Ot­tawa, ter­ri­to­ries and First Na­tions ex­press con­cern over U.S. Arc­tic drilling plans

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS - BOB WE­BER

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, two ter­ri­to­ries and sev­eral First Na­tions are ex­press­ing con­cerns to the United States over plans to open the calv­ing grounds of a large cross-bor­der cari­bou herd to en­ergy drilling, de­spite in­ter­na­tional agree­ments to pro­tect it.

“Canada is con­cerned about the po­ten­tial trans­bound­ary im­pacts of oil and gas ex­plo­ration and de­vel­op­ment planned for the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain,” says a let­ter from En­vi­ron­ment Canada to the Alaska of­fice of the U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment.

Yukon and the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries have sub­mit­ted sim­i­lar con­cerns as the ad­min­is­tra­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump drafts plans to study the en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of sell­ing ex­plo­ration leases on the eco­log­i­cally rich plain.

“Much of the wildlife that in­hab­its the … refuge is shared with Canada,” says the NWT’s let­ter to the United States. “The con­ser­va­tion of these trans­bound­ary shared re­sources is very im­por­tant to Indige­nous groups.”

The Por­cu­pine herd is one of the few re­main­ing healthy cari­bou pop­u­la­tions in the North and a cru­cial re­source for Indige­nous peo­ple.

Canada says the cari­bou are cov­ered by one of four dif­fer­ent in­ter­na­tional agree­ments – in­clud­ing two over po­lar bears and one for mi­gra­tory birds – that com­mit the United States to pre­serve the area. At least three diplo­matic notes have passed be­tween the two coun­tries over the is­sue.

Canada wants as­sur­ances from the United States about the con­tent of the en­vi­ron­men­tal study. NWT is ask­ing that hear­ings be held in Cana­dian Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that de­pend on the herd.

It’ll be tough, said Bobbi Jo Green­land Mor­gan, head of the Gwich’In Tribal Coun­cil.

“We’re not deal­ing with the same gov­ern­ment we’ve been deal­ing with for the past 30 years,” she said.

In De­cem­ber, the United States re­leased a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact study pro­posal for the lease sale with a pub­lic com­ment pe­riod un­til Feb. 11.

The stakes are high for the nar­row strip of land along the cen­tral Alaskan coast. The Por­cu­pine herd num­bers 218,000 and is grow­ing. Ms. Green­land Mor­gan said the an­i­mals are a reg­u­lar source of food for her peo­ple.

“We prob­a­bly have [cari­bou] at least once or twice a week.”

Adult cari­bou can co-ex­ist with de­vel­op­ment, but sci­en­tists have shown they avoid any dis­tur­bance on their calv­ing grounds.

“Canada is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned that oil and gas ex­plo­ration and de­vel­op­ment will neg­a­tively af­fect the long-term re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess of the Por­cu­pine cari­bou herd,” the fed­eral let­ter says.

The United States is aware of that pos­si­bil­ity.

“Po­ten­tial im­pacts, par­tic­u­larly those re­lat­ing to changes in calv­ing dis­tri­bu­tion and calf sur­vival, are ex­pected to be more in­tense for the [Por­cu­pine herd] be­cause of their lack of pre­vi­ous ex­po­sure to oil field de­vel­op­ment,” the draft plan says.

It also points out the herd’s im­por­tance to Cana­dian First Na­tions and ac­knowl­edges they take about 85 per cent of the an­nual har­vest.

“These Cana­dian com­mu­ni­ties would be among the most likely to ex­pe­ri­ence po­ten­tial in­di­rect im­pacts.”

Of­fi­cials at Global Af­fairs Canada say the United States is liv­ing up to the agree­ment on the Por­cu­pine herd. U.S. of­fi­cials were not avail­able for com­ment due to a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down in that coun­try.

In­ter­na­tional law pro­fes­sor Michael By­ers said the United States may have al­ready bro­ken a clause in the agree­ment that com­mits both par­ties to con­sult­ing the other be­fore a fi­nal de­ci­sion is made on any­thing that af­fects the herd’s fu­ture.

“There’s an obli­ga­tion to con­sult that isn’t be­ing im­ple­mented right now,” Mr. By­ers said.

He noted that the United States has al­ready said it in­tends to sell the leases this year.

Ms. Green­land Mor­gan said her peo­ple have been fight­ing for decades to keep the Por­cu­pine calv­ing grounds free of de­vel­op­ment – but this time feels dif­fer­ent.

“We’ve al­ways had to do this,” she said. “But with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, it’s been more chal­leng­ing.”

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