Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill S-15, which would amend the Canada National Parks Act to create the Sable Island national park reserve of Canada, the culmination of years of work by the Governments of Canada and Nova Scotia and by various stakeholders to protect Sable Island's unique nature and ecosystem. At present, Sable Island, an ecological gem, is afforded little protection and does not have protected status.
Sable Island lies approximately 290 kilometres southeast of Nova Scotia. It is a long, crescent-shaped island in the North Atlantic. While its topography is characterized by sand dunes and grasses, it is home to a significant biodiversity, including 375 wild horses, 350 species of birds, 190 plant species and the largest colony of grey seals in the world.
Sable Island is world-renowned not only for its biodiversity but for its shipwrecks. Since 1583, there have been more than 350 recorded shipwrecks on or near the island, earning it the title of “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.
Given the unique ecosystem found on the island, in 2004 the federal and Nova Scotia governments concluded that it would be in the public interest to use a federally protected area designation to achieve conservation objectives for Sable Island.
In 2010, a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, was signed to establish a federally protected area on Sable Island. Following the MOU, public consultations were held with members of the public and with the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia to consider whether to establish a national wildlife area under the Canada Wildlife Act or a national park under the Canada National Parks Act.
In the end, the consultations recommended that Sable Island be designated a national park, and on October 17, 2011, the Governments of Canada and Nova Scotia signed an MOU to establish a national park on Sable Island.
The island will be designated as a national park reserve in recognition of the fact that the island is subject to a claim of the Mi'kmaq. The Mi'kmaq and the Governments of Nova Scotia and Canada are currently negotiating this claim. The designation as a national park reserve allows the governments to continue these land claim negotiations.
Conserving Sable Island poses a challenge because of the wealth of resources in and around the island. Sable Island has been at the centre of oil and gas activities for the last 50 years. Offshore hydrocarbon exploration began in the 1960s. To date, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board has made 23 significant discovery declarations in offshore Nova Scotia, eight of which have been declared commercial discoveries. From the commercial discoveries, 53 billion cubic metres of natural gas has been produced from Sable Island offshore energy fields.
Bill S-15 would put into law an existing prohibition against drilling on Sable Island. Importantly, five oil companies that have been granted exploration licences for on-island drilling have voluntarily agreed to relinquish these rights.
Let me say clearly that the Liberal Party is strongly in favour of the establishment of Sable Island national park reserve. Sable Island must be protected. In fact, the bill coming out of the Senate had the support of Liberal Party senators.
However, the Liberal Party has concerns with the legislation that we feel are important and should be addressed at the committee stage. The Liberal Party would like to ensure that rigorous environmental protections and safeguards are maintained for this national park reserve. As well, we must ensure that any concerns by the Mi'kmaq with regard to the legislation have the opportunity to be addressed.
Liberals also have several concerns regarding the extent and oversight of natural resource development that Bill S-15 authorizes, specifically as it permits horizontal drilling underneath the island as well as low-impact exploration activities on the island. We would like to know what the government defines as “low impact” and what the effect would be on species at risk.
The Liberal Party is in favour of responsible and sustainable resource development. However, we believe that development projects like these must adhere to the most stringent environmental assessments. We must ensure that Sable Island is environmentally protected and that development does not detrimentally affect the ecosystem.
We understand the economic value that developing the oil and gas resources in and surrounding Sable Island would provide Nova Scotia. However, Sable Island is a particularly sensitive ecosystem and is, as I have mentioned, home to a wealth of biodiversity as well as many species at risk, and it is important to find the right balance.
Other concerns include the following. The bill contains changes to the dedication clause, as well as changes to land borders in Jasper National Park, while the exchange of land between Parks Canada and the operators of Marmot Basin would have a detrimental impact on species in the area.
Another concern regards clause 3, an exception to the application of the Canada National Parks Act with regard to existing leases, easements and licence of occupation and work on Sable Island. Why the allowance of renewal of licences? How many leases and licences are currently in place that affect Sable Island? We have also asked for that list from the minister's office and hope it will be provided at committee stage. We would also like to know how clause 6 corresponds with clause 3 with regard to the extension of leases on Sable Island.
In clause 7, what would be the new mechanism for coordination and co-operation between Parks Canada and the offshore petroleum board?
In the amendments to the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Resources Accord Implementation Act, it states,
“Before deciding whether to issue the authorization, the Board shall consider any advice...”.
Is the offshore board not bound to the recommendation of Parks Canada? We would like to know who is looking after the interests of the environment and Sable Island if the offshore board is not bound by the decision.
Regarding clause 8, is the Conservative government not concerned with petroleum exploration activities, which might include systemic geological or geophysical programs on Sable Island?
What other activities might fall under the definition of “low-impact petroleum exploration”? What work has been undertaken to study the impacts of any programs?
Clause 14 amends the designation from utility zone to commercial zone in Yoho National Park of Canada. What changes come with the change of designation?
On clause 15, with regard to Jasper National Park, with the exchange of land and the new development, are there any areas of concern with regard to the environment and species at risk in this new area that will be developed?
The Liberal Party supports the creation of Sable Island National Park Reserve and would not block or even slow down its creation as it represents years of work by the government and stakeholders.
In fact, our environmental critic, the member for Etobicoke North, had a conference call with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, which focuses on protecting many important areas of Canada's wilderness, to confirm what aspects it was comfortable with in the bill. Even if the bill went to committee, amendments would likely not be accepted. Based on the history of the government, would society be comfortable with the bill?
I believe the government does want Sable Island protected and Bill S-15 is an important first step.
In closing, I ask that the government not use the bill as a precedent to allow exploration in other national parks. As well, I hope it will allow a number of witnesses to appear before the Standing Committee on the Environment so that concerns can be appropriately addressed and, if necessary, the bill amended so that this special national park reserve can be established.