Government secrecy threatens Beaufort belugas

by Jack Locke

The government of Canada has put a cloak of secrecy around the hunt for hydrocarbons hidden offshore of Canada’s northern Arctic frontier. As international oil giants invest billions to purchase Canadian government leases to explore the Beaufort Sea, the formal applications to the National Energy Board remain secret, inaccessible for public review.

“In accordance with the requirements of the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, generally all information and documents submitted as part of an application under the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act and Canada Petroleum Resources Act are privileged,” says Sarah Kiley, National Energy Board’s Planning, Policy & Coordination Communications Officer.

In 2007, Imperial Oil in partnership with ExxonMobil Canada bought the rights from the federal government to explore with an aim to develop approximately 500,000 acres(200,000 hectares) of the Beaufort Sea. In 2008, Canada’s department of Indian and Northern Affairs granted three companies the right to explore a total of 849,194 square hectares in the Beaufort.

The Prime Minister’s recent announcement of the creation of three marine protected areas comprising a total of 1,800 square kilometres in a region adjacent to significant oil and gas exploration activities seems a tad tiny– tokenistic even–in comparison to the oil and gas activity in the region.

In August the federal government also announced a Beaufort Regional Environmental Assessment Initiative, at the very moment when extensive exploration was being performed.

As the Prime Minister was making his announcements on land, two ships, the M/V Polar Prince and the M/V BOS Atlantic were conducting seismic surveys over a 20,000 square kilometre(2 million sq. hectare) area. Details from the NEB do not provide much more than these few statistics as the secrecy provisions deny full disclosure.

“…information or documentation is privileged if it is provided for the purposes of this Act or the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act… or for the purposes of Part II.1 of the National Energy Board Act, whether or not the information or documentation is required to be provided,” states the Canada Petroleum Resources Act.

For oil and gas companies, the play for Arctic riches is a risky gamble, where the highest bidder buys the right from the government to develop a piece of frozen ocean floor to conduct seismic mapping in order to locate the most probable spot to drill a well.

In 2008, BP Exploration bid $1.181 billion for a 202,380 hectare exploration licence from the department of Indian and Northern Affairs. The department at that time granted three companies the right to explore a total of 849,194 square hectares.

In 2007, Imperial Oil in partnership with Exxon-Mobil bought the rights from the federal government to explore a big chunk of the Beaufort Sea, approximately an area the size of 400,000 football fields.

It would take one event in the Beaufort sea similar to this summer’s BP Deepwater Horizon disaster to rapidly devastate the protected areas, with less possibility of conducting an effective clean-up. In addition, a blow-out could take years to stop due to the difficulty of operating in the Beaufort.

The seismic testing alone has significant negative environmental implications.

Extending behind ships as they criss-cross back and forth in a strategic grid are cables that set off continuous violent blasts of air from airguns.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the explosive release of air from airguns can create source sound amplitudes of up to 240 decibels. The continuous blasting can last for weeks or months at intervals of every few seconds.

“Seismic testing is very damaging to cetaceans(large aquatic mammals), as it can cause permanent hearing loss, and loss of location ability. You cannot protect belugas in the same area in which you are developing oil and gas,” says Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party.

The American government’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory set up an underwater listening device in the mid-Atlantic. They were able to detect seismic mapping airgun blasts off the coast of Nova Scotia that were 3,000 kilometres away from the listening.

The belugas, also known as the Canary whale for their making of twittering-like sounds, might chirp or question the intention of Prime Minister Harper who concluded his marine protection announcement with the following:

“Congratulations to everyone who played a role…in the creation of this marine protected area, you have helped us make an historic investment in our future.”

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