The glitter of black gold

M. C. September 28 1981

The glitter of black gold

M. C. September 28 1981

The glitter of black gold

The old port city of St. John’s sits out on the wing tip of the continent, hovering between the old world and the new. In the fish-packing plant by the harbor mouth, Newfoundlanders still split cod and live with the stink the way they did four centuries ago. But just down the wharf fellow islanders tend the sleek, high-powered symbol of a new economic order—-the Schnoorturm, a supply ship that tends the gigantic, spindly oil drilling rigs on the Grand Banks. In the second engineer’s cabin, crewmen put up their feet and relax after a long two-week steam. “I spent Christmas in the North Sea. I spent my kid’s birthday at sea, and my own birthday at sea,” says Wayne

Bowser, a youngish 40-year-old from Winsloe, P.E.I. It’s not a complaint, just a reminder of the cost of his prosperity. He says, “Without oil I never could have bought a house, or given my son the chance I never had—a college education.” Next to him John Ward’s quiet, thoughtful voice adds more thanks to oil: “If it weren’t for the oil out there, most of these lads would be fishing for a living.” The former fisherman from Freshwater, Placentia Bay, and father of six needs not add that the fishery is in ruins these days.

But Newfoundland’s inheritance has brought its own problems. The captain of the Schnoorturm, Winston Thurlow, a Nova Scotian who slipped past the recent Newfoundlanders-only hiring law because of his long experience in the world’s oil fields, is nonetheless rankled. “The Atlantic provinces have fished together and worked together for years,” he says. “Why can’t we do it now without these rules?” Down on the

docks, Walter Burry feels even more excluded. The 25-year-old native Newfoundlander is one of 7,000 on the provincial government’s off-shore employment list. Bitter that his turn hasn’t come around, he’s moving down the road to Alberta. “Off-shore oil? It’s the pits, boy,” he says. “For all the good oil will do Newfoundland, they might as well set a match to it out where it is now.”

Of all the Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland may have the most to gain from the oil development, or the most to lose in social costs. The shadings given to that distinction have split the province, in very broad terms, into two camps. There are those who advocate caution and who voice concern over the damage oil might bring to the province’s distinctive culture and social order. They take their lead from Premier Brian Peckford’s often-repeated remark, “I hope we can still sing Fs the

B’y that Builds the Boat 15 years from now, and mean it.” And there are those who advocate a more energetic exploitation of the resource and who agree with former energy minister Leo Barry’s dictum: “We’re better off with the problems of affluence than the problems of poverty.”

It will take years to see how much of its character Newfoundland has to trade for the age of oil. But at least one thing is sure: “Oil always hits a place in block capital letters,” as Mark Shrimpton, the research and economics director for the city of St. John’s, puts it. “It is always OIL—there’s a mystique, a mythology attached to it.” In Newfoundland, especially, it is a mythology of rags-to-riches on a grand scale. The mystique was born in September, 1979, when the enormous Hibernia 0-15 well was first declared a potential moneymaker. Lear jets zipped speculators in from as far away as South America, and house prices shot up 22 per cent in 12

months. More than 100 oil-related companies sprouted in St. John’s and the popular song of the hour went: “Black gold, I’m told, will take all our troubles away.”

But it soon became clear that the black gold would not flow from its submarine vaults until 1986 or 1987 at the earliest, and that even then the benefits might bypass the island. The phoney boom was long gone by last July when Hebron, a second viable well near Hibernia, was announced and was barely registered on the front pages. The caution is well-advised since the development is still at its job-poor exploration

stage. In fact, last year off-shore-related spending in the province accounted for less than one per cent of the GNP and barely scratched the conservative unemployment figure of 30,000. Now it is both a critical matter of policy and the reigning parlor game to squint 10 years into the future, straining to see the shape of things to come and how best to prepare for them.

“I think people have difficulty in grasping any concept of the scale of this development,” says Angus Bruneau over a bowl of home-made soup in St.

John’s cosy Ship Inn.

Bruneau, Memorial University’s first dean of engineering, now head of an off-shore oil consulting firm, is one Newfoundlander firmly planted in the vanguard of development.

While he agrees that the pace must not be allowed to get out of hand, he betrays an uncharacteristic irritation over the ownership “fixation” of the government, and the cavils of

the folkloric doomsayers. “We’ve been mesmerized by the provincial interest, the ownership issue,” he says. “The resource stretches for 5,000 miles around to the Beaufort Sea, and St. John’s is one of the few cities close to it. It’s an enormous opportunity for the province to get some sort of development strategy going by linking technology and resources.”

There are certainly plenty of Newfoundland businessmen prepared to take up that opportunity. Old St. John’s diversified firms such as Crosbie Enterprises and Harvey and Co. have set up joint ventures with out-of-province firms and are servicing the off-shore activity. Consulting firms like Bruneau’s, diving companies and a myriad of

others—more than 250—have sprung up. Some are less than grandiose, such as the string of newsstands that Ray Brow, a 26-year-old ex-ship’s officer, is setting up in St. John’s to cater to “the more cosmopolitan people being attracted to the city.” Says Brow: “I’ve nowgot a first for Newfoundland—you can buy the same day’s New York Times at my first newsstand.”

But Brow, like others, has begun to see the costs of oil development. The 100-year-old clapboard house that he and his wife, Sandra, are renovating cost $39,000 last spring—double the price it brought four years earlier. “I’ve

taken advantage of oil, but I wouldn’t mind if it went away tomorrow,” he says. “It’s brought a lot of greed, which you can see in the changing way people do business. With a lot of people a handshake used to be good enough to close a deal, but that’s quickly declining.” Sociologist Doug House, a professor at Memorial University, discerns other subtle changes: “You can already see the personal touch declining in business relations, but it’s more than that. When somebody in St. John’s says, ‘Who’s he?’ they mean what family is he from, what school did he go to. The new definition of who somebody is is going to be based in the future on position, income level, one’s street address.”

Less ephemeral alterations are al-

ready occurring. Inshore fishermen who sail out of St. John’s suspect that the unprecedented, gooey slime that fouls some of their nets comes from the drilling operations. Those reports have raised fears of another Mexico, where blowouts have coated beaches and hundreds of kilometres of ocean. And while Chief Richard Roche of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary doesn’t expect a crime increase of the sort Calgary has experienced, his officers are being trained for such currently rare problems as fraud and drug-related crime.

The question is how much caution is

warranted. The Financial Post recently predicted that Newfoundland’s growth rate in the ’80s will be second only to Alberta’s. And all but the most zealous businessmen agree that some governmental reining-in of the development is advisable to give Newfoundlanders time to prepare for change. But when a concerned Peckford told a crowd of St. John’s businessmen last summer that he was afraid of oil “heating up” the economy dangerously in the future, the ridicule echoed for days down Water Street, where the business community is struggling to weather a 10-year low. “Of course there are costs to development,” says Bruneau with a hint of exasperation, in the manner of a |man watching paupers ^complain about the fine Sprint of a huge inheritance. “We’re still paying gsome social costs for the ¿American occupation here during the war, but they left with skilled work

force and other benefits. You have to look at both sides of development. Besides, who can say what would happen if there were no development—that it would be better that way?”

Oil has historic and human dimensions for Newfoundland and these come together in the person of Dennis Hynes Jr., a thickset crewman on the Schnoorturm. His father and grandparents had to leave the island 30 years ago, when the collapse of the salt cod fishery left them without work. His father was 13 at the time. When Dennis was 13, his father brought him back to Newfoundland. Now 20, he’s plugged solidly into Newfoundland’s great, amorphous economic hope for the future—a hope that has just begun to unfold.

M. C.