Canada's Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal is ready to lift a 30-year federal ban on oil and gas exploration of British Columbia's offshore, provided development can occur in an "environmentally-sustainable way."
Dhaliwal, who comes from British Columbia and was named to the energy portfolio just last month, told reporters over the weekend he would be open to a request from the British Columbia government to end the moratorium.
His invitation is a sharp about-face from the long-standing opposition to offshore exploration by Environment Minister David Anderson, who is also from British Columbia
Dhaliwal said the province must first decide to remove its own indefinite moratorium, imposed in 1982 and renewed after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
"If the province wants to lift its own moratorium on offshore drilling, then it can request that the federal government do the same," he said. "Once B.C. makes that request we'll do the consultations."
British Columbia Energy Minister Richard Neufeld indicated the provincial government will still proceed slowly. "The quickest way to kill any aspects of our offshore oil and gas exploration is to do things quickly," he said.
Both ministers said the next key development will be the release, expected this month, of a report by a British Columbia government-appointed offshore oil and gas scientific panel, which is studying whether resources can be extracted in a way that is scientifically sound and environmentally responsible.
The development hot-spot is the Queen Charlotte Basin, including Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait, where the Geological Survey of Canada has estimated recoverable reserves at 10 billion barrels of oil and 26 trillion cubic feet of gas.
But many environmental and aboriginal leaders are strongly opposed to exploration and have threatened to mount legal action if either government tries to lift the bans.
A spokesman for Petro-Canada, which holds drilling right to 6 million acres in the basin, said the issue must first be settled by British Columbians. For Petro-Canada, he said, that means resolving all First Nations land claims; all ecologically sensitive areas must be identified and set aside; and there must be an integrated federal-provincial regulatory regime in place.