Seismic testing in proposed Arctic marine sanctuary draws fire

A Nunavut review agency has approved controversial federal plans to use seismic testing in a proposed Arctic marine sanctuary to probe for possible offshore oil and gas deposits this summer.

In approving the planned Geological Survey of Canada scan for petroleum in Lancaster Sound – an area at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage that is slated to become a National Marine Conservation Area – the Nunavut Impact Review Board cautioned that the GSC and Parks Canada need to better co-ordinate their dual objectives of looking for oil while protecting what Environment Minister Jim Prentice has hailed as one of Canada’s "richest ecological areas."

The apparent conflict between federal departments, revealed by Canwest News Service in April, is flagged in the NIRB decision as "a lack of co-ordination between Geological Survey of Canada and other federal departments."

The ruling also highlighted the "lack of meaningful consultation with potentially affected communities."

The GSC, the ruling states, "is strongly encouraged to share the results of its research with Parks Canada to further the development of a mineral and energy resources assessment for Lancaster Sound, and to further consult with potentially affected communities prior to conducting planned activities in the region."

Earlier this month, after the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster prompted concerns about possible offshore spills in Canada, a federal plan to test new oil-dispersal techniques in the icy waters of Lancaster Sound was scuttled.

In December, when Prentice and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq announced a $5-million study on the feasibility of declaring Lancaster Sound a national conservation zone, the ministers trumpeted the sound as "one of the richest marine mammal areas in the world," noting that "during the summer months most of the world’s narwhal, a third of North America’s belugas, large numbers of the Eastern Arctic’s bowhead whales, as well as ringed seals, harp seals and walrus are found in these waters.”

The region "also harbours one of the highest densities of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic and about one-third of Eastern Canada’s colonial seabirds breed and feed here,” the ministers’ statement noted.

Chris Debicki, Nunavut project director for Pew Environment Group’s Oceans North, said the NIRB ruling was important for making clear the "confused signals" being sent by the federal government over the future of Lancaster Sound.

He called for an "unambiguous statement" from the federal cabinet that there is "no intention" to develop Lancaster Sound in ways that would threaten its planned protected status.

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