ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The UNESCO world heritage committee is recommending a monitoring mission be sent to Canada over "serious concerns" about potential oil exploration near Gros Morne National Park.
Gros Morne, with its glacier-carved fjords, waterfalls, sandy beaches and spectacular cliffs, is a hiker's paradise that was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987.
But there are growing concerns about a proposal by Shoal Point Energy Ltd. (CNSX:SPE) and Black Spruce Exploration, a subsidiary of Foothills Capital Corp., to hunt for oil in shale rock layers in enclaves surrounded by the park.
The plan involves using hydraulic fracturing — the contentious so-called fracking process — to drill several exploration wells on Newfoundland's west coast in the Green Point shale near Gros Morne.
Fracking injects a blend of water, sand and chemicals underground to crack the rock. The process has coaxed massive amounts of oil and natural gas from shales across North America but has also raised environmental red flags, particularly over its effects on crucial groundwater.
The world heritage committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — or UNESCO — is meeting this week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where Gros Morne was discussed. At stake is the coveted designation reserved for the globe's most extraordinary treasures.
The committee approved a draft decision late Wednesday which urged the completion of an Environmental Impact Assessment process to review the potential impact of the fracking plan on the park, and asked that a copy of that assessment be submitted to UNESCO.
It also requested Canada to invite a "joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN reactive monitoring mission to the property to assess these risks."
Additionally, the committee also wants, by Feb 1, 2014, an updated report on the state of conservation of the property.
Potential fracking plans have not yet been filed for environmental assessment, but even the prospect of industrialization along one of the world's most celebrated coastlines has some people worried.
"I'm certainly not anti-development," said Sue Rendell, owner and operator of Gros Morne Adventures in Norris Point. But she said it's vital that any new industry be well researched and understood, environmentally safe, and that it blend well with other businesses to benefit the whole region.
"We've spent our lives here trying to help build the tourism industry and build a business in this area," she said. "I recognize that the oil and gas industry has been tremendous for the province.
"I think it's also very important to have a diversified economy. And we certainly can't have one industry that's going to be in direct opposition to another industry."
Premier Kathy Dunderdale earlier this week acknowledged concerns about the safety of fracking and a lack of specific provincial regulations. She said the environment, along with health and safety, are top priorities for her Progressive Conservative government.
"As a government we don't have a hard and fast position on it at this point," she told reporters outside an oil and gas industry conference Tuesday. "We're learning the same as everybody else is learning, and prepared to have an open dialogue on that."
Regulatory changes could come later even as the government considers fracking proposals such as the one near Gros Morne, Dunderdale said. Investors want certainty and clarity, she acknowledged.
"But that doesn't trump the interests or the concerns of the people of the province. So that has to be addressed first."
Robert Cadigan, president and CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association, said it's important to separate fact from fear.
"There have been tens of thousands of wells fracked in Western Canada, just as an example — successfully — with no environmental damage."
Cadigan said the industry's track record should be fairly assessed to see what precautions for well design and other safeguards would be needed.
Alison Woodley, of the watchdog group Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said UN world heritage designation for Gros Morne can't be taken for granted.
"It's a very strict test that you have to go through to become a world heritage site. It recognizes the outstanding universal value of a place."
Gros Morne, honoured for its geological importance and pristine beauty, is on par with other UNESCO sites such as the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef, Woodley said. It could be de-listed if the world heritage committee ultimately decides that its unique qualities are threatened, she added.
Fracking would pose environmental hazards while increasing truck traffic on the park's only major road, Woodley said.
"For 30 years people have worked really hard to build a sustainable tourism industry around Gros Morne, based on Gros Morne. And this proposal would put that existing economy at risk."