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Arctic drilling review begins

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 31, 2011

INUVIK - The potential for offshore exploration in the Beaufort Sea is a small step closer to realization now that the National Energy Board has embarked on the beginning stages of its Arctic safety review.

The NEB, a body of federal regulators, is responsible for measuring the overall safety of offshore drilling in the Arctic to decide whether such projects should proceed.

At an early round of public consultations in Inuvik Jan. 20, NEB chairperson Gaetan Caron said the board wants to make sure offshore drilling won't adversely affect the environment, wildlife, or hunting along the coast.

"Your ways of life are on our mind, and if people have concerns about safety, we want to talk about it," Caron told about 20 Delta residents who attended the NEB's informal open house in Inuvik earlier this month.

The public meeting was part of the first stage of the NEB's three-stage process ending in the issuing of a public report on Arctic offshore exploration. A timeline for completion of the review has yet been set, although the board has a travel budget of at least $300,000 to conduct meetings across the Beaufort Delta, in Yellowknife, Iqaluit and Whitehorse.

The review's scope is wide, as the board also needs to prioritize emergency planning to ensure Beaufort Delta communities have the equipment, resources and training to deal with an oil spill such as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last April that shocked the industry and prompted similar offshore reviews in the United States.

If such a spill were to happen in the western Arctic, residents agreed it would be detrimental as communities have a long way to go before they're fully prepared.

"God forbid there's an accident in the North because they're going to wipe out our whole life," said Patrick Gruben, who grew up on the coast of Tuktoyaktuk. "We don't want to see it happen because this could wipe out a generation."

The Inuvialuit Game Council is working closely with residents to relay their concerns about offshore drilling to the NEB, and Douglas Esagok, president of the local Hunters and Trappers Committee, is an Inuvik resident representative as the board moves forward with its review.

Esagok said it was important for him to get involved in the process to help find a balance between industry and environment.

"We look at the ocean as our bank and our grocery store - 45 per cent of what we eat is from the sea," he said. "If we were to lose that 45 per cent, it's going to affect everything."

The second stage of the review is expected to start this summer and will involve more meetings with politicians and groups across all three territories before the board is ready to release its final report.

Brian Chambers, the NEB's Yellowknife-based Northern advisor, said the board has developed a safety checklist it will look at when deciding whether to approve exploration projects.

"What we're doing is reviewing to see if that checklist is complete and covers all of the areas of concern that people who live in the Mackenzie Delta/Beaufort area want to see in place," Chambers said.

"We're interested in hearing people's views on what the NEB as a regulator should take into consideration in reviewing applications for drilling in the Beaufort Sea that may come forward."

The NEB plans to return to the Beaufort Delta for more community consultations this summer.

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