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February 10, 2005

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Science and the oil and gas moratorium

Does the scientific literature support lifting the oil and gas moratorium and satisfy the goals and principles of Canada's ocean strategy?

British Columbia wants to lift the oil and gas moratorium, but do we have the scientific support for this course of action?

Lifting it brings possible economic profit, however, the unknown factor is long-term environmental consequences. Our oceans are important - that's why the federal government has established Canada's oceans strategy. The strategy's goal is to ensure healthy, safe and prosperous oceans for the benefit of current and future generations of Canadians.   Nicola Cook (left) and Kelli Bergh

The strategy commits the government of Canada to use the precautionary approach, erring on the side of caution, in the conservation, management and exploitation of marine resources and environments.

It holds that conservation, based on an ecosystem approach, is fundamentally important to maintaining the marine environment's biological diversity and productivity. Canada's ocean strategy makes the provincial government accountable for maintaining ecosystem health and integrity, particularly in the case of uncertainty.

Does the scientific literature support lifting the moratorium and satisfy the goals and principles of Canada's ocean strategy at this point in time?

Recently the B.C. government appointed two independent scientific review panels to examine whether offshore oil and gas could be extracted in a scientifically sound and environmentally responsible manner from the Queen Charlotte basin.

The review, published in 2001, is being used by the B.C. government to justify lifting the moratorium. This report states that "offshore oil and gas exploration, development and production can't be undertaken without impacts on the environment and the organisms there. The issue is how much and what risks governments are willing to take, what contingency plans will be required, what populations will be put at risk, and how much will be invested in better understanding and addressing the risks."

In other words, currently there is no scientific information which would allow for informed decisions on how to best proceed with the development of an oil and gas industry within an environmentally sustainable framework. In the absence of this scientific baseline, the scientific panel concluded: "there is no inherent or fundamental inadequacy of the science or technology, properly applied in an appropriate regulatory framework, to justify a blanket moratorium on offshore oil and gas activities."

Subsequently, the province established the B.C. offshore oil and gas team with the mandate to enable offshore oil and gas development in British Columbia. The oil and gas team came up with a project plan in 2003 which provides an outline of their goals, objectives and strategies for pursuing oil and gas development in British Columbia. Is this course of action justified?

Limited studies suggest not. Documented negative effects on all life history traits indicate decreased survival, growth, reproduction, and genetic diversity, and increased vulnerability to disease.

Further, negative impacts have been found on economically valuable species such as oysters, scallops, sea urchins, and several fish species. Although short-term effects can be readily assessed, the unknown and immeasurable are long-term effects to the entire ecosystem. We need an understanding of the ecosystem and how it could be affected by the loss of a single species.

For example, community structure changes and diversity decreases are documented effects from oil and gas activities. These changes, when combined with the single species effects, may lead to decreased productivity, health and function of the ecosystem. Of special note, there are sponge reefs in Hecate Straight, found nowhere else in the world, that are known to be sensitive to petroleum contamination and physical disturbances. It is difficult to predict how the loss of the sponge reefs would impact the species that use them for spawning and habitat.

Recommendation three made by the scientific review panel states: "before any new industry is introduced into a specific marine ecosystem such as the Queen Charlotte basin, action should be taken to establish a comprehensive pre-perturbation baseline data on the biota, including life-cycle history of different species and their habitat, so that we can understand and assess the aspects of the marine ecosystem that are at risk from the proposed development and evaluate the population and community-level consequences that may result following development."

Although baseline data is critical to have, the recommendation implies that the results of such studies will not be used to decide whether to lift the moratorium, but will instead be used to assess the damage done by oil and gas exploration and development activities. It also implies that the ecosystem of the Queen Charlotte basin is not currently understood. Both implications contradict Canada's ocean strategy objective to understand and protect the marine environment.

Recommendation eight of the review panel "urges application of guidelines for reducing the impacts of seismic exploration on the ecosystem, as licence conditions for any oil and gas exploration off the B.C. coast." Does seismicity affect the marine ecosystem and its long-term sustainability, and how can provincial guidelines minimize potential impacts? Seismic noise is a necessary component of oil and gas exploration. Air guns discharging compressed air create high and low frequency noise. Repetitive seismic noises can cause long-term damage to fish hearing organs. Many fish species communicate with high to low frequency sounds, thus damaged hearing organs and unnatural ocean noise may disrupt feeding and migratory patterns. Seismic blasting shifts gray whales from their feeding grounds.

Decreased access to food could lead to reduced fitness and a decline in population health through reduced reproduction. Other cetaceans have shown increased levels of stress chemicals after exposure to high and low level sounds from seismic water guns. Recent research is starting to identify the crucial role of predators in the ecosystem food web. In particular, high predator diversity will reduce trophic cascade effects on primary productivity. The trophic cascade effect is an ecological model where predators control the abundance of herbivorous species which determine the amount of vegetation, in turn impacting the nutrient levels in a given system. For instance, maintaining high ocean predator diversity may result in predation relief at lower trophic levels, linking predator diversity to ecosystem functioning.

A review of the current literature suggests that the first stage of the oil and gas industry - exploration - poses a significant risk to large vertebrates and invertebrates of marine ecosystems. Changes in higher levels of food webs affect the total structure of an ecosystem. We cannot pursue lifting the oil and gas moratorium until we understand the mechanisms and links between marine ecosystem structure and function. This supports using an ecosystem-based management approach to maintain the economic sustainability of our resources and would be in agreement with the objectives outlined in the oceans strategy document. Once this is complete the government can re-evaluate lifting the moratorium.

In the meantime, are there any potential solutions to the offshore oil and gas controversy? We suggest turning all the efforts to exploring other more sustainable and less damaging energy sources than carbon.

Biology undergrad and grad students Kelli Bergh, Nicola Cook, Sarah Dersch, and Lydia Stepanovic were inspired to write this comment while taking a graduate course in ecotoxicology with professor of biological sciences Leah Bendell-Young.
















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