Canadian conservation groups are celebrating the proposed creation of an Arctic marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound, a region long-threatened by the possibility of exploratory oil and gas drilling.
Shell Canada first applied for exploration rights in Lancaster Sound in 1971 and although the related permits were set to expire by 1979 and despite a moratorium on drilling in the region, they inexplicably remained listed on the public registry of active permits.
Those permits, which granted Shell offshore rights in the waters of Baffin Bay, frustrated a decades-long fight to protect the biodiversity rich Lancaster Sound, an area famous for its large populations of narwhal, beluga, walrus and polar bear.
In April Ecojustice on behalf of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) filed a suit against Shell Canada and the federal government. Ecojustice maintained the expired permits, whose geographical boundaries overlapped proposed protected areas, should be struck down.
On the eve of World Oceans Day, Shell Canada announced it was voluntarily releasing the permits and granted the land to the federal government via the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The federal government in turn announced a five-year plan to establish more ocean protections including the creation of the Lancaster Sound Marine Conservation Area.
Canada is far behind other western nations when it comes to ocean protection. According to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, only 0.11 per cent of Canada’s ocean area is protected from industrial activity. Canada recently announced a plan to raise that figure to 10 per cent, which would bring the country in line with conservation benchmarks achieved in the U.S. and the U.K.
Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, told DeSmog Canada he is very pleased with today’s announcement.
"With Shell giving up its permits, a major hurdle to the creation of the Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area has been lifted," he said.
"That said, the obvious next step would be to move forward with the finalization of the NMCA and making sure that the boundaries proposed by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and supported by our client are adopted. The Arctic is an incredibly unique and biodiverse region and protecting Lancaster Sound, along with other important marine areas, is essential if Canada is to meet its commitments to protect coastal and marine areas."
The Qikiqtani Inuit Association's proposed boundaries for a marine conservation area based on traditional knowledge of the land. Over the years successive federal governments refused to draft marine conservation plans that aligned with local Inuit boundaries because of Shell’s permits in the proposed zone.
In a previous interview Page said the fact that climate change is opening up the Arctic to oil exploration is a “troubling irony.”
“We need to do whatever we can to stop full-scale exploration of the Arctic,” he said, adding that despite major international climate treaties like the Paris Agreement “you can see no change in behaviour from the oil industry.”
David Miller, president and CEO of WWF, said having a marine sanctuary in Lancaster Sound has been a goal of his organization for many years.
“Lancaster Sound is an incredibly ecologically rich area: it’s rich from the perspective of those who value nature as a critical part of our world that we need to support. It’s also rich from perspective of local people who get their sustenance and basic way of life from the same natural bounty that is there,” Miller told DeSmog Canada in an April interview.
“As the arctic warms quite rapidly we really need to preserve areas like Lancaster Sound and conserve them so ice-dependent species — which will have areas with less lengthy sea ice — will have chance of surviving.”
“There’s no question that climate change is opening up the Arctic to exploration that couldn’t have been dreamed of 15 years ago — not just oil and gas but any resource development on an industrial scale,” Miller said.
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) June 9, 2016
“From an environmental perspective the existence of potentially active permits adjacent to or within boundaries to marine conservation area creates huge obstacle to the potential for creating marine conservation areas.”
Ian Miron, staff counsel with Ecojustice said the legal challenge was “certainly not the first step in this process.”
The government failed for years to explain why the permits were being treated as valid, Miron told DeSmog Canada.
“These permits are under the jurisdiction of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada,” he said. “On their face the permits were scheduled to expire in 1979.”
Image: Lancaster sound. Photo: Christopher Debicki via Pew Charitable Trusts