10/23/2012 11:13 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Offshore Oil Worth $9.6B To B.C. Says Fraser Institute

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 27, 2010 file photo, An oil rig is seen in the Gulf of Mexico near the Chandeleur Islands, off the Southeastern tip of Louisiana. Energy companies have reoccupied nearly 400 of the production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that were abandoned in advance of Hurricane Isaac, though oil production remains almost entirely shut down. Oil and gas workers began retaking the offshore sites Friday and federal officials on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012 say that 377 of the 596 productions platforms have some staffing on them, up from just 97. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

A high-profile conservative think tank says B.C. could make billions of dollars if the ban on oil exploration off the province’s coast was lifted.

The Fraser institute issued a report Monday, calling for a suspension of the 40-year-old federal moratorium on West Coast offshore drilling.

The report says that big rigs like those off Newfoundland and Labrador could bring in $9.6 billion for B.C. over the next 25 years.

"Because we waited, we're in the enviable position that we can learn from successful regulatory regimes, like the one in Newfoundland, the United Kingdom," said Joel Wood, a Fraser Institute Senior Research Economist.

The Geological Survey of Canada estimates there are enormous reserves below Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound off B.C.’s north coast, the report said.

The report acknowledges that offshore drilling comes with huge environmental risks.

Spill reverses financial outcome

If there was a major spill, like the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the financial result reverses and becomes a loss of nearly $9 billion.

However, the Fraser Institute report says that outcome is unlikely, given the track record of offshore rigs in other jurisdictions.

"The benefits outweigh the costs,” Wood said. “And a majority of the benefits flow to the provincial and federal government."

The federal moratorium is not written into law, but has been federal policy since 1972.

A decade ago, the B.C. Liberal government was asking Ottawa to lift the ban, but not anymore.

The current government of Premier Christy Clark says her government isn't pushing for any offshore oil exploration, despite a call by one of her MLA’s to revisit the idea.

Nechako Lakes Liberal MLA John Rustad recently posted an argument on Facebook in favour of offshore oil extraction, saying it was the only way B.C. would get out of debt.

Some environmentalists think those calling for an end to the moratorium have underestimated both the chances of a major spill and its real costs.

"There's also no attempt in this report to value things like a healthy population of wild whales or the diversity of life that exists in the Queen Charlotte [and] Hecate Strait area," said Karen Wristen, of the Living Oceans Society.

Any decision to open up the West Coast to oil exploration is likely to be very controversial in B.C. On Monday thousands marched on the B.C. legislature to protest plans to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast, because of widespread concerns about the risk of an oil spill.

Organizers say more protests are planned around the province on Wednesday.

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