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Fighting to ensure B.C. follows environmental assessment laws for unauthorized dams

Sierra Club of BC Foundation v. British Columbia (Environmental Assessment Office)

November 5, 2018

In 2019, Ecojustice lawyers went to court to challenge the Government of British Columbia’s decision to exempt two Petronas Canada fracking dams from environmental assessments — after they’d already been built without authorization.

Petronas’ Town and Lily Dams are both located in northeastern B.C. The dams feed into a network of fracking infrastructure that supports LNG Canada, a project with a significant carbon footprint.

But rather than obtain an environmental assessment certificate before building the projects, Petronas constructed the dams without authorization. The company only asked the province to exempt the dams from environmental assessments after it was caught violating the law.

Then, B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office agreed to retroactively grant exemptions for both dams in July, 2018 — a move that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called “unprecedented” in the office’s 25-years of existence.

In response, Ecojustice lawyers filed an application for judicial review in the B.C. Supreme Court on behalf of Sierra Club BC in November 2018. They appeared in court to argue the case — Sierra Club of BC Foundation v. British Columbia (Environmental Assessment Office) — in October 2019.

On behalf of its clients, Ecojustice argued that, while the law does allow the government to exempt certain projects from environmental assessments, the Environmental Assessment Act should not be interpreted in a way that allows this to happen.

At a minimum, Ecojustice lawyers argued, Petronas should have been required to undergo a formal environmental assessment that looked not only at the impact of these dams, but why the law was ignored in the first place and why environmental law violations are so rampant in this industry.

Unfortunately, the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed Ecojustice’s case in April 2020. In its ruling, the court found the province had the discretion to issue environmental assessment exemptions for the two Petronas dams.

Ecojustice is committed to fighting for strong environmental laws that hold government and industry to account — and to making sure these laws are enforced.

Environmental assessments provide important safeguards for major development projects. According to the province itself, assessments are used to ensure projects “meet the goals of environmental, economic and social sustainability.” Importantly, environmental assessments also give the public an opportunity to weigh in on large projects.

Ecojustice believes the province should not have the option of permitting companies to ask for forgiveness after unlawfully building a project — instead of requiring companies follow the law and conduct an environmental assessment before putting shovels in the ground.

Unfortunately, the court’s decision leaves the door open for the province to give companies a free pass when they flagrantly disregard environmental assessment processes. This precedent raises serious concerns about whether the B.C. government will opt to allow more corporations to sidestep environmental assessments in the future.

Ecojustice staff

Randy Christensen

Oct 2019
A large dam with water at the top is surrounded by ever green trees.