Ottawa opens Beaufort beluga waters to oil and gas exploration bids

A federal call for oil and gas exploration bids threatens a protected beluga whale habitat in the Arctic.

A federal call for oil and gas exploration bids threatens a protected beluga whale habitat in the Arctic.

Ottawa identified two Beaufort parcels in a call for bids released in December.

One parcel covers roughly 56,000 hectares, mostly on the shores of the Mackenzie Delta, about 70 kilometres west of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories.

The other covers almost 100,000 hectares off the Yukon’s north coast, east of Herschel Island.

To win a licence for either parcel, a company must commit to spend at least $1 million and to drill at least one exploration well within nine years.

“Every year we have the same process of rights issuance,” said Giles Morrell, a senior petroleum geologist with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

“Since 2000, we’ve had a resurgence of interest in exploring the Mackenzie Delta-Beaufort Sea basin. It’s a basin with very high potential for gas.”

It’s also a rich aquatic ecosystem.

And one of the targeted areas overlaps a protected region identified in Ottawa’s Beaufort Sea beluga whale management plan.

And this clear conflict between industrial development aims and conservation goals suggests a disconnect within the federal bureaucracy, charge critics.

“There’s a disconnect between accelerated industrial development planning and any balanced conservation measures,” said Peter Ewins, spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund.

The call for bids is “entirely inconsistent with promises made over the last five or 10 years about aboriginal and environmental values,” Ewins said Wednesday from Toronto.

“It needs to be corrected.”

The beluga management plan identifies sensitive areas and offers guidelines for types of industrial activity that are acceptable for specific regions of the Beaufort Sea.

In the headwaters of Kugmallit Bay, west of Tuktoyaktuk, there is a “minor overlap” of the nominated parcel and sensitive habitat, said Morrell.

“I’m talking about two square kilometres of shoreline,” he said.

“We’re prepared to shave a little piece off the bid block to ensure that there is absolutely no overlap.”

The issuance of an exploration licence doesn’t mean automatic approval of seismic or drilling operations, he added.

“They are required to make an application to the regulatory authorities — that’s the national energy board, not us — and then that application will undergo full regulatory scrutiny, including environmental screening by the Inuvialuit environmental screening committee.”

The Inuvialuit people of the Northwest Territories coastline have a settled land claim that the winning bidders must respect.

The Inuvialuit have subsisted on the beluga for centuries, and will work as spotters on exploration shores and offshore rigs.

“If you’re out there on a ship and you observe beluga in the vicinity, you can shut down temporarily and restart when they move out of the area,” said Morrell.

“We’re moving towards integrated management of resources in the offshore.

“We have two important resources: the beluga and petroleum.

“All parties — the Inuvialuit, expert groups and ourselves — are making plans to take account of the other resource values as we go about our business.”

Around 40,000 belugas migrate along the Beaufort coastline every spring and fall and congregate in shallow Beaufort waters during the summer months.

In July 2005, the federal departments of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment announced a network of “marine protected areas” around continental Canada that would have piggybacked on the previously established beluga management plan.

But with a federal election pending, all bets are off, leaving existing legislation as the only guidelines for development.

Indian and Northern Affairs is continuing with its oil and gas disposition process, while the marine protected areas strategy is still in its draft stage.

Ewins applauded the marine protected areas strategy when it was announced, saying that industrial activity, such as climate change, atmospheric toxins, increased oil and gas exploration and shipping are ever-present threats.

“They all need to be addressed. Otherwise, we’re going to see the usual slide of beluga whales in that population and elsewhere into at-risk status,” Ewins said in a previous interview.

“With wide-ranging animals, like belugas, they visit three countries over the course of their 12-month cycle and they live for many years.

“Just protecting one little stepping stone in an important area just off the Mackenzie Delta is important.

“But there are many, many other areas that require protection that we already know of.”

There doesn’t appear to be any overlap between the newly nominated parcels and the protected area proposals, he added.

But there are other conservation issues at stake.

Bowhead whales migrate through the deep basins east of Herschel Island, where the larger exploration parcel has been identified, said Ewins.

And a small corner — perhaps five per cent — of the Kendall Island migratory bird sanctuary is within the boundaries of the smaller parcel, he said.

“We’ve been advocating for four or five years that a Beaufort systems plan can be done fairly easily. It just needs some attention and resources.

“When you look at the tens of millions getting into the northern parts of Canada now to promote exploration and development, and you look at the declining budget for integrated planning of nature and aboriginal issues and conservation, it’s just ridiculous and unethical, almost.”

Several companies have expressed an interest in exploring for fossil fuels in the Beaufort in the past, including Chevron Corp., Imperial Oil Inc. and Conoco-Phillips Inc.

At the moment, the only active drilling is being done by Devon Canada Corp., which is also the Yukon’s only active oil and gas player.

Devon already has licence to explore 342,000 hectares in the Beaufort north of Inuvik — nowhere near the proposed protected areas, according to company spokesman Michel Scott.

The government’s recent call for exploration bids expires May 2, 2006.