Canada Warns Arctic Drilling Would Violate U.S.-Canada Treaty

WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2005 (ENS) - The government of Canada is requesting that the U.S. Congress not use oil and gas shortages caused by Hurricane Katrina as a reason to approve drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To allow drilling in the refuge would violate the 1987 Canada-United States Agreement on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the Canadian foreign minister said in a letter to the U.S. elected leaders.

In a September 15 letter to Congressional leaders, Canadian Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew said, "it has come to our attention that this disaster is being used by some to promote the development of petroleum resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, using energy security as their rationale."

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Canadian Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew reminded Congressional leaders of a 1987 treaty to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd. (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
"The minimal oil resources in the Arctic Refuge will not make a timely or significant contribution to U.S. energy supplies," Pettigrew wrote. "Consequently, I would like to share with you Canada’s longstanding concerns about oil drilling in the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and to ask that you oppose any provision that would authorize such drilling."

Directing his comments to Republican leaders Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, who chairs the House Committee on International Relations, Pettigrew expressed his personal sympathy for the destruction caused by the hurricane which struck the Gulf Coast August 29.

"As your friends and neighbours," the minister assured Lugar and Hyde that "Canada continues to provide all possible assistance and support for relief efforts."

The Government of Canada is "particularly concerned," Pettigrew said, "about an expected provision in the Budget Reconciliation legislation to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Refuge, because it would displace the Porcupine Caribou Herd which migrates annually across the Canada/U.S. border to calve in the protection of the coastal plain."

"Drilling in these lands would have a devastating impact both on the Porcupine Caribou and on the Gwich’in First Nations people of the northern Yukon, the MacKenzie delta, and northeastern Alaska, who rely heavily on the herd for food and their 12,000 year old culture," the minister wrote.

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A Porcupine caribou calf frolics in Ivvavik National Park. (Photo © J. Obst courtesy Parks Canada)
In accord with the 1987 Canada-United States Agreement on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, Pettigrew wrote, "Canada has protected its portion of the herd’s habitat by providing permanent wilderness status through the establishment of Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks in northern Yukon."

These two national parks encompass an area of approximately 3.5 million acres, more than double the acreage of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Ivvavik, meaning a place for giving birth, a nursery, in Inuvialuktun, the language of the Inuvialuit, was established on June 5, 1984 as the first national park in Canada to be created as a result of an aboriginal land claim agreement. The park protects a portion of the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and represents the Northern Yukon and Mackenzie Delta natural regions.

The Vuntut National Park was established in 1995. Vuntut, which means among the lakes in the Gwitchin language, encompasses 4,345 square kilometers of wilderness in the northwestern corner of the Yukon. The park is bounded by Ivvavik National Park to the north, as well as the international boundary and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the west.

Pettigrew reminded the U.S. Congressional leaders that "Canada is committed to protecting the Gwich’in First Nation and Porcupine Caribou Herd on which they depend."

"We urge the United States to provide permanent wilderness protection to the calving grounds consistent with the 1987 Canada-U.S. Agreement," the minister wrote.

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Porcupine caribou in lower Firth River canyon, Ivvavik National Park (Photo © Karsten Heuer courtesy Parks Canada)
Pettigrew's letter is not the first time that Canada has made its concerns about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge clear to the U.S. government.

In July 2001, then Canadian Ambassor to the United States Michael Kergin wrote in an open letter to the U.S. Congress, "Both our countries share the responsibility to preserve the herd and its habitat, and we are both committed to do so as recognized in the 1987 Canada-United States Agreement on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd."

"For many years," wrote Kergin, "Canada and the United States have successfully cooperated on energy resource development to our mutual benefit and indeed our relationship in this regard has been an example to the rest of the world. We can continue to do so, confident in our ability to preserve our shared environment, while securing a reliable energy supply."

The Arctic Refuge is one of the largest remaining complete ecosystems on the planet and is highly sensitive to any development, the government of Canada writes on the Canadian Embassy website. With an array of arctic and sub-arctic habitats and a wide variety of plants and animals, the refuge is home to numerous bird species, Dall sheep, muskoxen, wolves, polar bear and grizzly bear. It is occupied during calving season by the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which numbers approximately 152,000 animals.

The biological heart of the Arctic Refuge is a narrow 1.5 million acre coastal plain, the so-called "1002 lands," extending from the foothills of the Brooks Range some 15 - 20 miles to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. It is there that the drilling is proposed.

A vote on the Budget Reconciliation legislation could happen before the end of September.