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Ice-capped Saunder’s Island ringed by a layer of thin sea ice in Baffin Bay. The National Energy Board approved a plan last June by a Norwegian company, Petroleum Geo-Services Inc., to undertake seismic work in the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait off Nunavut over the course of the next five years.Michael Studinger

The Inuit community of Clyde River is challenging the National Energy Board in federal court Monday, saying its approval of seismic testing for oil and gas potential in the waters of the eastern Arctic could threaten their traditional way of life.

The NEB approved last June a plan by Norwegian company, Petroleum Geo-Services Inc. (PGS), to undertake the seismic work in the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait off Nunavut over the course of the next five years. Oil companies currently have no operations in the area, but Royal Dutch Shell PLC does have leases northwest of the site, near the mouth of Lancaster Sound.

While Shell says it has no current plans to drill in the eastern Arctic, it is aiming to begin operations this summer in the Beaufort Sea offshore Alaska, while several companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC, have leases in Canada's deep waters off the Northwest Territories.

The Arctic has been identified as the last great frontier for oil and gas production, containing as much as 90 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude. Despite low prices now, Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson said this month the world will need Arctic oil in the coming decades.

Inuit communities in the North are conflicted over the development – eager for the opportunities but determined to ensure they are fully consulted and that resource extraction doesn't destroy the fragile environment.

The hamlet of Clyde River opposes PGS's licence, saying the persistent and high-decibel sound blasts used in the seismic program could seriously disrupt marine life which they rely both for sustenance and as the basis of their hunting culture. Mayor Jerry Natanine said neither the regulator nor the company properly consulted his community or were able to answer their questions about the risks.

"It was not really a consultation process where the people asking questions were given honest answers," Mr. Natanine said in an interview from Toronto, where he and supporters were preparing for the hearing. He said the community fears the impact on bowhead whales, walruses, seals, narwhals and the fish populations on which the predators rely.

"Our biggest fear is that the airguns are going to kill off baby cod and shrimp and change the migration patterns of whales and narwhals. … If that happens, we won't have any more animals to hunt and our culture will die off."

PGS spokesman Bard Stenberg said the company has three decades of experience in offshore seismic.

"We have demonstrated our ability to operate seismic exploration activities in a manner that protect marine life," he said in an e-mail.

"There is no scientific evidence demonstrating biologically significant negative impacts on marine mammal populations."

Mr. Natanine said his community does not oppose resource development, but feels the risks in this case have not been fully communicated or addressed.

Its concerns are shared by the Nunavut Marine Council, which represents Inuit interests under the land claims settlement. Last summer, the council sent a letter to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, demanding a full-scale strategic environmental assessment of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait before any seismic testing was allowed. Without such a strategic assessment, local communities will not support future oil and gas development, it warned in the letter which was provided to The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Valcourt has rejected that recommendation, saying the National Energy Board has full scope to conduct proper assessments. His spokeswoman said the government could not comment on the matter that is before the courts.

Clyde River's lawyer Nader Hasan said the federal court is being asked to enforce the constitutional rights of the Inuit in Clyde River, saying that the federal government conducted no consultations with the communities but relied on the NEB and the company.

In its approval, the NEB set down a number of conditions aimed at mitigating any potential harm to marine life. They include a requirement that the company ensure there are no mammals within 500 metres when it sets off a sound blast.

However, Mr. Natanine said the company will rely on visual observation by four people aboard a ship, often in stormy or choppy conditions.

In its factum, the federal regulator acknowledged that the residents of Clyde River were dissatisfied with its decision but that it followed "a lengthy, detailed, open process that was well designed to share and gather information to hear and take into account the concerns put forward by the applicants."

It said the potential environmental and socio-economic effects were fully assessed in a 35-month process, and the residents were given the opportunity to learn about those impacts and discuss their concerns.

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