Lancaster Sound: shout first, think later


If he was to preserve any respect in himself or his government, Nunavut Environment Minister Dan Shewchuk had no choice but to issue a research licence this past Friday to the team of Canadian and German scientists working for Natural Resources Canada whose vessel, the RV Polarstern, will arrive in Baffin Bay later this week.

Once there, the researchers will start a 55-day seismic testing project. For about two of those 55 days, they’ll take their research work into Lancaster Sound, renowned for the thriving populations of marine mammals that feed within its productive waters.

After that, the Polarstern team will head back out, finish their work in Baffin Bay — some of which will occur outside Canadian waters — and return to Bremerhaven, Germany. They have no plans to return.

Shewchuk’s decision isn’t very important, actually. It was the Nunavut Impact Review Board — a creature of the Nunavut land claims agreement whose membership is mostly Inuit — that made the important decision, on May 21.

The review board, in a decision signed by its chair, Lucassie Arragutainaq, recommended the project be permitted, subject to a long list of conditions.

They decided the potential environmental impact of the Polarstern’s seismic testing project is so slight that it does not require an environmental review. Based on the review board’s May 21 decision, Shewchuk had no good reason to deny the issuance of a research licence.

Just in case you didn’t get this point the first time around, we’ll repeat this: the Nunavut Impact Review Board is a creature of the Nunavut land claims agreement. Four of its eight board members are chosen from names submitted by Inuit organizations and another two from names submitted by the Government of Nunavut.

This, however, hasn’t stopped the Qikiqtani Inuit Association from alleging that the seismic project is in “breach” of the Nunavut land claims agreement. They’ve even hinted at “legal action.” So who do they plan to sue? The NIRB? The chair of the NIRB, who has also served as a longstanding QIA board member?

Resentment and fear, however, are highly pleasurable emotions. And this silly incident has provided numerous people with a splendid chance to wallow in them.

The facts, however, all of which are available to the public, show that the federal government’s seismic testing project does not threaten the prospect of a marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound. And — as long as the researchers respect the review board’s conditions — the project poses, at the very worst, only a slight threat to wildlife and quite possible no threat at all.

Contrary to claims made by the project’s more hysterical critics, this is not an “oil exploration” project.

Offshore oil exploration is done with drills mounted on ships or floating platforms and is usually carried out by private corporations, not governments. Such work may continue, day-in, day-out, for years before anyone finds enough crude to justify commercial production. Such activities really do pose serious threats to the marine environment, but that’s not what the federal government plans to do this summer.

The RV Polarstern is not a drill ship. When they arrive next week, far off the coast of Baffin near the boundary between Canada and Greenland, they will tow an underwater air gun contraption that makes loud noises in the water.

Researchers, based on land and on the ship, will measure the vibrations made by all that noise to make a map of that part of the earth that lies under the seabed. They aren’t allowed to do this work within one kilometre of any marine mammal and they must allow observers on board to ensure they comply with this requirement.

During a consultation visit to Pond Inlet, representatives from Natural Resources Canada said the Polarstern would spend about “40 hours” in Lancaster Sound.

If this is true, those who want the federal government to create a national marine park in Lancaster Sound don’t have much to worry about, even if the Polarstern identifies more areas where offshore oil and gas deposits may occur.

This past December, the federal government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association agreed to start talking to each other about creating such a park. To that end, they will work together on a $5 million feasibility study. This feasibility study will include discussion of the park’s boundaries.

These boundaries are crucial. Because if Lancaster Sound is to be protected from oil and gas exploration, planners must know where oil and gas resources are likely to be found. There’s not much point in spending millions of dollars on a conservation area if big oil and gas deposits are left outside its boundaries, free to be exploited by exploration firms.

This is why the NIRB said the project “may provide valuable information to assist Parks Canada and other agencies in identifying the requirements for a non-renewable resources assessment.”

The biggest mistake the federal government made is this: they allowed a couple of gormless, inarticulate science geeks to handle communications for the project. This is the source of pretty much all the whining we’ve all heard lately about “lack of meaningful consultation.”

So the next time the federal government is seized with the need to communicate something about a research project, perhaps they ought to assign that task to someone who knows how to communicate. JB


NIRB screening decision on ECASE project, May 21, 2010

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