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National Energy Board boss visits
Peter Watson seeking a balance between energy and environment

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 19, 2015

As Clyde River prepares for a hearing into its desire to block seismic testing - a precursor to oil and gas development in the territory's waters - the National Energy Board is preparing its defence among communities.

The board's efforts to sway public opinion included a visit by the board's chair and CEO Peter Watson to Iqaluit last week.

A former Alberta deputy minister who held, at separate times, the energy and environment portfolios, Watson was the oil-rich province's top bureaucrat as deputy minister of the premier's executive committee until Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed him to the National Energy Board in June.

During his visit, Watson sat down with Nunavut News/North to discuss the current state of oil and gas in the territory. Questions about seismic testing were not allowed because the case is before the courts.

Nunavut News/North: Oil and gas in the Eastern Arctic are almost more of an idea at this point. How do you reconcile concerns about the opportunity of energy, and concerns about the environment?

Peter Watson: My background is civil engineering, mostly environmental engineering issues. Twenty-five years of my career was with the environment department before I went to the energy department. I fundamentally believe you can find a way forward to reconcile and properly balance and protect the values of the environment you want to protect while development is occurring and set appropriate limits to the development you want to see. The NEB always tries to take a holistic view and think as comprehensively as we can about the environmental, social and economic issues. That's our mandate.

NNN: Is it possible to safely drill for oil and gas in the Arctic? I look at the Russian experience of 2,700 spills in one year (in 2011).

PW: Being new to the NEB, I'm also new to offshore development, but one of the slides I saw at the forum today showed a number of exploration wells on the Greenland side in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. What we should do at this early stage, before development is occurring, is connect with the people in Greenland and ask, What are you finding? What are your issues? How are you assessing the risk? There are people who have more experience than us and we should reach out as quickly as we can to inform our environmental assessment.

NNN: The feeling I'm sensing from other conversations here is that the NEB acts as a tool for the Harper government. What is the level of separation from the Conservative approach of getting oil out of the ground?

PW: Your readers really need to understand that we are an arms-length agency. When we make a decision, it is an independent decision based on the evidence that is in front of us. If any government jurisdiction wants to give us advice on what to do, they actually have to participate in our process and put evidence on the record for everyone to see. We evaluate that input along with the other input we take. We are very open and transparent and we're absolutely independent in our decision-making process from the Government of Canada.

NNN: You're an environmental engineer. From an environmental standpoint, is there a risk involved with seismic testing?

PW: The board's conclusion was there isn't a long-lasting impact associated with seismic, so that's the conclusion after looking at the evidence. A big part of how we do this is to do things so we avoid or prevent interaction with marine mammals. Then we monitor a large safety zone, up to 500 metres from the source of airwaves, and we shut down if we see any interaction with marine mammals.

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