BC's Offshore Oil and Gas

After two years of pressure from the provincial government, the federal government has agreed to consider lifting its moratorium on offshore oil and gas in British Columbia. The federal moratorium has been in place since 1972. It prohibited tanker traffic from traveling on the inside waters as well as offshore exploration and development activities.

by Oonagh O’Connor

The federal government has planned a 3-stage review which would identify science gaps related to the impacts of offshore oil and gas in BC, listen to the views of the public regarding the moratorium, and consult with First Nations. 

The Process 

The first stage of this review occurred in October of 2003, with a Royal Society Expert Panel examining the science gaps in knowledge of the Queen Charlotte Basin and the impacts of offshore oil and gas. This stage consisted of 6 days of workshops in Vancouver with industry and selected scientists and a one-day workshop in Prince Rupert to hear from local people and to gather traditional knowledge. The panel’s report is due by the end of January. The next phase in the federal review is a series of public hearings to be conducted this March by a panel chaired by Roland Priddle, member of the Petroleum Hall of Fame and board member of Talisman Energy. The terms of reference can be found on Natural Resources Canada website: http://www2.nrcan.gc.ca/es/erb/prb/ english/view.asp?x=611 

The Governments’ Approach 

The province has already declared that they want to lift the moratorium and develop an offshore industry. They have a strategic plan in place, (http://www.offshor eoilandgas.gov.bc.ca/whats-new/ May03ProjectPlan.pdf ), with a budget of over $8 million. The provincial Minister of Energy and Mines has publicly declared interest in allowing offshore oil and gas exploitation throughout provincial coastal waters, including Georgia Strait. The federal government states it wants to hear the views of British Columbians on the issue. At this point their review is limited to the Queen Charlotte Basin. However, the makeup of the Public Review Panel, based on oil industry interests, has cast a shadow of distrust over the federal process. 

The Area 

In the 1960s, the federal government gave out leases to almost 9 million hectares of BC’s coast to oil companies. These leases were given out prior to an environmental review, prior to consultation with First Nations and prior to any consideration of what such an industry would mean to fisheries, birds, whales and to coastal ecology. The federal government has decided to consider lifting the moratorium in the area of the coast described as the “Queen Charlotte Basin,” based on a geological formation, which is thought to contain oil and gas. This area of the coast includes the leases that extend from the north end of Vancouver Island, including Queen Charlotte Sound, Queen Charlotte Strait, Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance. 

The Concerns Offshore versus Inshore? 

The promoters of coastal oil and gas often point to the east coast as an example of what we can expect here in BC, but on the east coast the industry is 200 miles offshore. On the BC coast, the proposed area of development would be more accurately called an inshore industry, with some areas as close as 12 miles from land. 

The Fish 

The Queen Charlotte Basin is rich in ecological abundance that has fed and sustained people on the coast for at least 10,000 years. Ninety percent of coastal peoples’ diets came from the sea. This area is especially abundant in marine life, with over 55 commercial species and 238 known noncommercial species. Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance are a migration corridor for hundreds of millions of Canadian juvenile and adult salmon. This area accounts for over 50% of the landed value of all commercial fishery products in BC. A Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) report that examined the potential impacts of a blowout or spill on marine resources found that “spills are not improbable, that concentrations of spilled oil can be high, that even small oiled areas could contaminate large numbers of resource species such as young salmon thereby causing major losses, and that oil in water can kill or harm important species.”

This report concludes that “there are grounds for serious concern over the risk to fish and fish habitat from the spillage of oil along the coast of British Columbia.” New research has found that the long term damage from oil spills is much more severe and long lasting than originally thought. As a result of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, scientists now have a better understanding of the persistent toxic effect of oil, even at sublethal levels. Ten years after the Exxon Valdez, some of the beaches remain oiled and some species such as pink salmon and harlequin ducks have not recovered. While the commercial fishery is working hard to become a sustainable, thriving industry, the establishment of an offshore oil and gas industry would compound the stress on an already stressed ecosystem. But before a single drop of oil leaves the ground, impacts from an offshore oil and gas industry would occur to the fish and marine mammals. Seismic testing, the first stage of searching for oil and gas, blasts high powered air at the sea bottom to determine the most likely location of oil or gas. The sound emitted from these blasts is of great concern to fisheries and marine mammals. 

Other Impacts to Fish 

Besides the impacts of seismic testing and oil spills, fish would be threatened by the daily pollution caused by this industry. Drilling muds and produced waters are of major concern in the North Sea where the industry has been operating for decades. There is evidence that toxins found in produced waters are altering the reproductive success of some species of cod. There is also concern over the release of drilling muds into the marine environment. Studies out of Norway found the impacts of drilling muds to be much larger than predicted by industry, and resulted in the Norwegian government forcing industry to change to Synthetic Based Drilling Muds, which are thought to be less toxic. On the east coast of Canada, where the use of Synthetic Based and Water Based Drilling Muds are the common practice, scientists have found that even the less toxic muds are known to alter the reproductive success and growth rate of scallops on the east coast of Canada. 


The area of the oil leases passes right through the Pacific Flyway, a migration corridor to millions of birds every spring and summer. The area is also essential habitat to millions of breeding and non-breeding seabirds. Birds are extremely vulnerable to oil spills, even small ones. It only takes an amount of oil the size of a dime on a bird’s feathers to result in death from hypothermia. Some preliminary studies by scientist Alan Burger have shown that there is already a problem on BC’s coast with oiled birds from a variety of sources, including the cargoes of tankers and barges, bilges and fuel tanks of marine vessels, shore-based fuelling stations and shore-based industries such as pulp mills. Allowing the oil industry to explore and operate in coastal waters will mean an increase in traffic and an increase in chances of spills. This would be fatal to the birds that frequent the coast. 

Lack of Knowledge 

While we know the coastal waters are rich in marine life and support a variety of fish species, birds and marine mammals, there remain many aspects of the coastal ecosystem that are poorly understood. Some of these gaps in knowledge were identified at the federal Science Hearings. At the hearings, it became apparent that we don’t know enough about the Queen Charlotte Basin to determine the possible impacts of introducing an offshore oil and gas industry. It is important that people get out to the public hearings and let the government know their concerns regarding an oil and gas industry in BC’s coastal waters. Presently the federal government has planned a scoping trip to five coastal communities in January 2004 to be followed by hearings in March 2004. 


If you need more information about how to get involved please contact Oonagh O’Connor at Living Oceans Society. Email: oonagh@livingoceans.org Ph: 250 973-6580. searching for oil and gas, blasts high powered air at the sea bottom to determine the most likely location of oil or gas. The sound emitted from these blasts is of great concern to fisheries and marine mammals.

[From WS January/February 2004]

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