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Canada's Far North divided over Arctic offshore drilling

Phillipe MorinCBC News

Some talk of an economic boom, while others talk of a potential oil spill. Northerners in Canada are divided on the issue of offshore drilling.

Inuvialuit leader Nellie Cournoyea, CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation with headquarters in Inuvik in Canada's Northwest Territories, says it's a difficult balance.

"People are very strong in their belief and their will to protect the environment and the wildlife. At the same time, economic opportunities are also important for people in this region."

The National Energy Board's review — called a round table — was held in Inuvik September 12 to 16.

More than 200 representatives of aboriginal, territorial and federal government gathered from across Canada as well as members of the public who were also encouraged to speak during the five day event.

The statements were recorded by Canada's National Energy Board, an arms' length Federal body which must assess if energy projects are in the public interest.

Industry, environmentalists divided on Arctic weather 'obstacle'

The World Wildlife Fund and its legal representative Ecojustice attended the meeting to make clear their objections.

Will Amos, an environmental lawyer who works with Ecojustice, said the groups are not completely opposed. However, he said, oil companies must explain their plans for safety. Amos said arctic drilling brings the potential for a catastrophic oil spill, which would be very difficult to clean up in icy waters.

"WWF Canada does not stand for no offshore, it's not calling for a moratorium. However, the conditions under which development must go forward demand that a precautionary approach is taken," he said.

Amos mentioned bad arctic weather as one obstacle to clean-up. Some of the drilling sites could be as far off shore as 100 kilometres, in waters that are frozen solid most of the year. Instead of oil rigs, drilling would be launched from large ships.

"It's not about how many boats, how many buoys they have. It's about how many days it would be even possible to head out," he said. "According to our research more than 50 per cent of the time, a cleanup operation would not even be possible because of weather."

Companies such as Imperial Oil, Exxonmobil and Shell have already paid hundreds of millions of dollars to the Federal government for exploration rights to the Beaufort Sea.

The companies have already begun conducting exploratory seismic work in the ocean. Zones being explored by the oil industry are further offshore and in deeper waters than ever before.

Industry representatives say new technologies will make drilling safer; during the NEB review, spokespersons for the industry talked of lessons learned during the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mike Peacock, who represents Imperial Oil, said that the delay during that spill was caused by industry being ill-prepared. He said engineers working for BP had to design and build a blowout preventer, which was then brought to the drilling platform. Peacock said this would not be the case for arctic drilling.

"If that equipment in the arctic is in place, built, and the means to deploy it is there, the Macondo experience actually demonstrates that we can do that in a short time," he said.

Mike Peters of the Canadian Association of Petroleum producers said there had been no recorded oil spills in the 89 wells drilled in the Beaufort Sea to date.

Those wells were mostly drilled in the 1970s in much shallower conditions, but Peter said it should earn industry a measure of trust.

"There was quite a track record of success in those activities, I won't pretend that everything was perfect but there was a lot of good activity that was conducted, but I think that does give us a good base to build off of, as we start to look at future offshore activity," he said.

One elder from Fort McPherson, Charlie Snowshoe, said he was afraid of the worst-case scenario — an oil spill in the High Arctic.

"If anything is going to be happening in the Beaufort Sea, make sure that nothing will happen, like what happened in the Gulf of Mexico," Snowshoe told the board.

'Most everyone wants development'

Merven Gruben, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, a Northwest Territories community of approximately 900 people, said he believes northerners overwhelmingly support offshore drilling.

"The general consensus is that most everybody wants development," Gruben wrote in an email. "We all know drilling will happen eventually, as it is already happening in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, but, we all want this to happen in the safest way and should be proven before any development happens in the Canadian Beaufort."

Gruben added that "oil spill response and training has to happen right away and before any development starts, and the training of our people needs to start right away."

This call for participation was echoed by Okalik Eegeesiak, who represents the Baffin Island Inuit of Canada's eastern Arctic through the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

She said arctic drilling is a good opportunity — provided that Inuit are included as respected partners.

"Inuit want to be involved in the future of the arctic, we want to have meaningful consultation. We want to invest in our own future, we want to have a voice at the table. We are not against development," Eegeesiak said.

The National Energy Board has a mandate to review each application for drilling individually. There are currently no applications for Beaufort drilling before the board.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.