Earlier this week on World Oceans Day we were greeted with some wonderful and exciting news: Shell announced it was giving up all its offshore exploration permits in the Canadian Arctic!
This is a big deal not only because it is another example of Shell pulling back from risky Arctic oil exploration in the face of public pressure, but the area where these permits were found is one of the most biodiverse and globally important regions of the Arctic. Lancaster Sound, known as Tallurutiup Tariunga to local Inuit, is a biological hotspot, home to narwhals, belugas, walruses and polar bears. It hosts an amazing abundance of life that is of critical importance to Inuit, who rely on it for their food, livelihoods and culture. This is the last place on earth anyone should be drilling for oil.
For a long time now Inuit have been calling for this area to be protected, but those efforts were blocked by Shell’s permits, which have been there since the 1970s. For the past few years the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), which represents local Inuit, has been calling for a large National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) overlapping with many of the permits. The federal government under Stephen Harper disagreed, and proposed a smaller NMCA that excluded the Shell permits and some other areas with significant hydrocarbon potential. Oil and gas activities would be banned in the proposed conservation area.
Meeting minutes obtained by Greenpeace through Access to Information requests show that in 2014 Shell was in discussions with the federal government about relinquishing these permits. However back then Shell was refusing to give up the permits without receiving something in return. Outrageously, the minutes also show Shell trying to use the permits as a bargaining chip to circumvent a moratorium on seismic testing in the area, saying it wouldn’t relinquish the permits unless it was allowed to carry out seismic blasting. Seismic blasting is a highly controversial method of oil exploration that poses a significant threat to Arctic wildlife and food security and which local Inuit have strongly opposed.
What’s happened since then to explain Shell’s change of heart? Low oil prices are definitely a factor, but Shell also suffered a multi-billion dollar defeat in the Alaskan Arctic last year, when a global movement for Arctic protection helped bring an end to their misguided efforts to drill for oil there. Shell also pulled out of a recent Arctic exploration licensing round in Norway, and all around the world the oil industry is pulling back from Arctic oil. Companies are slowly starting to realize what French oil giant Total has already acknowledged publicly: offshore Arctic oil drilling is too risky and, in a world increasingly suffering from and taking action on climate change, simply a bad investment.
But even more important was recent research showing that Shell’s permits actually expired decades ago, and a lawsuit launched by Ecojustice and WWF Canada to have the permits cancelled on those grounds. Faced with the prospect of losing their permits through a court order, Shell tried to make their defeat look as good as possible, and ‘donate’ the permits instead. Given all this it’s a bit fresh of Shell to claim they’re relinquishing the permits ‘voluntarily’ to support Arctic protection. In fact the very same day Shell announced it was giving up its Lancaster Sound permits, it was expressing interest in drilling right next to Lancaster Sound.
So while this is the latest in a string of exciting victories for the Arctic, the region is not safe from the oil industry just yet. Oil giants such as Shell are still refusing to accept the reality that Arctic oil has no place in a sustainable economy. But with Shell’s permits out of the way the path is now clear for the government to move forward with permanent, legal protection for Lancaster Sound, to ensure this important area is safe from the threat of oil drilling forever. This is good news for the Arctic, its inhabitants and wildlife, and a reason to celebrate.