Monday, January 09, 2006

Canadian Waters with Beluga Whales Opening to Oil and Gas Development

CBC News

The federal government is opening part of a protected beluga whale habitat in the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea to oil and gas companies. Companies have until the beginning of May this year to place their bids on two parcels of water in the region with protected whale habitat, Ottawa announced this week.

The parcels comprise about 156,300 hectares. One is about 70 kilometres west of Tuktoyaktuk, and the other is off the northern coast of the Yukon in northwestern Canada. The Canadian government is offering nine-year exploration licences to the successful bidders, in consecutive terms of five and four years.

Between 20,000 and 40,000 beluga whales migrate into the area every summer because the shallow and relatively warm water offers them easy access to prey. Drilling is prohibited in the most sensitive areas but allowed in the surrounding water, with some restrictions. Federal officials say environmental screening processes will ensure gas explorers don't damage whale habitat.

"They have to be aware that it's not full blown or 100 per cent business as usual if they get a licence in this area," says Richard Casey of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, which regulates oil and gas development offshore in the North. "There might be some specifics that will be asked of them."

"If the migratory route happens during a specific period of time, they won't be allowed to pursue any activity during those months."

However, the move has environmentalists concerned. Peter Ewins of the World Wildlife Federation says the government should be thinking more about protecting habitat and less about making money.

"The federal government is clearly continuing to respond to the pressure of the oil and gas sector to accelerate finds in the Mackenzie Delta-Beaufort region," he says. "And that's all well and good if there were an adequate marine and land-based conservation plan in place. There is not."

Pressure is building on the beluga whale habitat in the Delta. One company wants to dredge through the protected area so it can move its gas production facility into the area. Much of the surrounding water is already leased to gas companies.

Beluga whales are an important part of the Arctic environment and for the Inuit as well. The beluga whale is also well represented in Inuit arts and crafts. For example, see beluga whale Inuit carvings.

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