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Expedition leader Adrian Round (left) and ocean operations staff member Jonathon Miller carefully monitor remotely operated vehicle operations on the seafloor more than 2 km below the vessel, 20 May 2014.

Ed McNichol/Ocean Networks Canada

A subsea observation system being built by Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria lets Girl Guides explore the ocean floor and will let scientists detect underground earthquakes or predict tsunamis.

The federal government has sunk more than $30-million into the project, and not just for pure science: An internal government document shows Ottawa is interested primarily because it can help "responsible resource development." In particular, it says, information from the Smart Oceans project could support the development of pipelines linking the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific coast.

"The program aligns with and has the potential to address key issues related to marine safety and mitigation of the environmental impact of increased shipping," said a due diligence report prepared for Western Economic Development Canada before it announced funding for the project in 2014.

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Enbridge is not mentioned on Ocean Networks' website; nor are Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain or Kinder Morgan. The words "tanker" and "bitumen" do not appear. And the head of the Smart Oceans project says it is not about helping the resource industry, but it is no surprise Ottawa might be interested.

The internal government document is explicit.

"The project would allow for real-time monitoring of vessel traffic, waves, currents, and water quality in support of resource development in the Douglas Channel, a shipping artery leading to Kitimat," said the report, which was obtained under federal Access to Information legislation.

"Once completed, elements of the system infrastructure and analytics could be marketed globally, including in the Arctic where resource activities are expanding rapidly."

Ocean Networks is part of a tidal power monitoring project in Atlantic Canada, observing traffic and hazards in the high Arctic from an installation in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, as well as pioneering ocean observation systems with its observatories, NEPTUNE and VENUS, off the B.C. coast, the report noted.

The cable network that makes up VENUS, the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea, provides data on physical, chemical, biological and sediment conditions around Vancouver, the Ocean Networks website says.

NEPTUNE, the North East Pacific Time-series Underwater Networked Experiments, does similar work off the west coast of Vancouver Island and has 812 kilometres of fibre optic cables collecting data and relaying it instantly to researchers.

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In addition to $9.1-million from Western Economic Development Canada, Ocean Networks has $20-million over three years from Transport Canada to develop its vast network of ocean monitoring technology.

The federal Canada Foundation for Innovation covers 40 per cent of the organization's annual $17-million operating costs.

Ocean Networks has also received funds from the provincial government's B.C. Knowledge and Development Fund, from industry and in-kind support from the University of Victoria.

"The program will support sustainable oceans management, world class marine safety and mitigation, and responsible energy infrastructure development," the WEDC report said.

"ONC also hopes to support industrial development and port expansion proposals on the B.C. West Coast as a result of this project," the report said.

It noted that letters of support for the project were expected from industry and public agencies, including Esso Imperial Oil, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge.

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"Word class" marine safety is one of B.C. Premier Christy Clark's five conditions pipeline projects must meet to get her government's approval.

Kate Moran, president and CEO of Ocean Networks and a professor in the University of Victoria's faculty of earth and ocean sciences, said the interest from Western Economic Development Canada is understandable, but helping pipelines is certainly not the focus of the project.

"It's a very wide range of scientific research that is enabled by that infrastructure," Dr. Moran, former director of NEPTUNE Canada, said in a recent interview.

Ocean Networks is expanding the infrastructure and technology developed for NEPTUNE and VENUS for diverse users.

"We are not in any way doing this to support industry," Dr. Moran said. "We're doing this so that it could benefit the economy. … Should a decision be made to do something that has environmental impacts, you have the data products there to manage that in the most sustainable way possible."

She said Brazil, China, Portugal and other European nations are interested in the technology.

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The Smart Oceans system has a projected global market value of $4-billion, according to Western Economic Development. By 2020, it could be an estimated $6-billion a year.

The network provides information on everything from subsea earthquakes and ocean currents to marine mammal and ocean health monitoring.

The system will benefit both science and industry, Dr. Moran said. They're not mutually exclusive.

"From my perspective, with climate change, if we don't monitor more, we're going to continue to make bad decisions," she said. "You cannot manage what you don't monitor and don't understand."

Ocean Networks Canada hopes to have the physical infrastructure in place next year.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Kate Moran is a former professor at the University of Victoria and the director of NEPTUNE Canada. In fact, Dr. Moran is currently a professor at the university and a former director of NEPTUNE.

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