Canada's drilling ban

British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh last week squelched an effort to lift a long-standing moratorium that prohibits drilling off his province's picturesque Pacific coast.

Although the British Columbia government has been adept at encouraging exploration onshore, it has long been cool to offshore drilling (OGJ, Aug. 24, 1998, p. 24).

A 1972 Canadian and provincial moratorium froze activity on 22 million hectares of federal leases off British Columbia.

Two years ago, a Geological Survey of Canada report estimated the offshore region could hold more than 9.8 billion bbl of oil and 42 tcf of gas, with a combined value of more than $50 billion (Can.). Geologists believe the resources are clustered near the Queen Charlotte Islands, north of Vancouver Island.

Shell Canada Ltd., Petro-Canada, and Chevron Canada Resources Ltd. still hold drilling rights in the area. They are keeping a low profile on the issue.

The federal resource estimates were nearly 10 times those for the cluster of fields found off Newfoundland in the Atlantic.

An effort was begun in the 1980s to remove the drilling ban, but it ended when the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef and polluted Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.

New review

A group of Prince Rupert, BC, citizens launched another effort to lift the ban a few years ago.

The North Coast Oil & Gas Task Force said that the demise of the West Coast fishing industry had helped increase support in coastal towns for offshore exploration.

Last year, the British Columbia government and Northern Development Commissioner John Backhouse paid a Vancouver consulting firm to gauge the depth of public support for lifting the moratorium.

That report concluded there was enough public interest in the issue, especially along the coast, to justify the government reconsideration of the moratorium.

Last summer, Backhouse said the province would review the necessity for the drilling ban. But his was not the last word.

Veto

Environmental opposition to offshore exploration was renewed, and in response,

Premier Dosanjh, who heads the liberal New Democratic Party, vetoed the idea last week.

The premier acknowledged the desire in some communities to revisit the issue, but said, "Maintaining the environmental values of our coastal waters is our government's first and foremost concern."

He said, "I understand and support the need to diversify the economies of coastal communities and plan to work with them to ensure we do that, but I will also continue to protect the environmental values all B.C. families care about.

"There has been no scientific or environmental evidence to support lifting the ban....There are sound reasons for maintaining it. Our oil and gas moratorium will not be revisited until science is able to address the dangers from earthquakes and potential spills to safeguard our coastal waters," Dosanjh said.

The government's position could be short-lived. The New Democrats face an election before mid-2001, and polls indicate the opposition Liberal Party is heavily favored to win.

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