Textual Analysis of Federal Deliberations over the First Offshore Oil Well in the North American Arctic, 1972-1976

In 1976, the federal government of Canada, acting through its Cabinet, authorized the first oil well offshore of Arctic North America. The proposal for the well, however, first arrived before Cabinet in 1973. Upon their initial review of the proposal, Cabinet desired greater knowledge in two areas: first, the extent of the natural resource in the Beaufort Sea in order to determine the potential energy supply to be gained from drilling; and, second, a better understanding of the various environmental risks of this activity, especially since operations in a notoriously icy marine environment with scant supportive infrastructure posed significant challenges to the oil industry. My research this summer examines what information Cabinet collected in the intervening years, how federal officials evaluated risks and rewards, and what other factors led the government to support an offshore oil frontier in northern North America. This activity is part of a larger project on the expansion of industrial society to offshore environments after World War II, and the resulting contests among multi-national corporations, federal regulatory agencies, the scientific community, non-governmental environmental groups, and Indigenous political organizations.

 

The primary sources for this research are archival materials produced by Cabinet and the relevant federal departments whose Ministers attended Cabinet meetings. These sources come in several types of documents. First, I have gathered all of the “Cabinet Conclusions” in this period, which are the records of formal decisions made by Cabinet on any particular topic before it. Between 1973 and 1976, Cabinet met to discuss the subject of offshore oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea on ten different occasions, each time producing a “Cabinet Conclusion.” Bucknell student Ashley Vecchio and I will analyze these discussions by performing a textual analysis of the Cabinet Conclusions to survey how Cabinet members discussed and defined topics such as energy demand, energy supply, a “need to know” policy of resource exploration, economic benefit, environmental risk (with attention to oil spills), other environmental threats, technological development, and international pressure.

 

After this analysis, we will look to a second document type, “Cabinet Documents.” “Cabinet Documents” are materials submitted to Cabinet for discussion by relevant federal departments. In this case, the federal departments creating Cabinet Documents regarding offshore oil development in the Beaufort Sea were the 1) Department of Energy, Minerals, and Resources,; 2) Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development; and 3) the Department of the Environment. Each department had either regulatory authority in this arena or significant interests or expertise in the impacts surrounding oil development. In some cases, employees these departments worked together, much like a subcommittee to produce materials to guide Cabinet deliberations. These Cabinet Documents often included explicit recommendations on decision-making based on assessments of existing scientific knowledge and technology.

For these reasons, Cabinet Documents can be profitably analyzed in relation to Cabinet Conclusions. That is, if a topic that appeared to be critical in Cabinet Conclusions also appears in Cabinet Documents, the genealogy of a particular factor in decision-making can be more easily traced and evaluated. If, however, a topic that appeared critical in Cabinet Conclusions does not appear in Cabinet Documents, it may spur further research into how and why such a transformative Cabinet decision on energy development might have circumvented, relegated, or otherwise ignored the work of relevant regulatory authorities, scientists, and other experts producing the knowledge-base for federal management of the offshore.

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