The 10-billion-barrel battle

Henry Lyatsky wants B.C.'s coast opened to oil drilling but environmentalists stand opposed.

1 man's campaign to end B.C.'s offshore drilling ban

Henry Lyatsky is a man on a mission.

The Calgary-based oil industry consultant is on a one-man campaign to lift the moratorium on offshore oil drilling on Canada’s West Coast.

While his message gets a sympathetic ear in his hometown, the centre of Canada’s oil industry, his mission is more of an uphill battle in British Columbia.

Henry Lyatsky, a Calgary-based oil and mining industry consultant, says the 'silent majority' in B.C. wants a moratorium on offshore oil exploration lifted. ((CBC))

At stake are 9.8 billion barrels of oil — enough to supply all of Canada’s domestic needs for four years — and one of the most picturesque and rugged seascapes in the world. The oil is concentrated in the Queen Charlotte basin between northern Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. 

Along with an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, it could exceed Newfoundland’s offshore reserves. Both Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell drilled test wells in the area before the ban was imposed but have not released their results.

Standing in the way is the moratorium on tanker traffic B.C. imposed in 1971 and the ban on exploration Ottawa imposed a year later. Provincial efforts in the 1980s to lift the federal ban foundered in 1989 along with the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 40 million litres of crude oil off the coast of Alaska.

In a commentary in the Oil and Gas Journal, Lyatsky argues the majority of residents in B.C. want the jobs and wealth that would come from development, but they have been drowned out by environmentalists.

"The revenues are huge for the province," Lyatsky told CBC News. "Look at Newfoundland: They got rich off of offshore oil and look at the number of jobs that get created." 

A view of sunset from Anthony Island at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Oonagh O’Connor of the Living Oceans Society takes issue with that.

"It has to be a very silent majority," she said, given that thousands of people took part in federal hearings from 2003 to 2004 on whether to lift the moratorium and 75 per cent supported keeping it in place. All of the First Nations representatives who took part also opposed lifting the ban.

Still, in a province where the forestry industry is struggling, the unemployment rate is 8.3 per cent, and the provincial government raised $2.66 billion on the sale of onshore oil and gas exploration rights in 2008, the argument is getting some traction. 

Offshore fields are much bigger, as are the resulting royalties to governments.

"The public seems to be on side, but the support for exploration is diffuse around the province," Lyatsky said. "The opposition to exploration is in the minority but it’s concentrated, it’s vocal, and it’s committed, so it’s very forceful. What we need to do is to energize our own supporters, who are many, and simply overcome that opposition by the weight of democratic numbers."

Blair Lekstrom, B.C.'s minister of energy, agrees with Lyatsky that the silent majority in B.C. supports lifting the moratorium. Lekstrom's government wants exploration to proceed but, he adds, "unless it can be done in an environmentally responsible and scientifically sound manner, then we wouldn't proceed."

The worst oil spill in U.S. history leaked 40 million litres of crude into Alaska's Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez in March 1989. ((Jack Smith/Associated Press))

Work with Ottawa is continuing, but "the reality is, this really is in the federal hands," Lekstrom said, adding "there is a challenge at this point," an apparent reference to the Conservative minority government's unwillingness to risk swing ridings in the province.

The federal department told CBC News it has no plans to lift the ban at this time.

Lyatsky wants the oil industry — investors, companies, professional associations and consultants — to mobilize opinion.

His timing might be problematic.

An earthquake measuring 6.6 shook the southern tip of Haida Gwaii on Nov. 17.

And on the other side of the Pacific, Australia recently set up a commission to investigate the country’s third-worst oil spill, when as much as 30,000 barrels leaked into the Timor Sea off the country’s northwestern coast. The spill was the first accident among 1,500 wells drilled in Australian waters since 1984, but it continued from Aug. 21 to Nov. 3 and was marked by a fire that burned for two days, destroying the rig.

The West Atlas rig leaked oil for 10 weeks this fall into the Timor Sea 250 kilometres northwest of Australia. ((AP Photo/PTTEP Australasia))

That’s troubling for O’Connor, especially from her perspective from the Living Oceans Society’s headquarters in the tiny fishing village of Sointula on the northern end of Vancouver Island.

"When the moratorium was put in place in 1972, it was done so because of concerns about the environment," she said. "Now we know way more about the impacts of the offshore oil-and-gas industry on the environment.  We know that despite modern technology, spills continue to happen."

Lyatsky says all the objections to offshore drilling are overrated and have been already been answered through extensive experience elsewhere in the world.

O’Connor doubts that.  

"When you live here," she said, "and you depend on the coast, these concerns aren’t overrated.  They are really important."

Lyatsky believes his view will prevail.

"I would say it’s in our own hands," he said. "The chances are pretty good if we make the effort to push things forward.  Nothing will happen if we do nothing. It can be done. I’m certain it can be done."