We’re protecting the Gulf of St. Lawrence from oil drilling

David Suzuki Foundation, et al. v. Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board
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The Old Harry oil and gas prospect lies on the border between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The marine area is biologically rich, providing habitat for more than 4,000 species (including species at risk like blue and beluga whales, and the leatherback sea turtle). The Gulf serves as a migration route for wild Atlantic salmon and is a food source for surrounding First Nations.

Despite the significance the Old Harry region plays for species and the surrounding communities, Corridor Resources was granted an exploratory licence for oil and gas exploration in the area in 2008.

In the years since then, Corridor Resources has been unable to cover exploration costs on its own and has not completed an environmental assessment or received regulatory approvals necessary to start oil drilling. Under Canadian law, exploratory licences for oil and gas drilling cannot exceed nine years.

On January 14, 2017, Corridor’s licence expired. The following day, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board reissued Corridor Resources’ licence.

In 2017, we helped our clients file a lawsuit alleging that the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board unlawfully granted Corridor Resources another offshore drilling licence after time ran ran out on its first one in January 2017.

Oil and gas exploration poses significant risks to the local environment, species and the surrounding communities. If a spill, leak or mechanical failure were to occur in the marine environment it is extremely difficult to clean-up. This is particularly true for marine environments with ice cover.

The Gulf has, at various points, more than 80 per cent ice cover. A spill in this environment would further complicate a recovery – or make it virtually impossible. We only need to look as far as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to understand the long lasting effects exploration errors can have — many of which are still being felt today.

Corridor Resources’ project was no different. During the early stages of the Old Harry environmental assessment process, the company demonstrated a lack of preparedness, including by failing to provide sufficient information to address concerns about the project’s environmental impacts, whether it be the exploration itself, or a spill.

Exploration licence term limits are meant to ensure that companies don’t sit on their rights forever — but they also play an important role in protecting the environment from rights-holders who lack the capacity or technology to drill safely.

We represented members from Sierra Club Canada Foundation, Attention FragÎles, Nature Québec, David Suzuki Foundation and SNAP-Québec in this legal challenge to protect the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the risks posed by offshore drilling and to ensure that oil exploration licence limits are enforced by government.

On July 3, 2020, the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court handed down a landmark victory that confirmed that the offshore petroleum board was wrong to extend Corridor Resources’ licence beyond its legal term limit. (David Suzuki Foundation, et al. v. Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, 2018 NLSC 146.)

What does this victory mean?

This is a major win for the Gulf of St. Lawrence and other sensitive marine ecosystems across the country — such as the Beaufort Sea where the federal government has proposed similar dodgy licence extensions for companies.

The court’s ruling confirms that the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board lacked the authority to extend Corridor Resources' licence in the first place and means that no company can permanently obtain a right to explore at its leisure. The ruling also confirmed that if companies cannot pass an environmental assessment and consult Indigenous Peoples within a specified time, their licence will expire.

Key developments

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