Protecting Lancaster Sound

Photo by Glenn Williams
Program area – Nature Status: Victory
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Sitting at the eastern entrance of the famed Northwest Passage, Lancaster Sound is home to narwhals, belugas, ringed and harp seals, and walruses. The area also boasts one of the highest densities of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, and one third of Canada’s colonial seabirds rely on Lancaster Sound for feeding and breeding.

Despite this abundance of wildlife, these waters have long been threatened by the possibility of exploratory drilling for oil and gas.

That’s why we launched a lawsuit on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), asking the court to order the government to remove Shell Canada’s expired oil and gas permits in Lancaster Sound from a registry of active permits. (World Wildlife Fund Canada v. Attorney General of Canada and Shell Canada Limited.) Shortly after the case was filed, Shell released the permits, via the Nature Conservancy of Canada, to the federal government.

And at the same time, the federal government announced a five year plan to develop new National Parks and National Marine Conservation Areas, including the long-awaited Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area.

Despite its profound and important wildlife diversity, the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada issued 30 oil and gas exploration permits to Shell Canada Limited in Lancaster Sound in 1971. Initially issued for six years, the permits allowed Shell to conduct exploratory work in permitted areas.  In accordance with regulations, the permits were extended twice for one-year periods with an option for four more one-year extensions.  The Canada Petroleum Resources Act (CPRA) registry had no record of any additional extensions being granted nor are there records of Shell successfully renegotiating exploration licences.

At the time the case was filed, not only were Shell’s exploration permits expired, but the boundaries of the permits also overlapped with an area in Lancaster Sound proposed for protection as a National Marine Conservation Area, impeding its finalization.

What does this victory mean?

The release of these permits to the federal government marks an important step towards recognizing and preserving Lancaster Sound’s incredible biodiversity.

In August 2017, the Government of Canada (Parks Canada), the Nunavut Government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association signed a landmark agreement to establish Tallurutiup Imanga - Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area. The wider borders would acknowledge and better respect the traditional knowledge of the Inuit communities who have lived in the area since time immemorial and help protect one of the world’s richest marine mammal habitats from dangerous offshore drilling.

Key developments

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