National News

Ottawa OKs Arctic offshore seismic tests

By The Canadian Press

Ottawa has approved energy exploration in offshore Arctic waters over the objections of Inuit communities and organizations.

In a letter to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says he sees no reason to deny proposed seismic tests off the coast of Baffin Island later this summer.

"I see neither the need nor the benefit to put seismic exploration on hold," he wrote in the June 10 letter.

Earlier this year, the National Energy Board concluded hearings on a proposal from a consortium of three international companies to conduct seismic testing off the eastern coast of Baffin Island.

The proposal was opposed by the mayors of five communities, the regional Inuit organization and Nunavut's environmental review board.

Inuit people fear the effect that the loud sounds used in the tests would have on the marine mammals they depend on for food. They also say the companies have provided little information on their plans or opportunity for Inuit to comment on them.

"We'd like to use the Inuit knowledge around where the marine wildlife is and when," said Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani association. "We're concerned about calving grounds and migration areas."

Valcourt notes the department is currently doing a strategic environmental assessment of the entire area to inform future decisions on development. The proposed seismic program could contribute to that, he wrote.

"Information gleaned from offshore geophysical operations such as seismic exploration surveys can also contribute to the strategic environmental assessment by focusing analysis and identifying those regions with the highest resource potential."

Eegeesiak said no work should go ahead until that report is in.

"We feel that this work needs to be done before any applications are considered," she said. "Most of the questions Inuit have would be addressed through the assessment and we support that assessment."

Eegeesiak notes Inuit have gone to court before over seismic testing in waters they want left alone.

In 2010, a Nunavut court issued an injunction to stop seismic testing in Lancaster Sound, a proposed Arctic national marine park. The injunction forced the German research vessel involved to change its route mid-cruise.

Eegeesiak said such measures are being considered again. She said neither industry nor government have improved their approach to involving and informing Inuit of resource developments being considered in the waters they've used for centuries.

"They still don't get it," Eegeesiak said. "They still don't get the fact that Inuit have concerns and we want to be part of the process. When we're part of the process we are likely to support it more."

The seismic plan off Baffin Island isn't the only Arctic offshore proposal working its way through an approval process.

In the western Arctic, an aboriginal regulator is setting up hearings into a plan led by Imperial Oil (TSX:IMO) to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea in 2020.

The wells would be about 175 kilometres offshore from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., in water up to 850 metres deep, and are so complex and difficult to drill that the company estimates it would take at least two seasons to complete one.

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