NEWS: Nunavut April 08, 2010 - 9:49 am

Ottawa to hunt for oil in Nunavut’s Lancaster Sound

Geological Survey project goes forward despite marine park declaration



It was hailed just four months ago by Environment Minister Jim Prentice as one of Canada’s “richest ecological areas” when he announced a landmark $5-million study aimed at declaring it a National Marine Conservation Area.

But while one branch of the federal government has moved to protect Nunavut’s Lancaster Sound as a one-of-a-kind natural treasure — “an area of incredible beauty that is teeming with wildlife,” according to the region’s Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq — the Geological Survey of Canada has confounded environmentalists and local communities by planning a seismic seabed survey this summer to probe for potential oil and gas deposits in the beluga and narwhal-rich waters north of Lancaster Sound

The proposed hydrocarbon sweep has triggered an assessment by the Nunavut Impact Review Board and has already prompted a red-faced apology by federal officials over the premature delivery to Grise Firod of 200 drums of fuel for Arctic energy and mineral mapping expeditions that the NIRB has yet to approve.

“The legislation is very clear with respect to marine conservation areas: Oil and gas development is expressly prohibited,” said Chris Debicki, Iqaluit-based director of the advocacy group Oceans North. “They just don’t go together.”

He told Canwest News Service on Wednesday that the proposed resource survey conflicts not only with Parks Canada’s high-profile push for a Lancaster Sound protected zone, but also with the traditional use of the area by Inuit hunters, who have raised concerns through the Nunavut review board about the potential impact of the Arctic Ocean survey — and any resource development that could follow — on marine mammals.

In December, Prentice and Aglukkaq issued a joint statement announcing a $5-million feasibility study for the planned creation of the Lancaster Sound marine park.

“As global climate change continues and traffic through the Northwest Passage is expected to increase, our government is committed to safeguarding Canada’s Arctic and protecting its most special natural features,” Prentice said at the time.

“The Government of Canada recognizes the increasing importance of understanding and protecting the Arctic and this project will allow us to significantly advance our knowledge as well as our protection and conservation activities in this area.”

Aglukkaq, also the federal health minister, said establishing the conservation area “would be a legacy for the people of Nunavut and indeed all Canadians.”

The announcement trumpeted Lancaster Sound as “one of the richest marine mammal areas in the world,” noting that “during the summer months most of the world’s narwhal, a third of North America’s belugas, large numbers of the Eastern Arctic’s bowhead whales, as well as ringed seals, harp seals and walrus are found in these waters.”

The region “also harbours one of the highest densities of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic and about one-third of Eastern Canada’s colonial seabirds breed and feed here,” the ministers’ statement noted.

But even as Lancaster Sound was being held up as the latest example of the Conservative government’s commitment to conservation, federal officials from the Geological Survey of Canada — a division of Natural Resources Canada — were working to gain approval for this summer’s planned research expedition aboard the German icebreaker Polarstern to learn more about Lancaster Sound’s petroleum potential.

Federal documents submitted for the NIRB assessment describe the proposed Lancaster Sound survey as part of the $100-million, northern “Geomapping for Energy and Minerals” program announced in August 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“I have been given the responsibility of identifying petroleum resource potential in eastern Nunavut,” said a statement from federal geoscientist Gordon Oakey.

“My project will study the sedimentary basins in the marine areas offshore Baffin Island. Our primary area of interest is the large sedimentary basin in the eastern end of Lancaster Sound.”

The federal statement, which summarized a September 2009 community consultation with residents from the Ellesmere Island community of Grise Fiord, also notes that “it is our intent to establish a renewed interest in the region to encourage industry investment and provide the knowledge to the people of Nunavut to make decisions on developing and managing their resources.”

Oakey’s summary also acknowledged that a communication mixup leading to the surprise delivery of 200 drums of aviation fuel to Grise Fiord “created an understandable reluctance” on the part of residents to support the government’s Eastern Arctic survey project.

He couldn’t be reached for further comment.

But the geological research project he’s heading in Nunavut is part of an Arctic-wide program touted by Harper in 2008 as key to Canada’s economic future and his government’s “use it or lose it” strategy for asserting Arctic sovereignty.

“We know from over a century of northern resource exploration that there is gas in the Beaufort, oil in the Eastern Arctic, and gold in the Yukon. There are diamonds in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and countless other precious resources buried under the ice, sea and tundra,” Harper said at the time.

“But what we’ve found so far is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Managed properly, Canada’s share of this incredible endowment will fuel the prosperity of our country for generations. And geomapping will pave the way for the resource development of the future.”