Project: Documenting Offshore Oil Development
Faculty: Andrew Stuhl
Student: Ashley Vecchio
Date: Summer 2017
(Post by Ashley Vecchio)
The Global Oil Crisis in 1973, along with desires for energy self-sufficiency, led the federal government of Canada to grant Dome Petroleum Limited in 1976 the first drilling authority in the offshore regions of Arctic North America. This decision followed a three-year study of the potential environmental effects of offshore oil and gas development, sponsored jointly by the Canadian Cabinet and oil companies. Our study provides the first empirical examination of how the Cabinet came to their decision to allow offshore drilling, with specific attention to the definition and evaluation of risks and rewards, both economic and environmental. Our data include the minutes of Cabinet meetings on the issue of oil and gas development between 1973-1976 as well as supplementary reports and correspondence regarding those deliberations. We applied Voyant text analysis tools to identify the most frequent words across the dataset and read these in context to track how various environmental risks were described, addressed, or compared to economic risks and rewards. This analysis showed that Cabinet members had identified a well site blowout as presenting the greatest ecological damage, though such an event was considered unlikely, based on experiences of the offshore oil drilling industry until 1976. In addition, Cabinet interpreted the possible loss of Dome’s prior investments in the region, as well as the unrealized value of oil and gas resources in the midst of an intensifying energy crisis, as greater risks than those posed by a blowout. Beyond their significance to historians, these results can have contemporary policy implications in helping constituents recognize the driving forces behind government decisions on energy development that often do not take place in public eye. In 2007, interest in the region rose again with the Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada (INAC) issuing nine exploratory licenses to several multinational oil companies. Future research may compare these recent deliberations to the 1973-1976 case.