Analysis: Province launches coastal consultation

by Charles Mandel

Concerned over climate change and rising sea levels, the provincial government announced on June 26 that it is launching public consultations on future coastal protection legislation.

"We know climate change is already having an impact on our sea levels. Our legislation will be designed to protect this important natural asset, while also ensuring the industries and cultures that rely on it can continue to do that for generations to come," Environment Minister Iain Rankin said in a statement.

But while the consultations appear to factor in things like new construction along the coast, it significantly downplays the impact of industry, such as aquaculture and offshore oil exploration, for example.

The province is proposing coastal protection legislation with clear rules on what can and cannot be done in areas next to the coast. This will help ensure that new construction happens in places that are less likely to be threatened by coastal erosion, rising sea levels and storm surges.

At the same time, it would ensure that salt marshes, dunes and other coastal features can continue to filter water, shelter birds and sea life, and adapt more naturally to the impact of climate change, according to the province's release.

"The coast is dynamic and has its own ways of adapting and restoring itself," said Nancy Anningson, coastal adaptation senior coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre.

"As we face sea-level rise, storm surges, flooding and other climate change impacts, we need to let nature do the work. Dunes, salt marshes and natural vegetation provide buffers to protect us. We need to protect those natural defences."

At the same time it made the announcement, the government released its Coastal Protection Legislation Consultation Document.

Notes the document: "Our prosperity is closely tied to the sea and our coastal nature. Ships come here - and are built here. We feast on our local sea catch and export sea products around the world."

Indeed, according to the document, Nova Scotia possesses 13,300 kilometres of coastline.

At the same time the document states, "the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that sea level will continue to rise. This, combined with regional conditions in Atlantic Canada, where some of our land base is sinking, means Nova Scotia may experience significant sea-level change in the coming decades.

"Some experts estimate sea-level rise of between 0.7 and 1.4 meters by the end of this century."

Some of the things the new legislation is expected to define include which activities might be restricted within a coastal protection zone; as well as the definition of what that zone would be and how the law applies to it.

The document also strongly hints at how the government would approach industry - and that appears to be with hands off.

"How do we respect commercial and industrial uses?" the document asks rhetorically.

It goes on to point out that seafood is the province's number one export, valued at $2-billion annually, and that the sector employs thousands of Nova Scotians.

"How do we keep out of the way of the economic activities that sustain us? This includes activities covered by the Fisheries and Coastal Resources Act and the Marine Renewable Energy Act - fish processing, aquaculture, rockweed harvesting. Fishing and aquaculture will be exempt, but how do we define this exemption?" the document questions.

Rather, disingenuously, it adds: "What other economic activities must we keep out of the way of?"

The document goes on to say that the province wants to ensure the new law also respect approved activities under other federal and provincial laws, including aquaculture leases; projects approved under the Marine Renewable Energy Act; and projects or activities that have been approved under the Environment Act.

While offshore oil may not be seen as a coastal issue, the fact of the matter is if an offshore drilling rig experiences a catastrophic oil spill, it's entirely possible that that oil could make its way to the coast, fouling thousands of kilometres of coastline, and killing fish and birds.

The scenario doesn't seem so far-fetched given last week's spill of 136,000 litres of synthetic drilling mud by BP Canada at its well site some 300 kilometres off the coast of the South Shore.

The public can have their say online by visiting novascotia.ca/coast. The consultation will be open until Friday, Aug. 17. Members of the public who do not have access to the Internet can request a paper copy by calling 902-424-2547.

Staff will also be holding sessions throughout the summer with municipalities, the Mi'kmaq, fisheries groups and others with a specific interest in the coast.

"Nova Scotia is leading the way in fighting climate change. We've increased our sources of renewable energy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and we're developing a cap and trade program that will keep that momentum going. Now, we are moving to protect our coast," Rankin added.

True coastal protection and genuine public consultation won't soft pedal the impact of industry; but will honestly and vigorously take into account and look at balancing economic activity with firm guidelines for meaningful coastal protection.

Anything less is just lip service.

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