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Are Shell’s “Zombie” Permits Blocking Arctic Protection?

by Alex Speers-Roesch

March 31, 2016

Remember last year when a global movement of millions kicked Shell out of the Alaskan Arctic? Now the company is back in the spotlight again for its devious deeds — this time in the Canadian Arctic.

Newly released government documents obtained by Greenpeace Canada via access to information legislation suggest that 30 oil exploration permits held by Shell in the eastern Canadian Arctic since 1971 — which overlap with a proposed marine conservation area — may have expired decades ago.

Copies of Shell’s permits appear to show they were last renewed in 1978, for one year only. This on its own isn’t damning evidence, but the documents obtained by Greenpeace Canada also indicate the government has no record of Shell communicating with them to renew the permits after 1978, suggesting the permits in fact expired in 1979. Legal research by University of Calgary law professor Nigel Bankes into the status of the permits supports this view, and notes if the permits were renewed such correspondence should exist.

To top it all off, emails between Erin Ryder of NGO Parvati.org and a director from Indigenous and Northern Affairs, the body responsible for the permits, suggests the government is actually aware it has no record of the permits being renewed, but thinks they should remain valid because “both industry and government have continuously treated the 30 Shell Permits as being valid.”

Zombie permits are bad enough, but to make matters worse the apparently-undead permits are also blocking protection of the beautiful region of Lancaster Sound, known as Tallurutiup Tariunga to local Inuit. This area is rich with precious Arctic seabirds and mammals. Its icy waters are home to narwhals, belugas, and bowhead whales, and the whole region is of great importance to local Inuit.

Shell’s questionable permits are in the eastern mouth of Lancaster Sound, where they overlap with a proposed National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). However the creation of the conservation area has been stalled by disagreements over its boundaries. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), representing local Inuit, has proposed a larger NMCA that overlaps with Shell’s permits, while the federal government under Stephen Harper proposed a smaller area that excludes the Shell permits and some other areas with significant hydrocarbon potential.

All oil and gas activity would be banned in the proposed conservation area.

But wait, there’s more!

Meeting minutes obtained by Greenpeace show that, in 2014, the federal government was engaged in discussions with Shell to trade other assets in exchange for Shell relinquishing the apparently expired permits, in order to facilitate the creation of the Lancaster Sound NMCA. 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 carried 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.

The bottom line is Shell shouldn’t get to trade dead permits for living ecosystems. If the government cannot produce more compelling evidence the permits were properly renewed, then they must acknowledge the permits are no longer valid and take them off the books.

With a new federal government in place, Canada has an opportunity to chart a different course in the Arctic and choose protection over exploitation.

Prime Minister Trudeau made some ambitious commitments this month with President Obama to protect the Arctic, and his first federal budget included significant funds for the Lancaster Sound NMCA. He can follow through on these positive steps by ensuring Shell’s permits do not stand in the way of Arctic protection.

By Alex Speers-Roesch

Alex is an Arctic Campaigner at Greenpeace Canada.

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