The icy waters off Sable Island mean different things to different people. For mariners they are the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," where shifting sands have claimed hundreds of ships over the centuries. But generations of fishermen have pursued the natural fortune in seafood species attracted to the nutritive waters.
These days, Sable Island, which is off the coast of Nova Scotia, means something new: natural-gas reserves, enough to heat hundreds of thousands of homes for many years to come. A formidable consortium of energy companies is seeking permission to go ahead with a $3-billion pipeline and offshore-drilling project to exploit the undersea gas.
The massive project would provide fresh gas supplies to New England and export earnings for Canada. But it also has attracted a wide range of critics with their own opinions.
"This is the start of a brand new industry [for Atlantic Canada]," says Graeme Connell, spokesman for the Sable Offshore Energy Project, a consortium dominated by industry giants Mobil and Shell.
For now, the project would consist of a network of production wells and drilling platforms scattered near the edge of the continental shelf about 141 miles off Nova Scotia. Gas would be transported ashore by an undersea pipeline, then pumped through a new pipeline 688 miles across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, and New Hampshire to Boston.
Critics come from many quarters. Many Canadians disapprove of selling their energy resources to the US, although such raw resource exports are at the foundation of the national economy. Homeowners worry about loss of land-use rights if a pipeline crosses their property. Environmentalists and fishermen fear such a massive project may damage Nova Scotia's rich marine ecosystems.
The World Wildlife Fund, Canada, (WWF) is concerned about the project's proximity to The Gully, a vast undersea canyon that is rich in marine life, including a colony of rare bottlenose whales. WWF has been working for years to make the canyon into a Marine Protected Area, and is concerned about the project's effect on local ecology.
The current project would involve only six of some two-dozen gas fields discovered off Sable Island, the closest of which lies 25 miles from the canyon's edge. Project proponents own rights to many other fields, including one lying on the Gully's rim. WWF wants a perpetual ban on drilling that field and the ocean dumping of drill cuttings at all Sable sites, says Cheri Recchia, a campaign director.
Ashore, the proposed Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline (M&NP) has sparked local opposition in small towns scattered along its route because residents fear negative impacts on the land and sea.
Even Quebec's big gas giant Gaz Metropolitain has climbed on board, opposing the proposed pipeline at regulatory hearings in favor of their own route through Quebec. So has Texas-based Tatham Offshore, which wants instead to build an undersea pipeline from the offshore fields off Newfoundland to New Hampshire via the Sable fields - a distance of more than 1,375 miles.
Most opponents are not against the Sable project itself; rather, they want changes made to the pipeline route, the way tolls are paid, or the environmental standards applied to the rigs and pipeline structures. Many see natural gas as a cleaner alternative to burning coal, which produces twice the quantity of greenhouse gases.
But more delays in the hearings could prompt Sable's proponents to throw in the towel. Project officials say they must start pumping gas to Boston by November 1999 in order to compete for long-term New England supply contracts. Due to construction time, Sable must get regulatory approval this September or "we may have to reconsider our involvement," says Bob Foulkes, a MN&P spokesman.