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At the environmental assessment hearings on Hibernia, the two government agencies responsible for the ocean environment challenged Mobil Oil Canada's assurances that the probability of a major oil spill or blowout at Hibernia is ``extremely low.'' Environment Canada presented data suggesting that major spills - at least one and probably more - are almost certain to occur during the two decades of oil production at Hibernia. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans agency said a major spill would likely hit shoals and other areas critical to fish reproduction and that ``large areas of the Grand Banks could be covered with dangerous concentrations of oil.'' The Grand Banks is one of the world's most productive fishing grounds.

Mobil Canada's environmental impact statement says the area where the oil will be produced is home to more than 60 species of fish, 34 of which are fished commercially, and to 50 species of seabirds and waterfowl.

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But Mobil and several marine scientists disagreed with the government agencies, saying oil spills at sea dissipate without causing serious damage. The scientists pointed to natural undersea oil seepages and past oil spills as proof that oil is not a major threat to the marine environment in areas like the Grand Banks that are far from land. These arguments prevailed, and Hibernia got a green light from the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board in 1986.

Today, there is little open criticism of Hibernia on environmental grounds in Newfoundland. ``It's kind of treasonous to be against Hibernia because it's going to mean some jobs,'' says Wayne Ralph, president of the Newfoundland United and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 2,000 fish plant workers.

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