In waters where mighty gales can blow up without warning, this was one storm you could see coming. The uproar over offshore oil and gas development on the B.C. coast has been building for decades, with billions of dollars and some of the world’s richest, most sensitive ecosystems at stake. Now, with the release of a federally commissioned report recommending an end to exploration bans in the Queen Charlotte Basin, the tempest is coming into view. On one side: a cash-hungry B.C. government, and a handful of oil companies holding resource leases in the area. On the other: environmental, fishing and Native groups who want Canada’s western coastline left alone.
The dispute has been muted for three decades by federal and, later, provincial drilling moratoriums, which left an estimated 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of gas untapped beneath the sea. But last week’s report—by a panel of experts assembled by the Royal Society of Canada—concluded those restrictions are now unnecessary, even obstructive, leading to speculation they will soon be lifted. For a province that in recent years has slipped into “have-not” status, the news was tantalizing. The panel pegged economic spinoffs at $110 billion, a potential bonanza for B.C.’s Liberal government, which only last week introduced its first balanced budget, and which has talked about seeing offshore payback by as early as 2010.
The downsides? The polluting effects of drilling; the risk of tanker spills; the spectre of an underwater earthquake collapsing an oil platform, with catastrophic results for salmon, otters, sea birds and other marine life. “These things have the potential to just devastate coastal communities,” says Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Sointula, B.C.-based Living Oceans Society. To complicate matters, First Nations are claiming title to much of the area in question. Throw in the West Coast’s history of bitter environmental battles, and it’s safe to predict troubled waters ahead.
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