(WHALES) OTTAWA – Can a protected area for beluga whales be truly protected if one percent of it is given to oil and gas interests for unlimited drilling exploration? Is an oil spill going to respect that imaginary line in the water? Or, even more laughably, does the idea that they’ll be “exploring” when the beluga’s are gone for the season make a difference? Doubtful, especially if the Beluga’s return to the Beaufort Sea  to feed, socialize and raise their calves after an oil spill.

While Prime Minister Harper made a big show of creating a new protected area for Beluga whales, he quietly made a deal to allow drilling and oil exploration in one percent of the reserve. Let’s hope the returning belugas don’t come home to a sea as polluted with oil as the gulf has become due to BP’s oil “exploration.” We at Global Animal think this revised meaning for ‘protected’ is hypocritical and that oil companies should focus on cleaning up the gulf. Isn’t pillaging the rest of the planet enough without encroaching on the earth’s few sanctuaries? What do you think? — Global Animal

Andrew Mayeda, Post Media News

OTTAWA — The federal government has quietly left the door open to offshore oil drilling in a conservation area for beluga whales in Canada’s Arctic waters that was unveiled with much fanfare by Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week.ice

On Thursday, the fourth day of his weeklong tour of the Arctic, the prime minister announced the government will establish the Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area, located at the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the Beaufort Sea. The Beaufort Sea region is home to one of the world’s largest summer populations of belugas, which go there to feed, socialize and raise their calves. Today we are ensuring these Arctic treasures are preserved for generations to come,” Harper told reporters in the remote town of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

However, regulatory documents released by the government in April show that officials plan to set aside one per cent of the conservation area for oil and gas activities, such as exploratory drilling.”For example, exploratory drilling activities may be considered during ice cover as there are no beluga present in the (protected area) at that time,” states a regulatory impact analysis produced by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The protected area actually comprises three individual areas in the Beaufort Sea that together span 1,800 square kilometres of offshore territory. The impact analysis notes that “significant-discovery” licences have been granted to companies next to two of the individual areas. Significant discovery licences are granted to companies that have proven the existence of oil or gas reserves. The licences give companies the exclusive rights to develop the reserves. The discoveries next to the beluga protection area are estimated to hold a combined $6.6 billion in oil and gas reserves.

In most of the protected area, petroleum exploration and development will be prohibited. But to allow the holders of the significant-discovery licences to “continue to exercise their rights,” the government plans to create a “special-management zone” where companies will be allowed to conduct exploratory drilling, pipeline construction and other activities.

New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen said allowing an exception for offshore drilling defeats the purpose of creating a protected area. “This is a protected area that protects nothing except oil and gas interests,” said Cullen. Even if drilling takes place in territory outside the protected area, there’s the risk that an oil spill could drift into the area and affect the beluga habitat, he added. “It’s some insane notion that we can draw a line in the water and drill right beside it.”

A news release and backgrounder issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on the day of the announcement said the initiative would “balance the cultural and economic aspirations of northerners,” but didn’t mention the exception for offshore drilling. The marine protected area is the first established by Canada in the Beaufort, where it is believed there is as much as $102 billion in petroleum reserves. The last company to drill in the Beaufort was Devon Energy in 2006, but several major energy players, including BP and Exxon Mobil, plan to commence exploratory drilling several years from now.Previously, belugas were protected under a relatively toothless regime called the Beaufort Sea Beluga Management Plan, which only set forth voluntary guidelines for petroleum development.

The impact analysis says federal officials will try to encourage compliance with the new rules through “education and compliance-promotion activities,” rather than penalties.According to the analysis, the drilling exception was added after the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the National Energy Board, an arm’s-length tribunal that regulates drilling off Canada’s Arctic coast, expressed “concerns over the restrictions on all oil and gas activities” within the protection area. The Prime Minister’s Office referred questions to Fisheries and Oceans, the National Energy Board and the Department of Indians and Northern Affairs, each of which referred questions to another of the three.