Clyde River, Nunavut, takes on oil industry over seismic testing

Clyde River is a small, remote hamlet in Nunavut, but it's getting more attention than it's ever had before, because it's singlehandedly taking on the oil industry, which is eager to access potential deposits off its coast.

Clyde River mayor taking seismic testing companies to court in April

Jerry Natanine, the mayor of Clyde River, Nunavut, says seismic testing for oil deposits in nearby waters could kill marine mammals. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

Clyde River can without exaggeration be called one of the most remote and inaccessible human settlements on earth.

The only way into this Nunavut hamlet is by air, and the surrounding landscape is mostly empty of humans for hundreds of kilometres in all directions.

But despite its size, remote location and relative anonymity, Clyde River is now getting more attention than it's ever had before. All because it has decided to single-handedly take on the oil industry.

The Arctic region holds 20 per cent of known untapped oil in the world. Many used to think the big oil deposits in the eastern Arctic were off Greenland's coast. But the belief now is that the oil is on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, which means there may be an awful lot of oil under the sea floor off Clyde River's coast.

This summer, TGS and PGS, a group of Norwegian companies with offices in Calgary and Texas, want to find out for sure.

TGS and PGS are not oil companies. They map the location of oil deposits on the ocean floor and then sell the data to oil companies, who use it to figure out where to drill. They have approval from the National Energy Board to start their work as soon as the ice melts this summer.

But it’s the way TGS and PGS pinpoint the location of oil that's making the people of Clyde River angry.

These companies use what’s known as seismic testing, firing high-powered air guns into the water from a boat, about every 15 seconds, 24 hours a day. Sensors on the ship record the soundwaves as they bounce back up off the ocean floor.

At close range, the airguns are louder than a jumbo jet, and Jerry Natanine, the mayor of Clyde River, says that could kill nearby marine mammals. Even if they’re not that close, Natanine worries it could scare them away from their feeding and breeding grounds, disorienting them and possibly killing them.

So he’s taking the seismic testing companies to court. On April 20, the federal court in Toronto will consider Natanine’s request for judicial review in the case. In short, he wants the NEB decision reversed, and the testing stopped.

Marine animals are a 'mainstay'

Nearly everyone in Clyde River hunts for seals, narwhal, whales and fish. They depend on it as a source of food. If they were killed in large numbers or driven away, Natanine says his community would be destitute.

Clyde River, Nunavut, is one of the most remote and inaccessible human settlements on earth. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

“Seal is our mainstay,” says Natanine. “There are hunters who go hunting in town regularly -- every day, weather permitting. It’s very important to us for our food and our way of life. If that should be harmed in any way, then it will affect our lives in a big, bad way.”

The alternative is unpalatable. At the only grocery store in town, fresh fruit and vegetables are a rarity. Much of what else is available is processed. Selection is poor. And prices are astronomical, says Natanine.

“In Nunavut, the living costs are the highest in the country and our food cost are up to ten times higher than Ottawa. And our salary rate is the lowest in the country,” he says.

“If the seals got scared away to Greenland, and there were no more seals for us to hunt, that would have a life-changing, detrimental effect on the people of our community.”

TGS and PGS argue there is very little risk to marine mammals in the testing they do. In an email interview with CBC News, PGS spokesman Bard Stenberg said the company avoids sensitive feeding and breeding areas, and that professionally trained observers onboard the ships look for signs of animals in the area and will order a temporary stop to the testing if they spot anything.

Stenberg said the industry has done seismic testing for 40 years, and in that time has demonstrated it is safe. The company says there is no scientific evidence that seismic testing is harmful to marine mammals.

Narwhals could be scared away

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however.

A 2013 study in the journal Biological Conservation says seismic testing may be responsible for the deaths of hundreds, even thousands of narwhals.

The authors say narwhals in particular use sound to communicate, and a seismic blast, even if it occurred hundreds of kilometres away, could confuse or scare them.

It notes three cases where narwhals, disoriented by the noise and compelled to alter their migration pattern, became trapped under thick sea ice and drowned.

The study acknowledges there’s no proof seismic testing was the cause. But is says testing was going on in the area at the time.

The reality is there’s no definitive study out there, but Jerry Natanine and the people of Clyde River say the stakes are too high to take a chance.

Natanine isn’t totally opposed to oil development near his community. When the idea first came up, he said he was in favour of it, because he believed it would produce much-needed jobs and money. But he says when he started asking questions, he got more and more nervous.

No promises of jobs or cash

Representatives of the oil industry gave him no guarantee that marine mammals would be safe. There were no promises of jobs or cash, either.

Because of Nunavut's remote location, shipping food there costs a lot - which is reflected in the grocery prices for items such as fresh produce and junk food. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

Natanine says when the company proposed the area for seismic testing, they left out a small part in the middle of the ocean, saying that’s where narwhals eat. “We asked them, how do you know that? And there was no answer. How can a National Energy Board approve something so important, based on that? They don’t even know where the narwhals are.”

A few well-known organizations have thrown their support behind Clyde River, including World Wildlife Fund Canada, Greenpeace, even Amnesty International, which argues the human rights of people in the community are being violated because they weren’t properly consulted.

For David Miller, head of WWF Canada, the irony of the situation is rich.

“It’s become easier to explore for oil in the Arctic because of climate change, which of course is caused by our reliance on fossil fuels,” he says.

“In a really fragile environment like the Arctic, let’s start with the idea that we don’t want to destroy nature, and only conduct industrial activity if it’s acceptable to local people and if it’s got protections so it doesn’t create significant harm.”

In its ruling, The National Energy Board said it held meetings and took the concerns of Clyde River into consideration. It approved the seismic testing anyway, saying the risks are low.

If Clyde River loses in court, it doesn’t really have a plan B. For Natanine, it would be yet another case of big oil companies and the federal government ignoring the rights of Inuit in the name of resource development.

Either way, he says people in Clyde River aren’t going anywhere.

“I have friends down south that thought nobody lived up here and that it’s nothing but frozen land. It’s not. Inuit live up here, we make our home here and we like it here. We hunt and make our living here. We’re going to stay here and keep living here.”


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