Prentice talks a confused line on Arctic

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Every schoolchild knows that the Arctic and the Antarctic are the most fragile ecosystems in the world -- and the "last frontier" in humanity's ever-more-frantic race to drain the Earth's store of fossil fuels to the last drop.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/06/2010 (4450 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every schoolchild knows that the Arctic and the Antarctic are the most fragile ecosystems in the world — and the "last frontier" in humanity’s ever-more-frantic race to drain the Earth’s store of fossil fuels to the last drop.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice appears to have four positions on Arctic oil and gas exploration: perhaps drill, perhaps preserve, gut environmental regulations, and criticize other countries who might drill.

Lancaster Sound (Talluritup Tariunga in Inuktitut) was named in 1616 by explorer William Baffin after one of his patrons. It lies between Devon Island and Baffin Island. To its east is Baffin Bay; to its west is Viscount Melville Sound; to the west, is McClure Strait leading to the Arctic Ocean.

Its wildlife is rich and varied, including most of the world’s surviving narwals, one-third of North America’s belugas, endangered bowhead whales, ringed, bearded and harp seals, walrus, polar bears and thick-billed murres.

Its soaring 400-metre cliffs are nesting grounds for roughly one-third of eastern Canada’s seabird colonies, including black-legged Kittiwakes, northern fulmars, black guillemots, Arctic terns, ivory gulls and snow geese, many of which dine on the sound’s 30 species of fish, including an estimated 30,000 tonnes of Arctic cod annually.

On Dec. 8, 2009, Prentice announced a $5-million feasibility study to designate Lancaster Sound, the eastern portion of the Northwest Passage, a new national marine conservation area.

But in April, 2010, Natural Resources Canada’s Geological Survey of Canada submitted a proposal to the Nunavut Impact Review Board to do seismic testing for oil and gas within Lancaster and Jones sounds this summer.

In late May, the board gave the green light, ignoring the unanimous opposition from Inuit mayors and hunters.

Prentice insists the seismic tests won’t slow steps towards protecting Lancaster Sound as a marine park. "I have no information to indicate that the seismic testing…would represent a threat to wildlife in any way, or to living life in the oceans. There’s no indication of that," he says.

Discovering what resources lie beneath the seabed is just a normal step before the sound can be protected, he continues. "I think, quite appropriately, we want to know the nature of the resources that are there for future planning, so that it’s clear to us."

Not only does the mention of "resources" raise suspicion, but Prentice’s assurances appear at odds with his government’s actions. The Conservatives have refused to issue a moratorium on off-shore drilling. While Prentice says "there are no licences issued for deep wells," he tellingly adds "the soonest anybody could drill deep wells in the Canadian Arctic is 2014."

The Toronto Star reported on May 26 that the Geological Survey plans to use powerful blasts from underwater air guns, towed by a German research vessel, to look for oil and natural gas fields in Lancaster Sound. The blasts would occur at one-minute intervals for a total of 600 hours.

Environmentalists warn the shots could damage the hearing and sonar navigation of whales, belugas and other sea mammals, disrupting their migratory patterns.

The review panel proposes "that all air gun start-up procedures include a ‘soft-start/ramping-up’ period" and that the guns stay silent if marine mammals or seabird colonies are spotted within a "full 1,000-metre safety zone."

To its credit, the panel criticizes the "lack of consultation" between the Geological Survey and other federal departments and cites "a lack of meaningful consultation with potentially affected communities."

Among a wide range of non-budget-related initiatives cleverly wedged into the government’s 900-page budget bill, is the gutting of Canada’s environmental rules. The budget is a confidence matter and is being used by the minority Conservatives as a vehicle to push through programs and policies.

Although Canada’s environmental regime is much weaker than America’s, the budget bill endows the environment minister with new powers to limit and exempt future infrastructure and resource projects from any review.

But none of this stops Prentice from lecturing other jurisdictions about their environmental lapses.

Today, he plans to raise concerns at an Arctic environment ministers’ meeting about a newly licenced Greenland offshore project in the Davis Strait. Massive icebergs pass through the strait’s rough waters on their journey to the Atlantic Ocean.

States Prentice: "We want to make sure that the standards that are in place (in Greenland) are the highest environmental standards."

 

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

 

 

History

Updated on Wednesday, June 9, 2010 2:59 PM CDT: Jim Prentice is the federal Minister of Environment. Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this article.

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