British Columbia considers lifting moratorium on offshore exploration

The British Columbia government is considering lifting a moratorium on offshore oil and gas development. It will unveil a plan on the controversial subject within 2 weeks. The federal and provincial governments froze activity on 22 million acres of offshore leases in 1972. Some companies still hold drilling rights in the region.


By an OGJ Online Correspondent

CALGARY, July 18 -- The British Columbia government is considering lifting a moratorium on offshore oil and gas development. It will unveil a plan on the controversial subject within 2 weeks.

The province has a longstanding drilling moratorium in the environmentally sensitive region off the Queen Charlotte Islands on the province's north coast, although the Geological Survey of Canada estimates the area has reserves of 9.8 billion bbl of oil and 25.9 tcf of natural gas (OGJ, Nov. 13, 2000, p. 26).

The federal and provincial governments froze activity on 22 million acres of federal leases off British Columbia in 1972. Some companies still hold drilling rights in the region.

Energy Minister Richard Neufeld said the government will move faster than the recommendations made in a report this week by northern development commissioner John Backhouse. The Backhouse report said public hearings on the issue should begin this fall in northern and coastal communities and be completed by Mar. 31.

Neufeld said the report is a leftover from the former New Democratic government, and the province can't afford to wait until March 2002 to deal with the issue. He said the recently elected Liberal government will take the offshore oil and gas issue forward "in an expedited fashion."

The energy minister said meetings are necessary with the public and some experts before making a decision, but this can be done faster than the Backhouse report suggests. He said the report took 2 years and cost $350,000, but never addresses the substantive issues.

The Liberal government says it would support drilling only if it can be done in an environmentally responsible way.

Supporters of development say offshore drilling would trigger a badly needed economic boom for the region.

David McGuigan, chair of the North Coast Oil and Gas Task Force, said the time has come for development, and there is excitement about the possibility. The prodevelopment group is based in the city of Prince Rupert.

Environmental groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation say drilling in the earthquake-prone region would pose a serious threat to a biologically rich marine area from possible oil spills and leaks.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers wants to access offshore reserves but will not become involved until a drilling moratorium is lifted.

The federal government, British Columbia, and aboriginal communities would have to agree before the ban could be lifted.

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