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B.C. Takes a Peek at Offshore Drilling Moratorium

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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