Drilling for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea will have a small impact on the ecology, but an oil spill would cause a great deal of damage to the region. But climate change will have far more devastating effects on the region regardless of what development occurs over the next decade.

Those are the conclusions of the Beaufort Region Strategic Environmental Assessment Final Assessment Report, which was released Sept. 11, and written by consulting firm Kavik-Stantec.

Northstar Island, an artificial island built north of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. A new study by the IRC and Joint Secretariat concludes offshore drilling would have a minimum impact on the ecology so long as best practices are followed.
Photo courtesy Joint Pipeline Office

“The Inuvialuit Game Council, as the body that represents the Inuvialuit in all matters that pertain to wildlife, believes that the future of the Beaufort Sea and management of its resources is best served when it brings together the best information, from both scientific and traditional knowledge,” said Inuvialuit Game Council Acting Chair Jim Elias in a statement. ” We are proud to continue to work with Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and the Federal Government on ensuring that Inuvialuit benefit from the activities in the Beaufort Sea while still being able to sustain our traditional culture and practices.”

Looking at five potential future scenarios in the Beaufort Delta under the assumption of global warming proceeding at ‘business as usual’ — which is considered the worst case scenario — the strategy focused on the environmental conditions if the current moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Beaufort Sea remained in place, if it was scaled back to allow for shipping natural gas to export markets, if it was scaled back further to allow for drilling on the continental shelf, at depths of less than 40 metres and up to 50 kilometres offshore, and if it was pulled back completely to allow for development in exploration licences on the continental slope, in depths as deep as 1200 metres. The study then looks at how those would affect wildlife and people in the Beaufort Delta, referred to as Valued Components (VCs.)

A chart outlining four potential development scenarios and risks they present to biological and cultural factors in the Beaufort Delta.
Photo courtesy Kavik-Stantec

The report also outlines potential scenarios for an oil spill under several conditions, ranging from time of year and the location of the spill.

In the four development scenarios, the report concludes the adverse effects of even large scale development on the continental slope would be low on sea ice, migratory and resident sea birds, marine mammals and fish and the lower trophic levels. Effects on polar bears, caribou, water quality and the coastal habitat would be negligible. It notes the report assumes any development is done according to best industry practices and environmental management in determining potential effects of development.

It also concludes any development would have a moderate-to-high positive effect on the economy and both retaining and attracting new residents, and a low-but adverse effect on cultural vitality.

A chart summarizing the types of activity that would come with great oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea and the potential effects they could have on wildlife and people.
Photo courtesy Kavik-Stantec

Also analyzed by the report were specific industrial activities that would increase if oil and gas exploration were to be stepped up, particularly boat and air traffic, seismic testing, offshore dredging, pipelines and drilling, waste discharges and new administrative buildings. The report concludes these factors would have a low-but-adverse effect on environmental factors, including polar bear and caribou populations. The report notes that while industrial activity would put stress on the environment, the cash windfall from such economic development would allow for potential increases in human well-being through more resources for government programs.

An oil spill, on the other hand, would have a highly adverse effect on both environmental and human well-being. The report notes oceanography and coastal habitat, as well as animal life from fish to polar bears would be significantly hurt by a spill. It also would put a big strain on the local economy and cultural activities, among other human factors.

A chart outlining the effects an oil spill would have on people and wildlife in the Beaufort Delta.
Photo courtesy Kavik-Stantec

Wrapping up its findings, the report notes that climate change was going to have a far greater effect on the local ecology and landscape than development, as well as largely negatively affecting the people who live in the Delta. Damage to infrastructure, traditional activities and landmarks, food security and increased risk of disease are all listed as potential risks of global warming.

It also notes that even if the current moratorium on offshore development remains in place, the Beaufort Sea will still be affected by a great deal of activity, ranging from cruise ship activities, military exercises, shipping lanes and aircrafts, as well as by traditional practices.

Eric Bowling

Your source for all things happening in the Beaufort Delta. Eric jumped at the chance to write for the Inuvik Drum after cutting his teeth in Alberta. He enjoys long walks, loud music and strong coffee....

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