10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

This morning I decided to comment via email on Nicholas's post about drilling in the Nariva Swamp. As has become a frequent occurrence over the past few weeks, he responded, and a great debate begins.

Let me say that the evidence Nick provides at best weakly supports his case against seismic surveying. Firstly, he talks about the effect of seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This testing took place in 1984-85, with the "heavy, monster trucks" that he writes about. What he fails to realise is that companies, even oil companies, do not operate in a vacuum. Does he not think that the technology to test would have improved in the past 17 years, not least due to pressue from environmentalists? Indeed, this is brought out in the second study he mentions, from the Alberta Centre for Boreal Studies. The ACBS talks about low-impact seismic methods, which uses vehicles with low ground pressure. They also mention "enviro-drills . . . [t]hese are shot-hole drills mounted on specially-designed all-terrain vehicles that require only 2.5 m corridors for access." Surely there are even other ways to test that leave even less on an environmental footprint.

I am not saying that the swamp should be exploited--personally, I would rather it not be. I even think that Talisman Energy, the Canadian company applying for a permit to test, is an unscrupulous company, and they probably should not be given the permit to test. (I told Nick this in the email.) His position, though, sounds like exploitation should not even be contenanced--that the idea of doing so should not be entertained. This sounds less than reasoned argument than the faith of anti-development--certain areas are no-go, and that any proposal to do so is either too ludicrous or too blasphemous to be considered. This won't make for deliberation--it will mean a shouting match, and a poor one at that.

UPDATE: Nick responds to the above here. His argument sounds as if I am supporting Talisman, and I am not--I do not think that the company has been very socially conscious (though I notice that Nick is not protesting its environmental record, which would probably be a fairer yardstick, given what we're debating.)

He is right, though, that I take issue with any area being declared "off-limits". I am saying is that exploration (for now, that's all that's being contemplated) should not be viscerally ruled out. When I wrote about a "faith" this is what I meant--the swamp is either a preserve or it's not, and no way to balance a preserve with development (like drilling sideways into the oil underneath it, should any exist, rather than having platforms on top of it) should be considered. The Nariva swamp was set up as a preserve years ago, when there was either insufficient knowledge of, or no cost-effective means of exploiting, the resources beneath it. Now that technology has improved, the swamp must remain sacrosant. Nick's even used the "slippery slope" argument -- a pessimistic fear of the unknown--to justify his position. Must any changes necessarily lead to a bad, or even the worst possible, outcome?

The swamp is a state preserve as well; the government, if it so desired, could make the use of less invasive exploration techniques a condition of any permit. Also, the Nariva preserve does not exist in a vacuum--if the swamp was not already a preserve, environmentalists would probably be campaigning to make it so.

He is right that I agree with him, but with one proviso: I am against development in the swamp, but I am open to arguements for why it should be allowed, and I am willing to reconsider. Maybe there is no way that the Nariva would be safely exploited, and all of this could be folly. We won't know, however, unless we look, which, to my mind, is a superior position than banning looking at all.