SYDNEY — Since no one is interested at the moment in further oil or gas exploration around Sable Island, the Nova Scotia government's attention will now turn to the waters off Cape Breton's northern and eastern shores.
The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board announced Thursday no successful bids were received for exploration on the Scotian Shelf next to the Sable Offshore Energy Project.
The same day, the provincial Energy Department called for proposals from consultants to gather and report data on the geology and potential for oil and gas under the waters off Cape Breton. Provincial documents suggest a new Sydney Basin play fairway analysis will be done early in 2017 in preparation for the possibility of calling for bids from exploration companies.
Energy Minister Michel Samson was unavailable for comment.
Kathleen Funke, communications adviser with the offshore petroleum board, said much of the information contained in the most recent play fairway analysis focused on the Scotian Shelf around Sable Island.
That analysis, done in 2011, reported the waters off the province's Eastern Shore could hold 120 trillion cubic feet of gas and eight billion barrels of oil.
As part of its routine strategic environmental assessment, the board held open house meetings in Cape Breton last year to gather comments on the next areas to go up for bids, known as Sydney Basin and Orpheus Graben.
Those comments can be found on the offshore regulator's website.
The strategic environmental assessment lists the possible impacts of exploration on fish and other animal species that live in or travel through Cape Breton waters, among other things, and outlines the need for mitigation measures and compensation for any losses.
Last year, fisheries groups said they oppose exploration in the Sydney Basin. They said snow crab stocks have been hurt by seismic testing in the past and they are worried about the possible impacts on lobster and other fisheries.
David Ferguson, president of the LFA (lobster fishing area) 27 Management Board based in Baddeck, told the offshore regulator that 2012 landings off Cape Breton included $30 million worth of snow crab and $20 million in lobster, raising what he called "grave concerns."
"Can we afford to expose our resources to yet another round of seismic testing?" he said.
"We believe we cannot afford this. We are not only putting our marine resources at risk, but are also jeopardizing our fishing industry, our coastal communities that rely on this industry and our consumers."
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans also weighed in, with additions and corrections to the assessment.
The only comments in favour of exploration off Cape Breton came from the Maritimes Energy Association, which represents companies that supply goods and services to the oil and gas sector.
The fisheries groups said proving loss is difficult, so mitigation and compensation rules offer no real protection.
Funke stressed that no exploration work has been proposed and none has been approved off Cape Breton yet.
"No companies have come forward to do any work offshore of Cape Breton," she said.
However, in 2005, Hunt Oil Co. of Canada did some seismic testing north of Sydney Harbour.
Meanwhile, Shell Canada has begun drilling in Nova Scotia waters, and BP is conducting an environmental assessment with plans to drill in 2018. Statoil has also bid on a licence but has not begun any physical work, said Funke.