Valcourt picks the lose-lose option
The federal government has poisoned its relationship with the people of the High Arctic
When faced with the question of what to do about the prospect of seismic testing for potential oil and gas reserves in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay, Bernard Valcourt, the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, likely had more policy choices available to him than he has yet been willing to admit to.
But in the end, he picked the lose-lose option: a choice that’s a net loser for Canada and a net loser for the Inuit of Nunavut.
Most readers are now likely familiar with a proposal that two related companies from Norway filed with the National Energy Board in January 2011.
The two firms, TGS and Petroleum Geo-Services are teamed up in a joint-venture in which a PGS subsidiary called Multi-Klient Invest will operate a seismic testing vessel for five years across a big slice of ocean territory that sits between the international boundary with Greenland and the line that marks the limit of the Nunavut land claims settlement area.
The names of these companies are likely new to most people in Nunavut.
But they’ve done similar work for years off Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Greenland, where seismic testing is common. Just last month, TGS announced a four-year seismic testing scheme involving about 35,000 kilometres of work off northeast Greenland.
Notwithstanding all that, the idea of seismic testing arouses bitter memories in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Those memories date to the 1960s and 1970s, when Panarctic Oils, a firm owned by a partnership between the federal government and more than 70 companies, blasted the Arctic seas with dynamite, sometimes killing sea mammals and fish.
If you live in communities like Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay and Clyde River, that’s what seismic testing means: dead seals, disrupted marine mammal migration — with high-risk exploratory drilling soon after.
It should surprise no one, then, that seismic testing, the first stage in offshore oil and gas exploration, should generate fierce opposition in the communities of north Baffin and the High Arctic. Three years of work by the National Energy Board have done nothing to persuade most residents of those communities that they have anything to gain from MKI’s seismic program.
Who can blame them? The “Canada Benefits Plan” — which Valcourt had to accept before the NEB could approve the project — is a secret. MKI is allowed to keep it confidential — and the federal government will not release it.
The NEB’s decision to approve the MKI scheme may or may not be legally correct. But it’s clear that neither they nor the federal government have obtained a social licence for it. For the people of North Baffin, it’s all risk and no benefit.
Just last May, the Nunavut Marine Council gave Valcourt an opportunity to step back from this mess and make a magnanimous face-saving gesture, at no cost to his government’s northern development agenda.
The council — comprising the chairs of the Nunavut Impact Review Board, the Nunavut Water Board, the Nunavut Planning Commission and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board — urged that seismic testing be delayed until after Valcourt’s northern development department completes what bureaucrats call a “strategic environmental assessment.”
That, essentially, is a big study that would weigh the potential costs and benefits of oil and gas development in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait — a study that would likely take some time to complete.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association chimed in with their own timid support for the idea.
Valcourt rejected this modest suggestion. But what’s the hurry? The oil and gas industry has — for many years — shown little interest in eastern Nunavut.
The only sign of potential activity in the entire Canadian Arctic is in the west, where a consortium made up Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and BP proposes to drill at a deep-water site in the Beaufort Sea north of Tuktoyaktuk
But in the eastern Arctic, there’s nothing. For most of the past decade the federal government has been inviting bids for leases in areas around the islands of the High Arctic — and received no takers.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Oil and gas exploration in the eastern Arctic comes with high costs and high risks. Industry players have likely calculated that right now, it’s just not viable.
This means there isn’t even an economic case for rushing the process in the national interest. Incidentally, Canada has other policy instruments at its disposal, which it has used to maintain an oil and gas exploration moratorium off British Columbia since 1972.
Despite all that, the federal government has — for no good reason — poisoned relations between itself and the communities of the High Arctic. That’s bad for Canada and it’s bad for the Inuit. JB