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A mixed media collage has oil rigs placed on a photo of water. An illustration of birds migrating is placed on top.

Artwork by Simone Williamson


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

July 27, 2022

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.

We are happy to report that by April 2023, Exxon Mobil and Chevron Canada Limited surrendered all 20 permits before our  litigation proceeded to court. This means that these two protected areas are now entirely free from oil and gas rights! Since all of the permits we challenged are now gone, we have discontinued the lawsuit.

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.

We are so pleased to announce that in April 2023 all 20 permits held by Exxon Mobil and Chevron Canada Limited were surrendered before Ecojustice’s court challenge.

While this marks an important milestone for the protection of these two areas, the risk from potential oil and gas projects to Canada’s coasts still exist. The government continues to treat similar exploratory permits as valid in other areas of the British Columbia offshore. There are several unlawful old permits for oil and gas exploration that pose a threat to marine protected areas designated before 2019. We remain committed to seeing the last of these permits surrendered.

Jul 2022
A mixed media collage has oil rigs placed on a photo of water. An illustration of birds migrating is placed on top.
press release

Environmental groups sue over ‘sleeper’ oil and gas permits in B.C.

Permits leave threat of oil and gas development looming over species at risk and critical marine habitats VANCOUVER/UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH) AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES –  Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of 20 “sleeper” oil and gas permits they say the federal government has unlawfully kept on the books for.
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A sketched red oil rig in blue water. Blue glaciers are in the background.

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