More questions than answers at Nunavut oil-gas summit
“We have to define why there is resistance” to industry, says chair
Although its stated goal was to answer the question “is Nunavut ready for oil and gas?” — in the end, the territory’s oil and gas summit in Iqaluit this week concluded with far more questions than answers.
With oil prices tanking at the moment, those questions, at least for now, are immaterial, but government and industry types still want to be ready with answers when those prices begin climbing again, in the years ahead.
“I’m sure most people came into the room knowing Nunavut is not ready for oil and gas development,” said Peter Croal who, as facilitator, took some 80 delegates from Nunavut communities, Inuit organizations, federal and territorial government staff, and industry and non-governmental representatives through three days of workshops, Jan. 13 to Jan. 15.
“The next steps are going to be the development of sort of a working group, representing a lot of community, industry, Nunavut and federal people, and so on, to devise a process to answer those three or four hundred questions that came out of the room over the last three days,” Croal told Nunatsiaq News.
The federal government regulates and administers oil and gas development in Nunavut and the coastal waters surrounding the territory. Nunavut’s role in any such development has never been defined.
That has sparked significant questions for residents of communities on the east coast of Baffin Island, who are wondering how they would be affected by any project to explore for oil in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.
The Hamlet of Clyde River opposes seismic testing exploration of oil and gas reserves in those waters, just off its coast, due to fears it would disrupt marine wildlife.
The hamlet also argues, as have other communities along Baffin’s east coast, that federal authorities never properly consulted with them, or shown how coastal communities would benefit from oil and gas projects.
Questions about how communities would benefit — and what effect oil and gas projects would have on the environment and residents’ livelihoods — prevail in communities throughout the territory.
“I think we need to have this kind of engagement, where everybody who has an interest in it comes to the table, talks about it, and identifies what their questions are,” Bernie MacIsaac, chair of the summit, told Nunatsiaq News after the conference wound down, Jan. 15.
“Seismic surveys, which are kind of the first part of any activity in this industry, have to be part of this examination of the industry — a thorough examination of it,” MacIsaac said. “People have to feel comfortable with what they are, and what are the impacts of it.”
MacIsaac, who is an assistant deputy minister with the Government of Nunavut’s department of economic development and transportation, previously said that Nunavut has about 20 per cent of Canada’s oil and gas reserves, valued at about $2 trillion.
The territorial government’s business plan states estimated reserves are even higher.
With estimates like that, Nunavut needs to be clear on the benefits of oil and gas, MacIsaac says.
A first step is to address the concerns of Nunavummiut starting with those who are first in line: the residents of Clyde River and other east Baffin communities.
“One of the things we have to define is why there is resistance,” he said. “We might find there is a lot of resistance because there’s not enough information, or people need more information to help them understand.
“That’s going to be part of our work is to try to identify — OK, what do people need to know, and how can we provide that information.”
The solution MacIsaac and Croal pointed to at the end of the summit’s three days was to create a working group that will develop a process to answer any and all questions that Nunavummiut have about oil and gas.
The group would also inform industry about the “broad issues they should be aware of, even before [they] put in a project proposal,” MacIsaac said.
Described at the summit as a “steering committee,” “council,” or “task force,” the working group would create a process similar to a “strategic environmental assessment” — which evaluates all costs and benefits of a project.
The federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) is now carrying out a strategic environmental assessment for the Baffin Bay project.
“There’s no legal requirement [in Nunavut] for a strategic environmental assessment, or a tool like that,” MacIsaac said.
“But I think that if a company sees everybody in Nunavut has agreed that this is the way we should proceed, I would think that they would heed that advice.”
AAND has committed to completing a strategic environmental assessment before it grants any rights to develop oil and gas projects, MacIsaac said.
Such assessments won’t stop companies from drilling for oil and gas, he added, “but it will provide guidance to the regulatory regime, guidance to industry, and guidance to the communities.”
MacIsaac wouldn’t say how soon summit organizers — the Government of Nunavut Mining Symposium Society — would create such a working group.
And in any case, he agreed with delegates at the summit that petroleum companies are not likely to drill for oil in Nunavut any time soon, at least not within the next 10 years.
Delegates at the conference agreed that persistently low oil prices, now priced at less than $50 a barrel, will prevent any new drilling, especially in infrastructure-starved Nunavut.
“Quite honestly, I don’t expect oil and gas development for quite some time in the territory, given oil and gas prices, and fuel prices,” said Keith Morrison, a senior advisor with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
Even so, there’s no denying that oil and gas development looms on the horizon for Nunavut and the territory must be prepared when that day comes, he said.
“You’ve got [oil and gas] companies on the one hand who aren’t necessarily sure who they have to talk to,” Morrison said, “and the people who need the information don’t know who to talk to, to get it.
“Everybody has to be confident there’s enough two-way communication so that when decisions are made, it’s based on the best information available,” he said, so that decisions on oil and gas development “are informed decisions, both ways.”