The hyperbole and hot air at last week’s announcement in front of the Canadarm at the Canadian Space Agency in Montreal were enough to launch more than one rocket into orbit.
Present for the announcement on January 20 were Omar Alghabra, Canada’s Minister of Transport; Marc Garneau, Liberal MP and former astronaut; Brian Gallant, former New Brunswick premier turned CEO of the new industry group Space Canada; Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques; and a handful of aerospace industry representatives – including Steve Matier of Maritime Launch Services.
“Great things” will happen, they announced.
Canada is “entering a new era in space” and all of Canada will be watching as “we take our next steps towards the stars.”
Rocket launches will “bring whole communities together.”
The global commercial space industry could be worth $1 trillion yearly by 2040, and we should all be “very proud” that one company, Maritime Launch Services, plans to launch rockets from Atlantic Canada.
One problem: Canada doesn’t yet have legislation or a regulatory framework for commercial rocket launches, and won’t for at least another three years.
Alghabra said that the government will “enable” commercial space activities while it develops that new regulatory framework, and in the interim allow rocket launches “on a case-by-case” basis.
According to Garneau, Canada is ideal for commercial rocket launches. He told reporters that rocket launch sites have to be strategically located away from populated areas because “there is always a risk” when large rockets are launched.
But, said Garneau, Canada is “basically empty.” (Much of the announcement was in French, and Garneau made that remarkable claim twice, once in each official language.)
Asked how soon a launch might be expected in Canada and where, Garneau pointed to Maritime Launch Services, which he said had “done a lot of work” preparing for a spaceport in Nova Scotia, “in a place called Canso.”
Both Garneau and Gallant invited the media present to speak with Maritime Launch Services CEO Steve Matier.
Gallant said Matier had worked “extremely hard” for a long time on the spaceport project in Canso, and added:
Today’s announcement means that a company like his [Matier’s] will have the certainty it needs to tell investors and potential clients that, yes, in fact we have a framework here in Canada that allows us to launch. It’s a very important day for companies like Maritime Launch.
The lobbying effort
Garneau’s support for Matier’s company during the Friday announcement is perhaps not surprising.
The Maritime Launch Services (MLS) CEO is just one of five lobbyists MLS has registered with the federal government.
Between October 11 and December 14, 2022, he met with 22 high-level government officials and MPs — including Liberals Andy Fillmore, Marc Garneau, and Mike Kelloway, and Conservative Erin O’Toole.
Matier met with Garneau, a former transport minister and minister of foreign affairs, on November 13, 2022.
According to the federal lobbyist registry, Matier has also applied for money from the federal Strategic Infrastructure Fund, and MLS expected to receive government funding in 2022 from the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
Matier, who in June this year bought a house in Halifax Regional Municipality for $1.1 million, is originally from New Mexico.
There he founded Silverwing Enterprises in 2012. In April 2022, Maritime Launch Services Inc. (formerly Jaguar Financial Corporation) closed a reverse takeover of Maritime Launch Services Nova Scotia, and Matier acquired 86,631,750 shares of Maritime Launch Services Inc. through Silverwing Enterprises LLC, giving him 21.47% control of MLS.
Maritime Launch Services registered as a corporation in Nova Scotia in 2016.
Matier was clearly chuffed with the announcement of government support. “With today’s announcement, the global space industry can be confident that commercial launch in Canada is not only here, but it has this government’s support,” he said. “It’s time to launch Canadian space innovation from Canada and welcome the world to Canso, Nova Scotia for commercial launch.”
Opposition in Canso
Marie Lumsden is a member of Action Against Canso Spaceport, a group of concerned Canso area community members working to stop the Maritime Launch Services project.
Asked for her reaction to Friday’s announcement, Lumsden replied, “It is disgusting.”
“Our Government’s arrogant and highhanded “cart-before-the-horse” approach to the environmental assessment of a SPACEPORT within two kilometres of our community shows an absolutely appalling disregard for the safety of our residents and our environment,” she wrote in an email.
It is a human rights violation in the making and a complete dereliction of duty. Already we have endured years of stress, anxiety and insult at the hands of all levels of our government. Hours wasted on fighting something that would not have been given five minutes of consideration had our government been doing its job.
Our group has received thousands of pages through Freedom of Information [FOIPOP] access since 2019. We have seen MLS chastised for sharing false information to the press, delaying scheduled submissions, and attempting to skirt requirements laid down by the province. FOIPOPs from the MODG [Municipality of the District of Guysborough] reveal ongoing nickel and diming for support including requests for land access, water use, and lease payment, and most recently a request that the MODG accept responsibility for reclamation after project end.
“Absolutely none of this inspires confidence in MLS’s commitment to ethical practice, let alone its ability to finance it,” said Lumsden.
Asking for public money ‘in the spirit of partnership’
Correspondence released through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act show Harvey Doane, MLS chief operating officer, writing to Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) economic development officer Gordon MacDonald in July 2022 about the company’s need for a lawyer-vetted access agreement for the use of the road that runs through the Sable wind farm to the MLS site.
Doane joined MLS in June 2021 just one month after leaving Nova Scotia Business Inc, a Crown corporation where he was responsible for “business development” and “investment attraction.” On July 11, 2022 he wrote this to MacDonald:
Regarding hiring of legal counsel to write up an access agreement [for the Sable wind farm road], we will engage our lawyers to prepare this, however, we will require input from MODG, and from NSPI [Nova Scotia Power, that together with MODG owns the wind farm]. We would also hope that in the spirit of partnership that MODG might be willing to explore sharing the cost of preparing this legal document.
MacDonald replied the same day:
We can certainly provide input for sure. It has never been our practice to share in a proponents [sic] development costs …
The next day Doane replied to MacDonald:
I have contacted our law firm to start the process of development an access agreement … We understand that MODG does not share in a proponent’s development costs. We see at this [sic] as a type of partnership and always [sic] looking for some way that MODG might be able to play a supporting role.
That Gordon MacDonald has basically been at the service of MLS for six years, sometimes being treated like Matier’s de facto assistant and in the last couple of years doing the same for Doane, seems to have escaped Doane’s notice.
This wasn’t the first time MLS sought MODG legal support.
On May 13, 2022, Doane wrote to MODG’s lawyer Bruce McKeen, saying:
As you know, we are working to develop the spaceport in the Canso area. As part of this development, we will be leasing two separate pieces of land from the Municipality of the District of Guysborough. MODG asked us to write up leases for these two pieces of land. Would you be able to work with us to write up appropriate leases?
This is McKeen’s terse reply a couple of hours later:
I am the Municipality’s lawyer. It would be conflict of course for me to act for your company. Please have your solicitors forward your proposed leases for review.
One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.
Spaceport slips through environmental regulatory gap
Action Against Canso Spaceport also submitted a Freedom of Information request to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC) for correspondence related to MLS.
From the documents NSECC released in response, (which unfortunately did not include attachments as it would have made the cost too high for the community group), it appears that MLS was also expecting special favours from the provincial government.
In fact, it looks as if MLS was getting these almost from the get-go.
The Canso spaceport — a project the likes of which has never been proposed in Canada and that involves extremely dangerous chemicals such as hydrazine — was not subject to a federal impact assessment.
Nor did the project have to undergo Nova Scotia’s more intensive and extensive Class II environmental assessment.
Instead, the very first project in Canada proposing to blast giant rockets into orbit was subject to the shorter and less stringent Class I environmental assessment, as if it were no more environmentally hazardous or risky than a facility that produces fish meal or a gravel pit.
Many projects that receive environmental approval are then issued with industrial or operational approvals, which lay out in great detail all the terms for the project, from construction through operation to reclamation.
A search of the province’s database of industrial approvals reveals none for Maritime Launch Services. Asked why, NSECC spokesperson Mikaela Etchegary explained:
Based on what is specified by the Activities Designation Regulations, an Industrial Approval was not required for this project. However, wetland, watercourse and dangerous goods storage approvals were also issued by ECC for this project — collectively these approvals will ensure that the project proceeds in a way that protects our environment.
The Activities Designation Regulations were drawn up in 1995, with several amendments made since then, but it is hardly surprising that they do not stipulate an industrial approval is needed for a spaceport or rocket launch site, as these terms do not even appear in the list of industrial activities that could occur in the province.
Provincial regulators upset with MLS’s public statements
The communication between MLS and NSECC and other provincial government departments obtained by the Canso citizens’ group shows a lot of back and forth on the conditions of the environmental approval and when they would be met.
MLS was asking NSECC to allow for the phase-in of the conditions. In other words, MLS would begin construction — as it did in September 2022 when it began clearing the site and filling wetlands for road access to the site — and then fulfill other conditions in the environmental approval as the project progressed.
Normally, an industrial approval lays out conditions that all have to met through all stages of a project.
However, the records suggest MLS wanted special consideration, and permission to lay out something it dubbed its “proposed path forward,” which would allow the company to start construction before other important environmental assessment (EA) conditions had been met.
In April, a corporate strategist in the Department of Economic Development wrote to Harvey Doane expressing concern about this:
It is unclear where the understanding [came from] that MLS could commence work on the project prior to meeting key EA Approved Conditions. My understanding is that we are still in the process of identifying what the “proposed path forward” looks like. The discuss [sic] has always been focused on what minimum requirements MLS would need to meet related to the 20+ EA Approval Conditions which will need to be addressed prior to project commencement.
The same provincial official was apparently also upset by a claim MLS made in an article in the Globe and Mail. On April 28 he wrote to provincial colleagues and colleagues in the federal transport department about his concerns:
I had a conversation with MLS this morning regarding the article in today’s Globe & Mail in which was quoted that they have “…passed environmental reviews and won regulator approval.”
MLS informed me that they only meant to highlight that they had received a provincial Environmental Assessment Approval (with conditions) for the project rather than all the approvals and environmental review.
MLS understand that such miscommunications are unhelpful, particularly for regulators that have a responsibility for ensuring the safety of the public and the environment.
(Not quite) ready to launch
“This is a great day for Canada,” declared Steve Matier after Friday’s announcement about Ottawa’s support for space launch activities in the country.
“We are pleased that today’s news follows closely on the heels of significant momentum for Maritime Launch in 2022,” Matier said in an MLS press release. He noted that construction of the spaceport is underway, and said MLS would continue its work “to bring the promise of today’s announcement to reality.”
According to the NSECC website, the MLS project is for a “private commercial space launch site that provides rocket launch services to clients.” Located “approximately 2-3 kilometers south of Canso” it will use a “medium class orbital launch vehicle designed by Yuzhnoye SDO in the Ukraine” to transport satellites into orbit. There will be “a maximum of 8 launches per year” and the “transportation route” will be about 2.4 kilometres long and include a road and a railway.
Construction was to have started in 2019, “with the first launch for 2021.”
Obviously that didn’t happen.
The Examiner contacted MLS for an update on the project’s progress, with questions about the launch vehicles it plans to use.
Sarah McLean, MLS vice president communications and corporate affairs, replied that the company broke ground in September, and is currently building roads to the site of the “Horizontal Integration Facility.”
Asked whether MLS has a Ukrainian Cyclone 4M rocket ready for launch, McLean wrote:
We are not planning to launch a C4M [Cyclone 4M] until late 2024 / early 2025, and typically, the launch vehicle does not arrive at the site until 21 days before launch. We remain committed to the C4M given its incredible flight heritage. We are also really proud that we are able to invest in Ukraine’s space sector and see it as a small but tangible way to help sustain an important industrial base as they rebuild their economy.
Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye [Ukrainian companies] continue to work with us and very much remain in business.
Don Bowser is the founder of the Support to Ukraine Recovery Initiative, and he has more than 30 years of experience working in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world on governance reform and anti-corruption. The Examiner asked Bowser for his reaction to MLS statements about its intention to use Ukrainian Cyclone 4M rockets.
“That defies everything that they’ve said. They’ve always said that they have one ready,” he replied.
“The war in Ukraine is not going to end anytime soon,” said Bowser. “So exactly how would they get this mythical rocket out of Ukraine and across European territory? And how can they remain committed to the Cyclone 4M rocket with its ‘incredible flight heritage.’ There is no flight heritage. It’s never flown. It’s never been built. Why hasn’t it been built? Because it relies on Russian engines for its first stage.”
As for the MLS statement that the Ukrainian companies remain in business and continue to work with MLS, Bowser said:
Their facilities are not operational. They’ve been hit by multiple rocket strikes. Remember that big rocket that just went into Dnipro and killed all those civilians? That’s what they’re facing. So even if they did get in production, they would get hit by another of those giant Russian rockets.
Bowser is also skeptical of the MLS claim that it is “able to invest in Ukraine’s space sector.”
“Who’s we? And what investment?” he asked rhetorically.
Bowser pointed to the freedom of information documents that suggest MLS doesn’t even have the money to fund its own legal costs, let alone a spaceport costing hundreds of millions of dollars.