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BC Liberals 'open to' offshore oil drilling

With just seven days left on the campaign trail, the NDP warned B.C. voters Monday that a B.C. Liberal government wants Ottawa to lift a federal moratorium on offshore exploration.

The New Democrats say that would open the West Coast to "inevitable" environmental disaster. Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom said if offshore development can be done in an environmentally sound way, then the Liberals are prepared to look at it.

But in a province where the principal industry – forestry – has been devastated by a pine beetle epidemic, the softwood lumber dispute and now a worldwide economic crash, the province may be more than "prepared to look at it."

Internal federal government documents obtained by The Canadian Press note that under Premier Gordon Campbell the B.C. government is, indeed, keen for the 1972 moratorium to be lifted.

"The government of B.C. views potential offshore energy development as an important component of the province's long-term economic development, especially in areas that are comparatively disadvantaged," said a briefing document provided to the federal natural resources minister in November 2006, obtained through a federal Access to Information request.

It notes that public views are polarized for and against the moratorium and that First Nations issues and the duty of the Crown to consult with aboriginals "is ever changing."

Natural Resources Canada assessed the potential economic value of the resources of the Queen Charlotte Basin between $80 and $120 billion in oil and $40 to $60 billion in gas – back when oil was selling for US$45 a barrel and natural gas $6 per 1,000 cubic feet. On Monday, oil was selling for US$54 a barrel, and natural gas for US$3.725 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The Geological Survey of Canada has estimated there is a potential 43.4 trillion cubic feet of gas off the B.C. coast and 9.8 billion barrels of oil.

But as of yet, the moratorium remains in place.

Lana Popham, the New Democrat candidate in Saanich South on Vancouver Island, said the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell plans to open the Pacific coast up to oil and gas development.

"Oil tanker traffic would pose serious threats to our coastline, as well as to our salmon, whales, and other marine populations," she said, adding that a spill would be devastating.

"With oil supertankers it's not a question of 'if' but 'when.' Spills are inevitable if you allow these into B.C. waters,'' Popham, who was not immediately reachable for an interview, said in a statement issued by the party.

Lekstrom said Monday that if offshore development can be done in an environmentally and scientifically sound manner, "we're prepared to look at it."

"This will certainly hinge a great deal on the federal government and the moratorium that they have on that right now. But we're prepared to look at it and, at the end of the day, this is not extract a resource at all costs," said Lekstrom, reached at a campaign event in his riding in Chetwynd, in northeast B.C.

Lekstrom's predecessor, former energy minister Richard Neufeld was more committal.

"There's a huge value out there off the coast, that should British Columbians at the end of the day decide to access, would go a long ways to paying for all the services that each and every one of us want," Neufeld told The Canadian Press in January.

The former minister said Ottawa had not, as yet, "made a decision like ours that they would actually like to start a process."

"That doesn't mean you go out there and drill on Friday afternoon. But you start a process of actually reviewing it in a serious way to make a decision about lifting the moratorium. British Columbia can't lift the moratoriums on their own," Neufeld said.

He said the B.C. government was unequivocal with the federal government.

"We've already told them we're ready to do it," he said.

"I know that there are those that say the West Coast is unique and so different that you can't do it, but there are lots of unique and difficult places around the world drilling for natural gas or oil offshore is done on a daily basis with the technology that they have today, it can be done.''

Neufeld was appointed to the senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year.

If the B.C. government wants the moratorium lifted, they may have found an ally in the current federal government.

Barely a day went by after the minority Conservative government formed its first cabinet before the then-minister of natural resources asked for a briefing on the moratorium.

Gary Lunn was sworn in the morning of Feb. 6, 2006, and by the end of business hours the next day his new staff was readying to brief him on the B.C. offshore.

"Minister has indicated an interest in being briefed early on B.C. offshore (surprise, surprise)," said an email from a top bureaucrat in Lunn's department.

The email asks staff to find numbers for the potential size of the oil and gas resources in the Pacific Ocean off the B.C. coast and the potential daily production, as well as the environmental record of the offshore in Newfoundland the North Sea, such as the number of incidents and the amount of oil leaked.

"He might ask," said the email.

Dene Moore and Dirk Meissner report for The Canadian Press.

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