At a World Oceans Day event on June 8th, Shell Canada announced that it would donate 30 offshore oil permits to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The permits cover 3,320 square miles of wilderness north of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Nature Conservancy of Canada hopes this area will soon become part of a much larger marine-conservation area.
Protecting Lancaster Sound
Lancaster Sound, part of the permit-area, is known for unparalleled biodiversity. Large concentrations of microscopic organisms attract everything from Arctic cod to polar bears to the sound. The area is key to two of the Arctic’s most iconic cetacean species. Up to 75 percent of the world’s narwhal population and 20 percent of the world’s beluga population migrate through the waters each year. The IUCN Red List classifies both belugas and narwhals as Near Threatened.
In light of Lancaster Sound’s environmental importance, the Canadian government and the local Inuit communities have tried to formally protect the area since the 1980s. Plans had reached a stalemate over the permits, though, because Canadian law does not allow oil or gas exploration within a national marine-conservation area. The previous government suggested a smaller protected area, but the Qikiqtani Inuit Association refused to approve those boundaries. Local Inuit communities and the territorial government must approve any formal national marine-conservation area.
Now that Shell relinquished the permits, executive committee member of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association Olayuk Akesuk says the association’s goal “is to make sure the marine conservation area is in place sooner than later.” He also underlined the area’s cultural importance, saying that “it is something we want to protect [to] make sure our great-great-grandchildren have a place to hunt and live off the land.”
Shell Canada’s Motivation
Shell Canada has not requested compensation for the donated permits, but some believe their motives are not entirely altruistic. In April, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) filed a federal court case claiming that the oil company’s permits had expired in 1979. Since Shell Canada did not renew the permits, the company no longer had any legal claim on the land. Shell Canada president Michael Crothers claims that the lawsuit did not inspire the decision to donate the permits, saying that the company initiated talks with The Nature Conservancy of Canada several months before litigation.
Either way, the permit transfer is an unequivocal win for the environment. According to WWF, commercial activity is banned from less than 1 percent of the Canadian coastline. Approval of a Lancaster Sound national marine-conservation area would almost double that figure. If finalized, the new protected area would help the current administration fulfill their promise to protect 5 percent of the coastline by 2017 and 10 percent by 2020.