Old Arctic Drilling Permits Hold Up Protection for Narwhal Whales

Activists sue the Canadian government to quash 30 oil and gas exploration permits issued to Shell Canada in 1971.
(Photo: Paul Nicklen/Getty Images)
May 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Decades-old oil and gas drilling permits are blocking efforts to protect the world’s most important habitat for Arctic narwhals, according to environmentalists who have sued the Canadian government to overturn the licenses.

World Wildlife Fund–Canada, represented by lawyers from Toronto-based Ecojustice, filed the lawsuit in April in Canadian federal court. The group is seeking to force the government to recognize that 30 permits for oil and gas exploration in Lancaster Sound are invalid and to update government records to reflect that.

The permits were issued in 1971 to Shell Canada and expired in 1979, said Ian Miron, an attorney with Ecojustice.

The government has prohibited oil or gas activities in the area on and off since the early 1980s, but WWF-Canada believes that no moratorium has been in place since 2000, according to Miron.

“The government has continued to treat these permits as valid, and it’s my understanding that Shell is doing the same,” he said. “Our position is that according to the law, they are not valid.”

The permits’ shadowy status with Canada’s registrar of petroleum permits, which is part of the agency Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, has contributed to several years of debate between the government and the region’s Inuit over the scope of a proposed marine-protected area in Lancaster Sound, Miron said.

“Essentially, the government proposed a boundary for what would be protected, and the Inuit proposed a boundary that’s larger and covers some critically important areas of Lancaster Sound that don’t fall within boundaries of the government’s proposed area,” he explained.

The government’s plan would encompass about 18,500 square miles of Lancaster Sound, according to the Parks Canada website.

But its proposed borders “skirt around these permits issued to Shell in the 1970s,” said Miron.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada declined an interview request. “The government of Canada will continue to work towards ecologically sustainable development in the north, and science and conservation goals will guide the potential of oil and gas exploration in the area,” agency spokesperson Shawn Jackson wrote in an email.

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The deep fjords and icy shores of Lancaster Sound, which is at the eastern end of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, harbor millions of seabirds. The sound is also a globally important habitat for marine mammal species, including polar bears, narwhals, bowhead and beluga whales, walruses, and ringed, bearded, and harp seals.

“Arctic cod is the lynchpin of the Lancaster Sound ecosystem,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Oceans North program website, “swimming in schools as large as 30,000 tons.”

The area “has supported Inuit harvesting and culture for millennia,” said Paul Crowley, WWF-Canada’s vice president for Arctic issues.

“Most of the world’s narwhals go through Lancaster Sound, giving Canada an incredible responsibility in the world,” he added. “One-seventh of the world’s belugas go through there.”

Lancaster Sound is also at the southern edge of the area where, scientists believe, Arctic Sea ice and animals like the polar bear, which can’t survive without it, will make their last stand in coming decades against rising global temperatures brought on by climate change.

“Having oil and gas permits right next to the boundary of a really rich marine park, you have to wonder how sensible that could be in any event,” Crowley said. “Oil in water currents will not stay put. Oil on ice will not stay put as the ice moves around, and that’s impossible to clean up. So there is no logic of having permits still there.”

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which has represented Inuit communities in the planning process for the marine-protected area, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Crowley said his organization has tried to determine why the government has continued to keep the exploration licenses on the books. “There is nothing in the public record that indicates why those permits are still valid,” he said. “For years, the government has stalled on listening to what Inuit wanted in the area.”

Shell Canada spokesperson Cameron Yost termed the lawsuit “unfortunate.”

“Shell supports the aim of government, indigenous communities and environmental organisations to establish a Canadian National Marine Conservation Area for Lancaster Sound,” Yost wrote in an email. “A government moratorium has been in place for nearly 40 years in the Lancaster Sound and Baffin Bay regions. Shell has not conducted any exploration activities on these lands since the moratorium.”