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The Sound and the fury Add to ...

Even so, in 1974, a company was given approval in principle to drill in Lancaster Sound, but the final go-ahead was delayed for three years and then the ruling rescinded due to environmental concerns.

NO THREAT AT ALL?

Now, the government insists that fears for the future of the sound are groundless, especially since last December, when Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced a $5-million study to determine whether it should become a national marine conservation area, which would effectively ban resource development.

If that is so, the hunters and environmentalists ask, why look for resources at all?

Mr. Prentice argues that by providing a better understanding of geology, the testing will "inform the creation" of a conservation area. Meanwhile, Leona Aglukkaq, who represents Nunavut in Parliament and is the federal minister responsible for the north, says that "the mapping of undersea geology is essential to making better decisions on land use and economic development."

The territory's chief geologist, Donald James confirms that testing is "part of the process" for a national park. "It's called a mineral and energy resource assessment. It has to be done in the legislation."

He says, "people don't understand the process," and "should a conservation area be formed, Lancaster Sound will be protected … regardless of the resource potential."

Many Arctic residents don't believe this. "When they find something, they will want to do the drilling or mining," insists Meeka Kiguktak, mayor of Grise Fiord.

This week, although Inuit leaders had asked for a delay while the National Energy Board reviews the safety of offshore drilling, Indian and Northern Affairs auctioned off for $103-million exploration rights to 205,000 deep-water hectares in the Beaufort Sea.

The apparent haste worries people like Ms. Kiguktak: "I can't imagine our whales and walruses floating on shore, coated with oil. Our elders always say money comes and goes, but if animals and birds go, they're gone. For Inuit to survive up here, we've got to protect our environment."

Experts in oil recovery say the cold and ice would make a cleanup far more difficult than in the Gulf of Mexico. News reports this week suggest companies facing a spill may need three years to drill a relief well.

And if the spill is significant, "there does not exist today technology that can recover oil from ice," Ron Bowden of Vancouver-based Aqua-Guard Spill Response Inc. recently told a Senate committee. "You can't lay boom on ice. You can't recover oil from the surface because it's hampered by the ice, or under the ice, so it's quite a different scenario."

Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, says that, given what is at stake, she is "bewildered" that Ottawa stuck with the seismic testing. "We were led to believe they would" cancel it or avoid Lancaster Sound.

So, it's no surprise residents are joining forces with environmentalists, who she says are "starting to understand where we come from." The feeling is mutual, adds Ron Elliott, the area's member of Nunavut's Legislature. "As someone … commented: 'I think we're starting to sound like Greenpeace.' "

TO DRILL OR NOT TO DRILL

Although exploration licences have been granted, no offshore drilling is being done in the Canadian Arctic, and Mr. James says no one knows whether there ever will be. The government and the NRC are "not in the oil and gas business," he says. "But what we can do is say, … 'Here are great areas that, in the future, we can direct exploration companies to test further.' "

In any event, he adds, "decisions are going be made with the very best geoscience tools and research data available. The work we're doing right now is going to assist that."

Residents can't help but wonder how much say they will have. "A lot of times, it feels like David and Goliath here," Mr. Elliott says. "And it seems Goliath is going to do what Goliath is going to do."

In the Western Arctic, a verdict is much closer. Last week, Imperial Oil announced that it and its U.S. parent company, Exxon Mobil Corp., will take a 50-per-cent share in a venture to develop deep-water properties in the Beaufort Sea, where the stakes in the border dispute are high. The contested area may hold 1.7 billion cubic metres of gas and a billion cubic metres of oil.

The joint mapping mission should produce an agreement, but drilling is unlikely to begin until the NEB finishes the investigation it launched in the wake of the massive gulf spill - which is especially relevant, considering who has the other half of Imperial Oil's big project: British Petroleum.

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