The Canadian government is prepared to honour Shell Oil’s decades-old oil and gas exploration permits in wildlife-rich Lancaster Sound, at the eastern gateway of the Northwest Passage, but Greenpeace is arguing the permits expired in 1979 and are no longer valid.
The information came to light when the group was gathering information to support the creation of a third Arctic marine protected area in Lancaster Sound, an effort “strongly supported by local Inuit hunters and land claim groups,” iPolitics reports.
“When we were looking at exploration rights, the Shell permits stood out,” said Greenpeace researcher Alex Speers-Roesch. “Exploration rights are supposed to not last longer than nine years. Looking at the [Shell] permits, it looks like the rights expired in 1979.”
Neither an Access to Information search, nor Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (the federal department responsible for issuing Arctic drilling permits), turned up any evidence that the permits have ever been renewed.
Departmental spokesperson Michel Chenier conceded that “the validity of the Shell permits is indeed a legal question and not simply a ‘clerical issue’.” Nonetheless he said the government will stand by them. “Both industry and government have treated the Shell permits as being valid from the original date of issue to the present,” Chenier said, “and will continue to do so in the future.”
“I don’t think that’s good enough,” Nigel Bankes, a resource law expert at the University of Calgary, told the Canadian Press’ Bob Weber. Oil and gas exploration rules have changed twice since Shell received its permits, and there is no sign that Shell’s licences were ever updated to reflect those changes. “No one would contemplate an exploration permit should be held forever,” Bankes said.
Shell did not respond to Weber’s request for comment. Last month, however, the company announced that it was suspending its exploration program on the far side of the Arctic from Lancaster Sound, in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.