Environmental groups taking legal action against federal government over flawed environmental impact assessment
Along with Sierra Club Canada Foundation and World Wildlife Fund-Canada, EAC has decided to retain legal counsel and seek a federal judicial review of an incomplete and deeply flawed environmental impact assessment for oil and gas exploration offshore of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Working with lawyers for Ecojustice, we have chosen to take legal action because of the risk that this assessment, which covers 735,000 km2 and was rushed through despite many concerns raised by the environmental community, Indigenous groups and other stakeholders, poses to the health and resilience of Atlantic Canada’s productive marine ecosystems as well as the stability of our climate.
The Regional Assessment (RA) is the first of its kind under the new Impact Assessment Act (IAA), which EAC fought hard to strengthen prior to its passing in 2019. This RA is a test of the teeth of the IAA and will set a precedent for future assessments of this kind across the country, both in the oceans and on land. Unfortunately, the RA was so flawed that EAC believes it would set a dangerously low bar and risk Canada backsliding on its climate and biodiversity commitments. It could also exacerbate tensions between industry stakeholders, as drilling would be allowed in protected areas that were established in consultation with the fishing industry to conserve sensitive sea-bottom species and habitats.
The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada is now considering a regulation that would exempt future exploratory oil and gas drilling projects within the RA study area from federal project-level impact assessment. Having exhausted all other options, EAC feels strongly that we must take a stand on behalf of our oceans using the legal tools available to us.
Please see below for our joint press release, which contains additional details on this legal action.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE May 12, 2020
ST. JOHN’S, NL – Environmental groups are taking legal action against the federal government for failing to properly assess the impacts of exploratory drilling for oil and gas in Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore waters. It is the first Regional Assessment (RA) to be conducted under the new Impact Assessment Act.
The application, filed by Ecojustice lawyers on behalf of Ecology Action Centre, Sierra Club Canada Foundation and WWF-Canada, alleges that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada relied on a deficient assessment report to accelerate exploratory drilling in the region. The organizations aim to prevent the government from exempting similar activity from future impact assessments and setting a dangerous precedent for future RAs in the country.
In February 2018, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced a plan to increase oil production and allow more than 100 new exploratory wells to be drilled in the offshore by 2030. Some of these wells are proposed in areas set aside to protect marine biodiversity. A Regional Assessment — which aims to assess the cumulative effects (combined effects of all past, present and potential future activities in the same area) — was conducted on exploratory drilling in the area. Despite significant data deficiencies, the federal government decided to create regulations that will exempt future exploratory drilling in the region from project-specific environmental impact assessments.
An increase in offshore oil and gas exploration poses a direct threat to marine ecosystems and could shatter Canada’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Nevertheless, the RA Committee declined to analyze the risk to the local ecology and the cumulative effects of offshore drilling and recommended that the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board complete it. The government has also refused to hit pause on exploratory drilling projects in an area of ocean larger than the province of Alberta, before ensuring deficiencies in the report are resolved.
The government has signalled that it plans to use the flawed RA process to exempt future exploratory drilling projects from the more fulsome federal impact assessment process required by the Impact Assessment Act without understanding the risks of doing so. This could put all of Canada at risk of using this flawed example in future RAs.
James Gunvaldsen-Klaassen, Ecojustice lawyer said:
“The new Impact Assessment Act was introduced to protect the environment, improve the assessment process, and make decisions more transparent. One of the federal government’s first actions under the Act was to exempt from assessment a significant increase in oil exploration in Newfoundland and Labrador’s ecologically important offshore waters in a time of climate emergency. Exempting exploratory drilling from environmental review flies in the face of environmental stewardship and responsible decision-making.
“We’re taking legal action because Canadians across the country should be able to trust that their government is capable of following their own regulations to ensure that projects, including exploratory offshore oil drilling, will only proceed if they pass a proper assessment and their effects on the environment are properly accounted for.”
Jordy Thomson, Ecology Action Centre Marine Science and Conservation Coordinator said:
“In a time of climate and biodiversity crises, it’s unacceptable for our federal government to be creating regulations based on a rushed and deeply flawed assessment in order to fast-track harmful extractive projects. As the first of its kind, this regional assessment sets an extremely dangerous precedent for the country and risks lasting damage to marine biodiversity in our productive Atlantic waters by, for example, allowing drilling in sensitive and protected areas. We’re taking legal steps to ensure the government takes the time necessary and re-focuses on providing strong environmental protection.”
Gretchen Fitzgerald, Sierra Club Canada Foundation National Programs Director said:
“This regulation and rush to drill takes us completely in the opposite direction from the government’s stated commitments on climate change. Given the recent history of spills and accidents off Newfoundland, the risk of spills and even a blowout is simply too high to roll the dice for the over a hundred new wells on the books right now. Seismic blasting and noise from drilling threatens rich habitat for whales and other ocean life. The stakes were simply too high to let this regulation and the incomplete assessment upon which it relies to stand.
Sigrid Kuehnemund, VP Ocean conservation WWF-Canada said:
“It’s absolutely concerning that the RA committee recommends proceeding with exploration in areas set aside for protecting marine biodiversity and those that are deficient in data — areas that WWF-Canada has long advocated be off limits to oil and gas activity. A history of frequent spills in offshore areas shows the necessity of protecting sensitive habitats and the species that live there. This decision sets a dangerous precedent for both Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the rest of Canada. Sensitive and data-deficient areas need site-specific impact assessments, and protected areas must remain off limits to industrial development.”
Ecojustice goes to court and uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, innovative public interest lawsuits lead to legal precedents that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.
Ecology Action Centre takes leadership on critical environmental issues from biodiversity protection to climate change to environmental justice. The EAC is an independent organization that strives to catalyze change through policy advocacy, community development and as a watch-dog for the environment. It takes a holistic approach to the environment and our economy to create a just and sustainable society. EAC is a strong proponent for marine protection and pollution reduction, advocating for marine protected areas and preserving biodiversity both in Canadian waters and on the high seas.
Sierra Club Canada Foundation empowers people to be leaders in protecting, restoring and enjoying healthy and safe ecosystems. At its heart, Sierra Club Canada Foundation is a grassroots organization with a “think globally, act locally” philosophy. Members are encouraged to actively contribute to environmental causes that engage or inspire them, in a capacity that best suits their capabilities.
WWF-Canada creates solutions to the environmental challenges that matter most for Canadians. We work in places that are unique and ecologically important, so that nature, wildlife and people thrive together. Because we are all wildlife. For more information, visit wwf.ca.
To arrange an interview, please contact:
Venetia Jones, Communications Specialist, Ecojustice
Jordy Thomson, Marine Science and Conservation Coordinator, Ecology Action Centre
Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director, Sierra Club Canada Foundation
Tina Knezevic, Communications Specialist, WWF-Canada