Ottawa silent on future of Arctic seismic project

Botched Polarstern voyage costs Germany $75,000 per day

By GABRIEL ZARATE

The Polarstern off east Greenland in an earlier research voyage. In 2001, the Polarstern conducted seismic testing in Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. (PHOTO BY HANNES GROBE, ALFRED WEGENER INSTITUTE)


The Polarstern off east Greenland in an earlier research voyage. In 2001, the Polarstern conducted seismic testing in Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. (PHOTO BY HANNES GROBE, ALFRED WEGENER INSTITUTE)

Following a decision by Nunavut judge that brings the project to a halt for now, the future of a German-Canadian seismic testing project in Baffin Bay now lies in serious doubt.

Justice Sue Cooper of the Nunavut Court of Justice granted a temporary injunction against the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment on Aug. 8.

It was less than a day before the German research vessel Polarstern was due to begin seismic testing in Baffin Bay despite protests from North Baffin Inuit and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.

Whether Ottawa chooses to challenge the injunction or not, it’s unlikely that events will move fast enough to salvage the ECASE project this year.

The Polarstern will be able to sail through Baffin Bay for only a few weeks before the autumn’s ice drives the ship — along with all other marine traffic — out of Arctic waters.

Until then, the ship is limited to more “routine” research such as gathering bathymetric and magnetic data on the Canadian side of the international boundary that divides Baffin Bay, said Ralf Roechert of the Alfred Wegener Institute, the German government agency that owns the ship.

But in Greenlandic waters, which constitute roughly half of the study area, the Polarstern will continue to do seismic testing.

“All permissions have been given for the Greenland side and were not subject of the inner-Canadian controversy,” Roechert said in an email.

Roechert said the ship costs 55,000 euros or $75,000 a day to operate at sea.

The entire cost of its participation in the ECASE project is paid by the German ministry of education research, including the cost of its operations in Canadian waters.

Right now, it’s not clear if Germany will seek compensation from Canada for any financial losses it may have suffered as a result of the Nunavut court injunction.

Donald James, chief geologist at the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office, has said earlier that the Polarstern is one of the best Arctic research vessels in the world.

Because of this, the ship is booked in advance for years. Right now, the Polarstern is fully booked until 2014.

Jonathan Davis-Sidore, a lawyer for Davis LLP who represents the QIA, the ECASE question said the next move is Ottawa’s.

He said Natural Resources Canada can resolve the issue without more legal wrangling by conducting “meaningful” consultation with people in the five affected High Arctic communities.

Cooper had said in her decision that it’s debatable whether Natural Resources Canada conducted meaningful consultation on the ECASE project.

But did not make a ruling on that issue, saying the question should be settled after a trial.

QIA lawyers said in court that “meaningful consultation” would have involved extensive interviews with Inuit to determine marine mammals’ calving, feeding and migration patterns and the harvesting areas that Inuit use.

Such consultations would have developed mitigation measures to minimize the project’s potential effects on wildlife and Inuit harvesting activities, QIA lawyers said.

If NRCan wants to pursue the project without such consultations, the case must go to trial, Davis-Sidore said.

In a terse press release Aug. 8, NRCan said it remains committed to the goals of its geo-mapping program, and that geological information is “valuable” for establishing a marine park in Lancaster Sound.

The department also said various other geo-mapping surveys will continue in the North.

The statement also contains a hint that the entire issue may end back in the courts.

“As this remains the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, we do not wish to comment further at this time,” the statement said.

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