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Producers Face Steadfast Opposition to Drilling Off Canadian West Coast

Gas producers stand warned to count on facing determined environmental resistance every step of the way if the British Columbia and federal governments press ahead on plans to end a 33-year-old ban against drilling in the offshore of the Canadian West Coast.

Just a hint that the plans may still be alive despite vigorous opposition during inquiries last year was enough to prompt a hot new protest by Victoria-based Oil Free Coast, a coalition of 105 provincial and national conservation groups.

The hint arrived in an official "statement of Canadian practice" on regulating offshore echo-sounding seismic surveys as preliminaries to drilling. No locations for future industry work were mentioned, and the governments involved disclosed no immediate plans to change policies for touchy regions.

But the document -- backed by the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia governments, as well as British Columbia. and federal authorities -- said a review of all available evidence on offshore industry activity everywhere showed properly controlled seismic surveys "are not expected to cause significant adverse environmental effects." With a couple of exceptions, "no additional mitigation measures are recommended."

The exceptions were a rule directing seismic survey vessels to give whales detected vocalizing in their areas 30 minutes to clear the area before using survey noise-makers, and an open-ended provision enabling offshore authorities to toughen policing in special cases. Extra precautions may be enforced if an environmental review shows there could be "chronic or cumulative effects" caused by multiple seismic survey vessels or by gas exploration in combination with other offshore activities.

The statement of practice was also only a draft, issued to collect public comments later this spring. But the action was enough to set off a furor in the Canadian environmental and scientific community.

On the East Coast, at Dalhousie University in the Nova Scotia capital of Halifax, whale researcher Lindy Weilgart accused the governments of making "claims that are scientifically indefensible and irresponsible given our current knowledge. It makes a mockery of science-based stewardship and fails to adequately protect the marine environment."

On the West Coast -- also known by pro-business factions across Canada as the Left Coast -- the statement was greeted as a sure sign that technical and regulatory inquiries to date have yet to kill plans to end the moratorium against drilling offshore of BC.

At the Canadian Living Oceans Society, offshore oil and gas campaign coordinator Oonagh O'Connor detected evidence of a conspiracy between industry and governments. A "strong political push" is developing, the society said in a statement issued to rally opposition. "The BC government wants us to believe seismic testing is strictly for research, but Canadians should know it's essentially a green light for the oil and gas industry to size up BC's resources."

Drilling before the moratorium arrived in 1972 led the Geological Survey of Canada to size up three sedimentary basins offshore of Canada's West Coast as harboring 40 Tcf of gas and eight billion barrels of oil.

That projection was made on the basis of a handful of wells, and advocates of ending the moratorium suggest that more information on geological structures is bound to follow the usual pattern of leading to increased resource estimates.

Officially, the industry is staying out of any conflicts with the environmentalists. ChevronTexaco's Chevron Canada Resources, which has a long history as a foremost frontier "explorationist" firm, officially rates the region offshore of BC as far more remote from a political point of view than the Arctic, where it took out new drilling leases a year ago.

But conservationists plainly intend to take no chances on any BC politicians coming through a forthcoming provincial election without at least making promises to be careful about ending the offshore drilling moratorium. In BC, the first Canadian jurisdiction to set election dates rather than leave the timing up to the premier, the provincial vote will be held May 17.

The current Liberal government has repeatedly predicted an offshore gas industry will develop. But the administration has made no moves since an inquiry by former National Energy Board chairman Roland Priddle reported last winter that the BC population is deeply divided and no factions appear to be willing to compromise on environmental issues. The opposition New Democrat Party's leader, Carole James, is on record as uncompromisingly against lifting the offshore drilling ban.

The storm over ocean drilling exploration is not, however, expected to spill over into disrupting steady growth in northern BC gas exploration and development. Seeds of the growth were planted by the last NDP administration in the late 1990s during a real-estate, forest-products and mining slump that inspired BC leaders of all political stripes to hunt for economic growth sources, the Vancouver resource business law firm of Clark Wilson pointed out in a client newsletter.

NDP actions included drilling incentives and reduction of formerly renowned red tape obstacles by creation in 1998 of the BC Oil and Gas Commission. The agency mimics the brisk regulatory apparatus of Conservative-ruled Alberta and was devised in consultation with the Calgary-based gas industry.

At worst, the lawyers expect even a change of government to have little or no effect on northern BC gas activity except possibly to avoid expanding industry access to the most remote, unexplored and expensive regions of the Rocky Mountains foothills. That leaves open a vast region of plains and woods where a long lineup of Canadian companies, such as EnCana Corp., continue to accelerate development and production.

Much political discussion is expected to continue on prospects for coalbed methane development in BC, but it will be a largely theoretical environmental debate on potential consequences if the industry becomes interested. Despite royalty incentives and proposed extra inducements through the corporate tax system, gas producers are still at the research stage when it comes to BC coalbed methane. BC coal seams are wet and remote. Industry attention remains concentrated on shallow, dry seams in Alberta which are within short distances of its population centres on paved roads and often in areas where the community is already used to extensive conventional shallow gas activity.

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