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NIRB kicks off oil and gas strategic assessment

With $2.6 million of federal funding and a two-year time frame, the Nunavut Impact Review Board hope to complete an Oil and Gas Strategic Environmental Assessment for Baffin Bay and Davis Strait (SEA) to inform potential development in those waters.

Kimmirut residents participate in an initial information session for the two-year Oil and Gas Strategic Environmental Assessment for Baffin Bay and Davis Strait organized the Nunavut Impact Review Board May 12.
photo courtesy Nunavut Impact Review Board

The assessment will inform the federal government when it reviews its five-year moratorium on oil and gas development in Arctic waters.

The process, officially handed off to NIRB in February, kicked off with information sessions in all Baffin communities from April 20 to May 13.

"Given the time of year and that springtime was coming, we were pleased with the attendance. On average we were between 20 and 40 community reps at each visit," said executive director Ryan Barry.

The sessions were informational, intended to explain what NIRB will be doing, and not meant to be consultations. NIRB will travel to each community in the fall to gather information from communities. Communities agreed fall would be the best time, when school is in.

"For us this was a very initial public engagement session where we were really getting the word out about the assessment, letting the communities know what to expect, and have people be able to get ready to participate throughout the assessment," said Barry.

Along with public meetings, the team met with hamlet council and staff, and schools.

The travelling team includes NIRB, NTI, QIA, GN and federal staff.

"They all felt it was important to them to have representation to explain what they're role would be in the board's assessment and how they'd be looking to be involved throughout," said Barry.

Assessment to meet crown obligations

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) have been calling for a strategic assessment since before 2014. In June that year the National Energy Board approved a geophysical operations authorization a trio of companies to conduct a five-year seismic survey program in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait near Clyde River.
That survey never happened and is still at the Supreme Court of Canada awaiting decision after then-mayor Jerry Natanine and the community of Clyde River opposed the program.

A joint letter from NTI and QIA to the federal government stated: "Inuit have made their position clear that we object to any seismic testing before our concerns are properly addressed and the SEA is completed in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. Inuit have not been adequately consulted on the potential benefits of the project and/or impacts on marine mammals."

The Clyde River case has become one of national importance as it will deal definitively with the Crown's duty to consult and accommodate indigenous people.

In its submission to the court, NTI pointed out that Inuit requested a strategic environmental assessment to inform both the consultation process and the energy board's decision.

"It was an issue for the Crown to promptly and seriously consider, and it failed to meet that obligation," stated NTI's lawyer Dominique Nouvet.

Barry says NIRB taking over the assessment had been discussed since early 2015 by the Board, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, NTI, QIA and the Government of Nunavut,

"We had discussion about how to expand the scope of the strategic environment assessment initiated by (INAC), how to make that more inclusive of community concerns," said Barry.

"Everybody agreed the board really was the best to lead this sort of study. We have the role of coordinating and leading all efforts in public engagement and producing and independent report."

When asked if NIRB anticipated running into hurdles such as the Nunavut Planning Commission has with its Nunavut-wide draft land-use plan, Barry said he is confident the process will be completed within the two-year timeline.

"Our process is a little more well-defined. We've undertaken major assessment on a regular basis and we set what we think is a very achievable mandate and timeline. Although the issues themselves are very complex and broad, we have every bit of confidence we will provide a report, as requested, in advance of March 2019," said Barry.

Process to finish with public hearing

This effort is a first for NIRB, which usually assesses projects application by application. This assessment has no project affiliated.

The fall visits will take place over two days in each of the ten Baffin communities.

"We're going to set up scoping sessions where we get into the assessment in a bit more detail, describe to people the questions we are looking to have addressed, things like what physical area we're focusing on, what type of stages of development we should be focusing on, what questions people have about each stage of development, questions about the sort of impact that are likely from each type of development or exploration, also the positive benefits that come from oil and gas," said Barry.

He adds, "The objectives of these meetings are really to flesh out every issue that we'll be trying to address through the assessment and try to get some consensus about what are the most important issues people want to hear back on."

Offshore oil and gas exploration and development includes: marine seismic surveys for exploration, drilling exploratory wells, offshore drilling rigs for commercial production, and the types of technology used at each stage.

"We'll be developing what we think are realistic exploration and development scenarios," said Barry, adding that will include the stages of production and closure.

The assessment process will culminate in a final public hearing in Iqaluit, then a report to the federal government.