B.C. Takes a Peek at Offshore Drilling Moratorium
Eager hunters of new supplies will have to wait a while for
clear word on whether a promising nearby natural gas frontier will
open up again offshore of British Columbia's western coastline. The
B.C. government is spreading a word of caution after industry
analysts and representatives put an enticing spin on statements
made by provincial energy minister Dan Miller during appearances at
the 16th World Petroleum Congress last month in Calgary.
Miller described an open-for-business B.C. policy that includes
taking another look at a moratorium against drilling offshore of
Canada's west coast. The government's word of caution is that so
far it is a gentle, preliminary look.
Exploration along B.C.'s northern coastline dates back to 1913.
Concerns in the environmental and fishing communities led to a
moratorium in 1959. It was lifted in 1966 then reinstated in 1972
as a result of more concerns ignited by tanker traffic between the
Alaskan oil port of Valdez and the lower-48 United States. The
early drilling, plus 14 wells accomplished during the six-year
reprieve from the moratorium, generated tantalizing results. They
were assembled by the Geological Survey of Canada in a 1995 report
that estimated the region harbors 20 Tcf of gas and 2.7 billion
barrels of oil. Later estimates, with revised calculating
techniques, have put the resource endowment at potentially double
the GSC estimate.
Besides the wave of interest washing out from the conference
last month, the B.C. government's promise to take another look at
the west-coast drilling moratorium also prompted a conference of
Canadian offshore oil and gas specialists in Newfoundland, at
Memorial University in St. John's. The scholarly session dwelled
heavily on ways to find a resource-management and political balance
that simultaneously allows offshore development, a healthy fishing
industry and happy environmentalists too.
In the B.C. capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island, energy
department communications officer Kerry Readshaw has instructions
to advise callers to read the government's statements literally and
carefully. Yes, the moratorium is getting a second look, and there
will be considerable work done on the issue this summer. But so
far, the work is strictly preliminary. It is a study of procedures
that should be followed if a decision is made to go ahead and
review the substance of the moratorium, Readshaw stressed. Whether
to conduct that review remains to be decided. No firm target dates
have been set for reaching conclusions. B.C. ranks with California,
Oregon and Washington on the scales of environmental sensitivity
and power wielded by conservationists, natives and fishery
interests. The petroleum industry's target area, the Queen
Charlotte Islands, stands among the most scenic and fertile regions
anywhere in Canada.
The sensitivity is well known to the industry. In 1997, Shell
Canada Ltd., Chevron Canada Resources Ltd., Petro-Canada and Mobil
Canada made a 320,000-acre donation of drilling prospects to the
Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area along the
southeastern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The event was
marked by high ceremony in Calgary, with the Duke of Edinburgh in
attendance in his capacity as a prominent royal patron of
environmental causes (the British royal family, through a
governor-general, still serves as Canada's symbolic head of state
and no serious politicians except Quebec separatists dare to tamper
with the tradition).
A joint statement by the companies, the World Wildlife Fund and
the Nature Conservancy of Canada called the Queen Charlottes a
"marine treasure" of global proportions. The donation was far from
a declaration that the companies have given up on the region,
however. The 320,000 surrendered acres represented less than 10% of
the west coast drilling prospects held under long-term leases. The
donation involved the most sensitive property, a "transition zone"
between deep waters and the land, site of a Canadian national park.
Gordon Jaremko, Calgary
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