Greenland defends offshore drilling

The premier of Greenland says Inuit around the world should respect his government's decision to drill for oil and gas in Davis Strait.
Greenland Premier Kuupik Kliest told Inuit Circumpolar Council delegates Monday that energy and mineral resources will help lead his country towards economic self-sufficiency. ((CBC))

The premier of Greenland says Inuit in the circumpolar world should respect his government's decision to drill for oil and gas in Davis Strait.

Premier Kuupik Kliest made the remark during the Inuit Circumpolar Council's 11th general assembly, which runs this week in Nuuk, Greenland. Inuit officials from Canada, the United States and Russia, as well as Greenland, are at the five-day event.

Addressing the assembly's 65 delegates on Monday, Kliest responded to public concerns about his government's recent approval of Cairn Energy's plans to start drilling next month on two exploratory wells off Greenland's west coast, in the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island in Nunavut.

"The exploitation of our enormous riches in oil and mineral resources is indisputably the most promising and real potential for a greater degree of economic self-sufficiency," Kliest said, speaking in Greenlandic, an Inuit language.

Not seeking 'quick cash'

While Greenland remains part of Denmark, it has been working towards independence. Last year, Greenland assumed powers of self-governance that include control of the island's natural resources.

But Kliest said Greenland's predominantly Inuit population will not let big oil companies simply move in, but will instead ensure Inuit are actively involved in development.

"Let me assure you of my government's and my own personal refusal to compromise the environment for quick cash," he said.

Akkaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Greenland, said he is confident that Inuit concerns will be considered before any offshore oil or gas production ever goes ahead.

"I think the premier said very clearly that he wants to institute a hearing process where [the Inuit Circumpolar Council] is invited," Lynge said.

Environmental concerns remain

But some Inuit delegates say they remain worried about the potential of an offshore oil disaster, citing the ongoing massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"What we're concerned about is how it's going to impact the environment and the animals," said Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in Nunavut's Baffin Island region.

Many Inuit, including those in Canada and the U.S., still rely on land and sea animals as their main food source.

"Please leave the ocean alone, because this is where our food chain begins," said George Edwardson, an Inupiat delegate from Alaska.

"Once you destroy that, then your ability to feed yourself from the ocean will end."

Labrador Inuit banned uranium mining

Energy and mineral exploration is also an issue for Inuit in northern Labrador, where potential uranium resources have been identified.

Despite that potential, officials with Labrador's Nunatsiavut government imposed a three-year moratorium on uranium mining in 2008, while a plan is being developed to ensure the environment and the people are protected.

"When big industry comes, they come. Many times they don't go away, especially if they see a resource that's exploitable," said William Barbour, the Nunatsiavut government's natural resources minister.

"Many times you just have to deal with them and make sure you have the best environmental protection available."

However, the Nunatsiavut uranium mining moratorium has not been without controversy. Last week, residents in Postville, N.L., called on the Inuit government to end the ban immediately, saying it has created economic hardship in the community.

The issue of industrial development is expected to remain a hot topic at this week's Inuit Circumpolar Council assembly.