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As tidal-power firms ebb, Fisheries minister strikes task force to clarify regulation

HALIFAX — The federal government is creating a task force to clarify regulations for projects attempting to harness the tidal energy of the Bay of Fundy, after a key player sought bankruptcy protection last week — and blamed Ottawa.
Turbines to create power in the Bay of Fundy are shown in a handout photo.The federal fisheries minister is creating a task force with industry and government members to smooth the regulation of Bay of Fundy tidal power, after a key player sought bankruptcy protection last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Sustainable Marine Energy Canada Ltd. **MANDATORY CREDIT**

HALIFAX — The federal government is creating a task force to clarify regulations for projects attempting to harness the tidal energy of the Bay of Fundy, after a key player sought bankruptcy protection last week — and blamed Ottawa. 

Following meetings Tuesday with representatives from the tidal-power industry, federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said government officials and the private sector would make recommendations on how her department could better communicate environmental requirements and reduce turnaround times for approvals.

“We want to develop this industry and we think greater collaboration is the best way forward and that’s what the task force is all about,” she said.

Last Thursday, U.K.-based Sustainable Marine Energy wound up operations, with its chief executive, Jason Hayman, estimating up to $40 million in private losses and predicting a chill on investment in Canadian tidal projects.

Hayman has said that despite peer-reviewed science suggesting fish tend to avoid the rotating underwater blades of tidal turbines, the Fisheries Department spent several years jousting with his firm over the details, timing and scope of his proposals, and his investors ended the project. 

His firm had received $29 million from Natural Resources Canada, money a spokesman for the federal department said couldn't be recovered.

The Fisheries Department had invited the firm to apply for a 12-month licence to test methods to monitor whether fish would avoid the turbines, but Hayman said in interviews that it was unclear whether this would satisfy the federal requirements — and investors feared further losses. 

Asked if the collapse of Sustainable Marine could have been avoided, the minister replied the company was proposing a "difficult project" that had the complicated task of implementing new technology in the harsh waters of the bay. 

Murray said she agreed to the task force — co-chaired by Natural Resources Canada — to allow the industry to "explore where the frustrations are occurring," adding that her department would work with firms to find solutions.

However, she noted that her officials must adhere to regulatory requirements to protect fish species in the bay.

There are three remaining developers that could potentially occupy spots at a test facility operated by the non-profit Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy, near Parrsboro, N.S. The facility provides berths where tidal companies can monitor the environmental impact of operations and prove their financial case. 

Tory Rushton, Nova Scotia minister of natural resources, said the Progressive Conservative government was encouraged to hear about the task force because the province had been asking Ottawa for one. "We want to make sure there's a pathway to make sure these projects can get in the water to green our grid," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."

Graham Daborn, a professor emeritus of Acadia University’s tidal energy institute, said existing methods of monitoring fish collisions in the Minas Basin — an inlet in the Bay of Fundy — haven't worked because of air bubbles in the upper columns of the bay — blocking the ability of sonar to document marine life.

He said it remains unknown whether fish can see the turbines in the bay and make the same effort — documented in Scottish, Irish and American studies — to avoid the rotating blades.

The veteran researcher of the Bay of Fundy's ecosystem cautioned that while industry impatience with regulatory delay is understandable, Ottawa has a clear mandate to ensure fish are protected. “The regulators will get pilloried if they allow a development to take place that will end up turning south on everyone,” he said.

Murray said the task force could be operating within weeks but didn't know when it would produce its report. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2023.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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