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This Tiny Town Is the Last Wall Against Oil Exploration in Canada’s Arctic

“It’s a tiny community of [about 1,000] people taking on the federal government of Canada and three multi-billion dollar energy companies — opponents with virtually unlimited resources,” says a lawyer for residents of a Nunavut hamlet.

by Hilary Beaumont
Nov 19 2015, 3:45pm

Niore Iqalukjuak

The hunters could see something was wrong with the seal. 

As they moved closer, they expected the animal to escape into a hole in the ice, but it didn't move. When they got right up close, they could see pus in its ears.

For the hunters in the hamlet of Clyde River, Nunavut, on the northeast coast of Baffin Island, the deaf seal was one among many. According to Clyde River mayor Jerry Natanine, who recounted their stories to VICE News, the hunters believe the seismic blasts that cut through the region in the '70s and '80s were responsible for seals and other animals losing their hearing.

"That's what the hunters concluded, but obviously there's no way to prove it," Natanine said.

According to testimony before the National Energy Board (NEB), oil exploration companies drilled 93 wells in the Beaufort Sea and 40 wells near the Arctic Islands in the '70s and '80s, employing locals but also leaving behind oil spills and deaf animals. It wasn't economically feasible to extract the oil at the time, so exploration ended.

The loud blasts have since been silenced, but now three companies that hold exploration licenses from the NEB are set to start up seismic testing to map the ocean floor for oil exploration as early as June. The exploration would continue in the summer months for up to five years. The data would then potentially be sold to oil companies looking to drill in Canada's Arctic.

The seismic blasts pose a problem for the 1,000 mostly Inuit residents of Clyde River. According to court documents, they rely on the harvest of marine mammals, and bowhead whales, narwhals, seals and polar bears are important to their economic, cultural and spiritual well-being. The blasts could affect the migration patterns of these animals, and potentially harm their hearing. The hunters will not kill or eat deformed or disabled animals, and flying in food to the northern Canadian town is prohibitively expensive, which means seismic blasting could fundamentally alter the way they live.

But when it handed the companies their license in June 2014, the NEB concluded the opposite, saying the project is "not likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects" and would not negatively affect the seal hunt, although it did acknowledge the project could decrease local air and water quality, change the migration route of marine mammals or fish, and impact ecosystems if a spill were to happen.

Images of life around Clyde River by Niore Iqalukjuak 

'Mayor Natanine says Clyde River will do anything to stop the seismic exploration.

A few days before the Canadian election, the mayor and Clyde River's Nammautaq Hunters and Trappers Organization applied to have their case heard in the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing the Government of Canada, through the actions of the NEB, did not clear the high bar required to consult with the Inuit on seismic exploration.

Nader Hasan, a lawyer for the applicants, has framed the fight as David versus Goliath.

"It's a tiny community of [about 1,000] people taking on the federal government of Canada and three multi-billion dollar energy companies — opponents with virtually unlimited resources," he says.

The Supreme Court application is indeed a long shot, with only about 5 percent of cases making it to the country's highest court, but it's their last chance.

"It's a very long shot, we don't know what's going to happen," Natanine said. "If they don't want to hear our case then we're going to have to go back to the table and plan our next step regarding this."

The hamlet is holding off on protests and other actions while they wait six months for the Supreme Court to decide whether their case will be heard. But Natanine said they would be willing to block the seismic companies if exploration started up without their consent.

"You know the seismic route is gonna be more than 12 miles offshore and that's pretty far away to go by boat, but that would be our next step," he said.

Related: Big Oil's Dream of Drilling Off the Arctic Coast Of Alaska May Be Ending

Under the receding Arctic ice is a potential oil boom begging to happen. As much as 46 trillion cubic meters of unextracted natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil lies waiting to be discovered, according to 2008 estimates. But with Shell's recent retreat from Alaska after spending US $7 billion on exploration, stagnant oil prices worldwide and emissions reduction commitments expected from Canada and other Arctic-bordering nations at the upcoming Paris climate talks, there's uncertainty over interest in the region, at least in the short term.

Natanine is worried oil exploration in the Arctic could contribute to climate change.

"We don't want to emit carbon if we don't have to," he said. "We don't want to dirty our environment if we don't have to. And this activity that they want to do, looking for oil, is just going to contribute to the overall climate crisis that we're having."

However the mayor is not opposed to seeing some degree of oil exploration in the region, but said it must be done with the consent and consultation of the local Inuit residents.

The application to the Supreme Court on October 14 followed a Federal Court of Appeal judge's decision on August 17 that found the Crown consultation was adequate and the NEB didn't err in issuing exploration licenses.

The Crown agreed they had a duty to consult, and argued they had met that high bar. The seismic testing companies agreed with this.

The judge said the license was issued on terms that required annual, ongoing monitoring and reporting to nearby Aboriginal communities.

Images of life around Clyde River by Niore Iqalukjuak 

The hamlet argued in court that the Crown rejected their request to conduct a strategic environmental assessment (SEA), and that the public participation was not a substitute for formal consultation and the seismic testing companies' efforts were "woefully inadequate." The judge disagreed with this, saying an SEA was not necessary.

However, the board acknowledged that one of the seismic testing proponents, Multi Klient Invest (MKI), was unable to answer questions from the community.

"We had very, very unsatisfactory answers," Natanine said. For example, he said one of their mitigation efforts was to track the whales using monitors on the ships, and the companies would stop the activity if they spotted a whale 500 meters from the vessel. But the mayor said that's not enough to mitigate potential damage to the whales and their migration patterns.

"No not at all, that's one concern that we have. We are a whale-hunting culture here and if the water is a bit rough, let's say two-foot waves, it's hard to see whales. That's one concern that we have just to have monitors on the ship looking out into the wide ocean to look for whales is not enough for us."

He said Clyde River is not anti-development but wants to be properly consulted. They would like to receive compensation and local benefits. "We want to be full partners in this if anything like this is going to happen … But there's no room for that at all the way it's being set up right now."

Lawyers for the respondents are expected to file documents on November 23 arguing against the Supreme Court hearing the case. The country's highest court generally takes four to six months to decide whether to hear their case or not, Hasan said.

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