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Updated: Tue, 30 Jul 2013 03:59:03 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Fracking proposal divides residents near Gros Morne



Fracking proposal divides residents near Gros Morne

The search for oil off Newfoundland's west coast has divided people who live near the World Heritage Site that is a major draw to the region.

UNESCO recently announced it was concerned about plans to use hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — close to Gros Morne National Park.

- Fracking may jeopardize Gros Morne UNESCO status

Sue Rendell, one of the pioneers of the local tourism industry, is against the fracking plan.

"I think it would industrialize it, and the biggest reason people come here is it is a protected area,” Rendell said.

"It's known for its natural beauty worldwide."

Rendell set up her kayak and outfitting business in the 1990s, after UNESCO gave the park its global designation.

The number of annual visitors since then has steadily grown to about 120,000.

"Where we're trying to compete internationally to bring people here to the west coast of Newfoundland, something like fracking, even the perception of it, may change people's decision to come here,” Rendell said.

'Opportunity comes knocking'

But not everyone dismisses the proposal outright.

Walter Nicolle is the mayor of Rocky Harbour, one of the towns skirted by the boundaries of Gros Morne.

"When opportunity comes knocking on your door like that, you definitely [have] to stop and think about it," Nicolle said.

Like other communities in the area, tourism has all but replaced the fishing industry.

Yet Nicolle says many residents are still open to oil exploration, because tourism is just not enough to stop the exodus of young people.

"It's only two or three months a year, so if there was some economic development to stabilize our communities, it would keep people here longer or even permanently," Nicolle said.

But at least one nearby resident says she's heard it before.

Kathy Lepold-Madigan divides her time between western Newfoundland and Pennsylvania.

Her home state welcomed shale gas exploration in rural areas where unemployment rivals the rate in Newfoundland.

But Lepold-Madigan says jobs and economic development were short-lived.

"Unskilled people were hired as flagmen and that type of thing," she said.

"They were offered very good salaries for that; they left their low-paying jobs to do that. And after six months they were done drilling and they all moved out. And people were without jobs, because their previous jobs were taken by somebody else."

'You have a really beautiful park there'

Tourist Louis Tremblay pulls his kayak out of a small lake in Gros Morne, in the shadow of a dark orange mountain range formed from the Earth's mantle millions of years ago.

The rare Martian-looking landscape is one of the reasons the park was recognized by UNESCO.

"You have a really beautiful park there," Tremblay said. "It's really nice."

This is Tremblay's first visit to Gros Morne.

He's from Quebec, where there's a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.

About 50 kilometres down the coast from this small lake, there's a proposal to frack for oil.

Tremblay says he hopes it never happens.

"Can you imagine a sight like this and a see a tower pumping gas? It's marvelous, this sight."

Plans have been controversial

The plan to use hydraulic fracturing up and down the west coast of Newfoundland has been controversial.

One site is just a couple hundred metres from the park boundary and a highway used by travellers.

Even though the oil exploration is subject to two environmental reviews, the former federal environment commissioner has warned about the lack of regulations specific to fracking.

Rendell says the stakes are too high to take any chances.

"We have a beautiful place here and we could destroy it very, very quickly," she said.

For that reason, UNESCO wants to take a look at the environmental reviews before any drilling takes place.

The UN organization says Gros Morne's World Heritage Site status is not at risk — at least not for now.

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