.

4.   The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board has approved seismic testing by Corridor Resources just off the coast of western Cape Breton after a two-year “public review process.” Seismic testing has intensified nearby off western Newfoundland and preparations are underway for seismic testing amongst the icebergs of the Davis Straits off the coast of Labrador. The natural gas off Labrador accounts for one-third of all gas resources on the East Coast.

Annexation no, sovereignty yes

In 1867 the Anglo-Canadian colonial elite of that era established the Canadian federation as a new arrangement to unify and centralize the existing colonies, integrate the nation of Quebec and expand westwards, as a mechanism of defence against American expansionism and “manifest destiny.” Today the ruling elite clings to outmoded 19th century concepts of empire-building, viewing sovereignty as territory – land, labour and resources – to be bought and sold as a bargaining chip to enrich their class, and have abandoned nation-building for the complete annexation and integration into the United States under the dictatorship of the most powerful monopolies. The supposedly sovereign country of Canada is converted into a geographical bargaining chip. Canada is not a country inhabited by people who desire to control their own lives, a country that has within it the nation of Quebec and numerous Native peoples with their own aspirations. This ruling elite sees Canada merely as a stepping-stone, a base for the grandiose expansion of their monopolies onto the global stage under the flag of U.S. imperialism.

Canadians are organizing for the democratic renewal of the nation. The rejection of the 19th century definitions of sovereignty as something merely delimited by territory is crucial to developing modern definitions of sovereignty based on rights vested in the polity as sovereign.

The main lesson for the entire country from all these developments is that nothing is more precious than freedom and independence. They cannot be for sale, on land or sea, in the energy field or any other sphere of the economy, politics and culture of Canada.

Our series

REFLECTIONS ON ‘EL PRESTIGE’ OIL DISASTER: (Part 1) Two years on, the killer spill continues

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 2) The marine environment and sovereignty – lessons for Canada

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 3) ‘Don’t make me fish off Cape St. Mary’s’


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  1. Pingback: Hiroshima and Halifax | Tony Seed's Weblog

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