11/23/2011 04:30 EST | Updated 01/22/2012 05:12 EST

Ethan Hawke Bites Back At Proposed St. Lawrence Offshore Drilling


TORONTO - A Hollywood heavyweight who routinely seeks refuge from the limelight on Canada's East Coast is calling on the country's energy industry to abandon its plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The pristine wilderness of Nova Scotia captured Ethan Hawke's attention 12 years ago when he was visiting a friend, so moving him that he decided to buy a part-time retreat for himself and his family.

That wilderness, Hawke said, is now under threat from plans to begin offshore oil drilling in the gulf, an expanse of some 236,000 square kilometres that spans five provinces.

"At every turn, when humanity is asked the question, 'Do you want temporary economic gain or long-term environmental loss, which one do you prefer,' we invariably choose the money," Hawke told The Canadian Press in an interview from New York City.

"It's totally understandable, but I feel like we're reaching, as a community, some kind of crisis point."

Hawke, who rose to stardom in 1994 during his turn as an aimless musician in "Reality Bites" and earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance in 2001's "Training Day," says last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico offers a terrifying glimpse of what could happen if offshore exploration is allowed to move forward.

Quite apart from marring the scenic landscape, Hawke said the provinces bounding the gulf would suffer untold economic and cultural hardships if oil contamination damaged the fisheries that sustain employment in the area.

Even exploratory drilling in the St. Lawrence could disturb the fragile ecosystem, Hawke said, noting that the Gulf of Mexico was suffering well before last year's offshore BP disaster, which saw nearly 4.9 million barrels of crude spew into the ocean over three months.

"We need to understand that we are putting it at risk," he said. "Whether there's an accident or not, I can tell you even before the BP spill, the Maritimes does not want their ocean to look like Galveston, Texas."

The prospect of drilling in the area has grown closer to reality in recent years. Halifax-based Corridor Resources Inc. has announced plans to drill a single exploratory well at the Old Harry prospect near the Iles-de-la-Madeleine, which falls under the purview of Newfoundland and Labrador.

While Quebec currently has a province-wide moratorium on offshore drilling, no such measures exist in Newfoundland.

The province's offshore regulator said the Old Harry project is subject to careful scrutiny and will not proceed without a thorough assessment of all environmental concerns.

A spokesman for the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board said Old Harry is currently being evaluated in two environmental assessments — one commissioned by Corridor, the other a public consultation led by former New Brunswick ombudsman Bernard Richard.

But Jean-Patrick Toussaint, science project manager with the David Suzuki Foundation, said the public inquiry's scope is too narrow to be of benefit to the gulf. Richard's mandate bars him from making binding recommendations and will only see him visit a limited number of locations, Toussaint said.

Even if the reviews resulted in rigorous environmental safeguards, the ecosystem would be exposed to contamination, he added.

"Anything to do with exploratory drilling is bound to have some sort of repercussions," Toussaint said. "There's always some small to medium spills just by the simple fact of having oil activity."

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said such considerations factor heavily in all decisions related to land or offshore development.

Provincial regulators exist to ensure a balance between local economic interests and wider ecological concerns, Davies said.

"If you look at the big picture, there's certainly economic input for the provinces and federal entities that are involved, but none of that happens in a vacuum where the environment isn't important," he said. "You've got to consider all three, whether it's energy supply, economics and environment."

A coalition of citizens and special interest groups living along the gulf no balance is possible in this case, adding

The Gulf of St. Lawrence, however, is a special case, says a coalition of local residents and special interest groups in the area, which they argue has a unique environmental profile that makes it unsuitable for exploration at Old Harry or anywhere else.

Mary Gorman, founding member of the Save our Seas and Shores coalition, said the site of the Old Harry prospect is located on an artery through which thousands of marine species migrate in and out of the gulf each year.

Gorman said the ice cover on parts of the estuary would hinder clean-up efforts from potential spills, while the gulf's complex counter-clockwise currents ensure that any environmental debris will eventually reach the shores of Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Provincial attempts to regulate drilling activity are fruitless, she warned, and only a complete moratorium on oil and gas exploration will adequately protect the area.

"To have our provinces trying to do these piecemeal environmental assessments as if fish are static in water and never move, it's pure folly and it's extremely dangerous," she said.

Hawke's decision to speak up marks the second prominent Hollywood intervention in Canadian affairs of energy and the environment in almost as many days.

On Monday, celluloid superstar Robert Redford — already a vocal critic of the proposed Keystone XL bitumen pipeline linking Canadian energy to the U.S. Gulf Coast — published an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail newspaper decrying the source of that bitumen: the controversial oilsands development near Fort McMurray, Alta.

The piece also condemned the Northern Gateway pipeline, Enbridge Inc.'s proposed 1,200-kilometre project to transport oil from the oilsands to northern B.C.

It would cleave the territories "of more than 50 First Nations groups, slicing through rivers and streams that form one of the most important salmon habitats in the world and putting at risk the coastal ecosystem of British Columbia,'' Redford wrote in his environmental cross-border call to arms.

"Americans don't want to see that happen any more than Canadians do, and we'll stand by you to fight it."

For Hawke, the danger encompasses more than the scenic vistas visible from his rural retreat. He said he believes a fundamentally Canadian way of life is at stake.

"I think having nature be a part of people's lives helps all of us see ourselves as part of something larger," Hawke said.

"When the wind and the rain and the sun and all that stuff is ... a part of your life, you're not under the false illusion that you control everything, like a little thermostat thing that you can yell at the guy to fix.

"I think it makes for an authentic people. I can only say it's been really good for my kids and really good for me."

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press