Challenging “sleeper” oil and gas permits off the B.C. coast

Artwork by Simone Williamson
Program area – Climate Status: In progress
Overview
Ecojustice’s position & impact
Meet the team
Get involved

The marine ecosystems off the coast of British Columbia are among the most beautiful and biodiverse in the world. But these critical habitats, and the species that depend on them, have been facing a looming threat from oil and gas exploration for decades.

Ecojustice, on behalf of World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada) and the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), is headed to court to challenge the validity of 20 “sleeper” offshore oil and gas exploration permits in B.C. These permits, held by multinational oil giants Chevron Canada Limited and Exxon Mobil, were first issued in the 1960s and 70s. Though they were to expire decades ago, Natural Resources Canada has indefinitely extended them, a move that is in direct conflict with the Canada Petroleum Resources Act.

The groups say the permits — left unaddressed — could pave the way for exploratory drilling to take place in the biodiversity-rich waters off the coast of B.C., including the Scott Islands Protected Marine Area and the Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area, and impede efforts to protect species at risk and critical marine habitats. 

Scott Islands National Wildlife Area is an archipelago of five unique islands off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island that supports the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific Coast. Attracting between 5-10 million migratory birds each year, the area provides key nesting habitat to 40 per cent of B.C.’s seabirds, including many listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act like the short-tailed albatross and the marbled murrelet.

Under the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Glass Sponge Reef Marine Protected Area, located between Haida Gwaii and the mainland of British Columbia, is home to rare large colonies of glass sponges estimated to be 9,000 years old. Glass sponge reefs, mostly unique to British Columbia, are an integral part of a healthy marine habitat. These reefs provide shelter for marine life including rockfish and shrimp, store carbon on the ocean floor, filter bacteria out of the water, and fertilize the ocean. These special ecosystems support thriving culture and livelihoods for coastal communities.

There are around 50 other “sleeper” permits (also issued decades ago) still on the books, scattered across ecologically sensitive zones throughout the British Columbia coast. Similar permits remain active in the Arctic. These Arctic permits are currently under a legal moratorium that expires in December. 

These sleeper permits pose an underlying threat to at-risk species and critical habitat in Scotts Island National Wildlife Area and the Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Glass Sponge Reef Marine Protected Area, areas rich in biodiversity.

Expanding oil and gas production is out of step with warnings from scientists about the pressing need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Despite this, the threat of oil and gas exploration off the B.C. coast is not abstract. The Canadian government recently approved Equinor Canada Ltd.’s Bay du Nord offshore oil and gas project in Newfoundland & Labrador, which threatens marine ecosystems and will dump up to 400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere through its life cycle.

Since then, the federal government has signaled its ongoing support for the development of more offshore oil, which it greenwashes as “carbon-neutral”.

The federal government has committed to protecting 25 per cent of its marine and coastal areas by 2025 – working toward 30 per cent by 2030. Because these permits threaten a National Wildlife Area and a Marine Protected Area, they should be expunged immediately if the government is serious about its commitments to protecting marine and coastal areas and its stated climate goals.

Key developments

Join our newsletter

Get updates on the most pressing environmental issues delivered straight to your inbox.