Nunavut residents consider future of oil and wildlife in Lancaster Sound
"Will the oil and gas potential have a role in this? Absolutely."
There’s an ocean of oil lying under the proposed conservation area of Lancaster Sound, Nunavut.
But the area is also home to more than a million birds, Canada’s largest polar bear subpopulation and an estimated 75 per cent of the world’s narwhals.
Which makes Lancaster Sound spectacular in many ways.
Members of the public heard a lot about oil, gas and wildlife Dec. 2 at a public consultation meeting in Iqaluit to discuss a proposed National Marine Conservation Area in Lancaster Sound, the body of water which separates northern Baffin Island from Devon Island.
If the conservation area is approved, there would be no oil and gas extraction there, but it all depends on how the map is drawn. It’s still in preliminary stages and areas rich in natural resources could be excluded.
There certainly is incentive for that. Based on the most recent Parks Canada research in Lancaster Sound, the seabed contains 13 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 4.5 billion barrels of oil.
“These are very large numbers, ones that we don’t often use,” said Natural Resources Canada project geologist Danny Wright. “It’s hard for us to imagine how much that is.”
That amount of oil is comparable to the Hibernia oil field, off the coast of Newfoundland — the world’s largest oil platform.
Lancaster Sound is not the largest oil field in the world — that title goes to Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, thought to contain more than 100 billion barrels of oil.
But there’s still a lot of oil, explained Wright, enough to supply world demand for 50 days.
He warned that it’s just an estimate. To be sure about how much oil is in the sound, “you would have to go there and do drilling,” Wright said.
Parks Canada didn’t even look at other alternative gases, older rocks, and a few other ways gas can be stored.
“There could be potentially more oil and gas in Lancaster Sound,” Wright said.
The tentative proposal for the National Marine Conservation Area by Parks Canada would cover just over 40,000 square kilometres.
“It’s actually quite huge,” Carey Elverum of Parks Canada said.
The reason Parks Canada is looking to protect the area is because critical wildlife thrives there.
There are “several species at risk” in the area, which include “bowhead, beluga, narwhal, and polar bear, that rely on Lancaster sound for critical life stages,” said Francine Mercier of Parks Canada.
About 75 per cent of the world’s narwhal population and 20 per cent of the beluga population reside in Lancaster Sound.
In addition, it’s home to 17 per cent of the Canadian polar bear population — the largest subpopulation in Canada.
“It also supports the largest seabird colonies in the Canadian Arctic. There’s about 350,000 pairs of seabirds. And if you count the non-sea birds, there’s about a million birds there,” Mercier said.
The amount of oil in Lancaster Sound doesn’t necessarily put the conservation area in jeopardy, said David Monteith of Nunavut Parks and Special Places.
“The end result of the feasibility study is going to be a report that will have a variety of options,” Monteith said.
“Will the oil and gas potential have a role in this? Absolutely. We’re just not sure what that will be,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say the oil and gas potential will be the deciding factor — I think it’s just one component,” Monteith said.
The president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the environmental ministers for the governments of Nunavut and Canada all have to agree on a proposed plan.
But there’s a long way to go before the proposal takes shape.
Parks Canada is still in its feasibility assessment stage. After that, a steering committee report, an Inuit Impact and Benefits Agreement and an interim management plan all need be completed before Parliament can pass the proposed conservation area.
For now there are some discrepancies on what the map should look like.
The QIA travelled with Parks Canada to the affected communities of Grise Fiord, Resolute Bay, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, and Clyde River.
The regional Inuit association then compiled data based on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. Their proposed area extends both west and east — at each opening of the Sound — from what Parks Canada is recommending.
The QIA boundary also cuts through land that has been leased out by the Canadian government to oil company Shell.
It is unknown how long the lease lasts, but the lease began several decades ago, according to the QIA.
“We’ve got to take in all information that feeds into the decision. Once we’ve been to all the communities, gathered all the information,” Elverum said, “the six steering committee members will sit down and look at all the information we have to make a decision on a recommendation.”
The QIA and Parks Canada will travel to the six communities again in early 2014 to get more feedback on their revised plans.