Imperial Oil Canada, Exxon Mobil and BP have jointly filed an application to drill at least one well in the Beaufort Sea 125 kilometres northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

The project description Imperial Oil has submitted says they are planning to drill one or more wells in unspecified locations on two exploration licences and they will drill between three and six kilometres into the sea floor. 

The almost 500-page-long project description doesn't say how much it would cost to drill in the deep Beaufort but the partners won the rights to explore the area by pledging to spend a total of $1.7 billion.

"We're looking for . . . people call them elephants in the rest of the world, I'm calling it a whale because it's in the Beaufort Sea," said Sherry Becker with Imperial Oil Canada.

Communities in the region are still suffering from the collapse of Imperial's plan to build a gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley.

Their economies are tied to the booms and busts of oil and gas exploration. Many still remember the last offshore boom, in the '70s and '80s.

"When that activity was happening, this community was growing, and it sure lowered costs to government," said Floyd Roland, mayor of Inuvik. "In the sense of, right now with the economy so low, there's more people who line up at the income support office, there's more people whose rents have gone down based on their income at the housing office."

Those wells were drilled in water depths of less than 70 metres. The area now being eyed runs to depths of 1,500 metres and has never been drilled before.

"Part of our challenge in moving this project forward is assessing, evaluating and mitigating, dealing with the challenges of drilling a well in this part of the Canadian Beaufort," said Pius Rolheiser with Imperial Oil Canada.

Chief among those challenges is ice. Imperial estimates ice conditions are manageable for only four months of the year, but that can vary dramatically from year to year.

The joint venture is hoping to get regulatory approvals within three years.

"Because we may have to construct vessels, we may have to alter existing vessels so they're ready for the Beaufort Sea," said Sherry Becker with Imperial Oil.

"That will take three to four years, and that takes us from early 2016 to 2020, when our licence expires, so we have to start drilling in that year."

That means the soonest the drilling can happen is in about six and a half years but it's by no means certain that this project is going to move ahead even if it is approved by regulators.

Imperial and its partners shelved the Mackenzie Gas Project after spending hundreds of millions of dollars getting approvals.