The marathon review of a 32-year-old moratorium against natural gas exploration offshore of British Columbia has ended in a hung jury — and a warning to the minority Liberal government in Ottawa that it will take its life in its hands if it tries to change the status quo.

A flurry of political meetings ignited by the verdict ended inconclusively, with federal officials plainly heeding the warning by saying only that Prime Minister Paul Martin and his cabinet will meet about the issue at some as yet unscheduled date in the future.

In a 175-page report, BC Moratorium Public Review Panel chairman Roland Priddle, a career civil servant and former long-time chairman of the National Energy Board, delivered a clear warning to the politicians. “The Panel concludes that the strongly held and vigorously polarized views it received do not provide a ready basis for any kind of public policy compromise at this time in regard to keeping or lifting the moratorium.” There are no gray areas where federal leaders have maneuvering room, Priddle added in blunter language during a news conference in the BC capital of Victoria.

Despite a series of formal scientific findings by more specialized inquiries that drilling could be safe under proper regulation, 75% of participants in the review panel’s hearings opposed ending the moratorium, Priddle reported.

Only 23% of inquiry participants — 1,400 people attended hearings in coastal communities personally, and 3,500 written submissions including lengthy petitions were received — supported lifting the drilling ban. Only 2% favored moderate options, recommended by the scientific inquiries, of replacing the moratorium with a staged process of accepting exploration applications and allowing offshore gas activity to develop gradually one cautious move at a time, examining environmental consequences each step of the way.

BC’s majority Liberal government, inspired by visions of more than 40 Tcf of gas and eight billion barrels of oil awaiting industry off Canada’s coast, scrambled to rescue at least the gradualist development option described by the scientific reports. Provincial Energy Minister Richard Neufeld and aides flew to Ottawa for talks on Priddle’s report. He received only promises that further study and review will be conducted.

Priddle reported uncovering only one aspect of the drilling moratorium where BC society approaches agreement. “The need to address First Nations interests and concerns was the major area of near consensus.”

The richest drilling targets identified offshore of BC are in the Queen Charlotte Islands region of the northern coast, where the population is heavily aboriginal and a prolific generator of native land and environmental claims.

In a report handed down at the same time as Priddle’s findings, a special inquiry into BC aboriginal views concluded there is virtually 100% opposition among natives to lifting the environmental restrictions. The opposition is strong even among aboriginal groups that say they might support gas exploration as an economic lift. All insist too little is known about the environmental consequences, and aboriginal claims remain too unresolved for meaningful relationships to be worked out with industry.

Priddle highlighted the confusion that prevails in BC. “Ecosystem protection was a widely shared priority, but there is fundamental disagreement on how it could best be achieved: by keeping the moratorium, or by lifting it and relying on a modern regulatory regime.”

The review panel found “there was near consensus among participants (in the inquiry) that there are significant information gaps regarding biophysical data and environmental and socio-economic impacts for the Queen Charlottes Region.” How to go about filling in the gaps is an unresolved issue despite systematic procedures suggested by the previous scientific inquiries.

Priddle observed that differences among BC factions are held with the fervor of faith. “Participants wishing to keep the moratorium consider it unsafe to lift the moratorium prior to filling those gaps, while participants wishing to lift the moratorium are of the view that the only way to fill those gaps is to lift the moratorium.”

In Ottawa, the Conservative opposition encouraged BC to press a case for ending the moratorium. But the Liberal government caucus is known to be divided, with former Environment Minister David Anderson committed to fighting any change in the status quo. The New Democratic Party opposition is also on the record against ending the west coast drilling moratorium, and no one is betting how the Bloc Quebecois would come down on the issue if pressed.

“Federally we still have a lot of thinking to do,” said an aide to Natural Resources Minister John Efford. It did not help advocates of West Coast drilling that the release of the Priddle report coincided with an oil spill in stormy weather at the Terra Nova production platform about 180 miles offshore of Newfoundland. Environmentalists pointed to the accident as a prime example of risks faced in the far more attractive and populated island region offshore of BC.

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