This week I attended a meeting to update local stakeholders on the progress of research into the many ecosystems of the Beaufort Sea and the potential impacts of oil and/or gas exploration, which has been frozen since 2016.
During the meeting, a number of viewpoints were put forward. Someone made the point that a lot of money was sitting dormant while the government moves at its usual pace towards a decision. On the flip side, concerns about water temperature, changing climate affecting sea ice and increasing ocean traffic were all raised, often by the same people.
Taking a balanced view is necessary. Even if there is no development, there will be an expansion of traffic in the Beaufort as goods are shipped and other jurisdictions explore their reserves and Canada’s military responds to other powers testing our sovereignty.
With most of the North running on diesel for its winter electricity, a steady supply of natural gas seems like it would be a net carbon reduction, in spite of being a greenhouse gas. Perhaps some enterprising engineers can work out a way to capture some of the methane escaping from the permafrost while they’re at it, breaking down more powerful emissions into less powerful ones and getting some electricity in the process. Inter-weaved with solar electricity during the long summer days, economic development could be accelerated while avoiding many of the environmental mistakes of the past.
Oil might not be such a workable prospect. With more and more places finding reserves — Iran being the latest — and Donald Trump opening the door to fracking (which has been proven to increase the likelihood of earthquakes), the market continues to get saturated with the stuff. I don’t know what the price of a barrel has to be to justify a rig up here but in Alberta, it needed to be consistently $80 or better to bother.
And, of course, there’s the whole spilling problem. Oil spills can happen wherever there is oil production or transportation. The most recent was the Keystone pipeline, which just leaked 1,449,813 L of tar sands crude into a North Dakota wetland. Alberta itself averages roughly 1,000 pipeline breaches annually.
Natural gas breaches aren’t nice either, but they’re substantially less permanent than oil spills. Though melting permafrost between here and central Canada pretty much ensures there won’t be any pipelines to the Arctic anytime soon.
So people are going to have to make some serious decisions pretty quickly. From the evidence I’ve seen so far, natural gas exploration would be the lesser of two evils and would be sustainable, provide energy and heating security and bring some economic growth while reducing diesel use, thus reducing greenhouse gases overall, though careful regulation of who can sail through our waters and when will be needed.
A well planned proposal to the current Prime Minister could unlock enough social license to get the moratorium on gas exploration re-examined. But with only so many resources at its disposal, the new government will have to pick its battles carefully.