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ANCHORAGE - The Canadian government is planning to hold public hearings and conduct a scientific review that could reopen offshore oil and gas drilling along the British Columbia coast.
The decision is good news to economic development boosters, particularly in the province's northern reaches near the border with Alaska.
Opponents of offshore development include some commercial fishermen, Canadian Natives and an influential Canadian environmental group, the David Suzuki Foundation.
According to Canadian government geologists, the Queen Charlotte Basin around the Queen Charlotte Islands could contain as much as 9.8 billion barrels of oil and 25.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The ban on offshore drilling has been in effect since 1972, and drillers last explored there in the late 1960s. One company, Shell Canada, drilled eight wells in the basin, according to the British Columbia Ministry of Energy & Mines.
A 2001 expert panel found no scientific basis for the current blanket moratorium on offshore exploration and development along the entire British Columbia coast, the ministry said.
To some degree, the ban stemmed from one-time fears that oil tankers would carry Alaska crude oil from Valdez south down the Inside Passage. The Exxon spill in 1989 helped reinforce the offshore drilling ban.
But political leaders in British Columbia have been looking for ways to help the province's weak economy, particularly in the isolated north.
Southeast Alaska saw 14 offshore wells drilled in the Yakutat area from 1969 to 1983, but no large pools of oil were found, said Mark Myers, director of the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas.
Drilling could occur right next door to Alaska if the Canadians lift the ban on exploring in the Queen Charlotte Basin, which actually extends slightly into Alaska's southernmost waters.
Herb Dhaliwal, natural resources minister for Canada, gave no precise date for deciding whether to lift the British Columbia ban. He said the government first would conduct a science review to identify knowledge gaps. Then an independent three-member panel will hold community hearings.
Dhaliwal said the process doesn't signify a decision to lift the ban. Rather, it is "a means to fully explore the issues and views of British Columbians."