Drilling could move forward in Newfoundland’s largest marine protected area despite legal challenge
For immediate release: July 2, 2020
St. John’s, NL – A marine refuge designed to protect sensitive marine life in Atlantic Canada’s offshore is once again being opened up for oil and gas drilling — this time on an accelerated timeline.
Last week, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) issued its 2020 call for bids in the Eastern Newfoundland region. Many of the areas included in the call directly overlap the Northeast Newfoundland Slope marine refuge, which is the largest protected area off Canada’s East Coast and was created to help protect the region’s unique biodiversity. Canada has committed to protecting 25 per cent of its coastal and marine waters by 2025. Despite being open to oil and gas, the Northeast Newfoundland Slope counts toward this international conservation target. When oil and gas production occurs within the refuge, the affected area is cut out of international accounting, leaving a patchwork of different levels of protection.
(Marine refuges in other parts of Atlantic Canada, such as Nova Scotia, are also still under threat from oil and gas development.)
The call for bids east of Newfoundland comes shortly after Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, enacted a controversial exemption for exploratory drilling projects in this region. Under the exemption, individual exploratory projects no longer require a federal impact assessment.
Environmental groups WWF-Canada, Sierra Club Canada Foundation and Ecology Action Centre are currently challenging the process that led to this exemption in court. The groups argue that the underlying regional assessment (an assessment of the combined impacts of exploratory drilling in Newfoundland’s offshore) was so flawed that it should not be used to create project-level exemptions.
If the regional assessment and regulation stand, drilling in the Northeast Newfoundland Slope could begin in as little as 90 days following a successful bid, with no opportunity for the public to weigh in.
- In May 2020, the groups, represented by Ecojustice lawyers, filed a Judicial Review application challenging a flawed Regional Assessment (RA) on the impacts of exploratory drilling off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. The groups also requested an interim injunction to prevent regulation to “fast-track” exploratory drilling approvals and vastly increase exploratory drilling activity in the area. In response, the federal government filed a motion to dismiss the case.
- In May 2020, the groups successfully fended off the government motion to strike the case but the court denied their request for an interim injunction, allowing the regulation to move forward.
- On June 4, the regulation to exempt oil and gas offshore drilling from federal environmental assessment came into force.
- On June 11, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board issued a call for bids under the new exemption.
- On June 29, 2020, the environmental groups filed a second Judicial Review challenging the new regulation.
Press release (June 4, 2020): Flawed environmental assessment of offshore drilling in NL to be scrutinized in court
Press release (May 12, 2020): Flawed environmental assessment of offshore drilling in Newfoundland and Labrador puts marine ecosystems at risk
About the Northeast Newfoundland Slope
- Created in December 2017, the marine refuge is about 46,800 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Denmark.
- The C-NLOPB has called for bids for oil and gas projects in parts of the marine refuge’s area (see map).
- The refuge was created to protect slow-growing, fragile cold-water corals and sponges, which provide essential habitat for fish and other marine life.
James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Ecojustice lawyer said:
“We’re seeing in real time how the exemption regulation fast-tracks increased exploratory drilling in sensitive offshore waters without public consultation. No one has properly assessed the many environmental risks of ramping up drilling. Rushing to drill in spite of the danger to the marine environment defeats the purpose of Canada’s new Impact Assessment Act, which is supposed to make government decision-making more transparent and improve the credibility of environmental assessments.”
Jordy Thomson, Marine Science and Conservation Coordinator, Ecology Action Centre said:
“If we continue to leave marine refuges in Atlantic Canada open to drilling, they will have little conservation value. The fishing industry agreed to set these sites aside to protect fragile species and habitats and the oil and gas industry should do the same. At a time when we need to curb biodiversity loss, reduce emissions and support sustainable industries, this is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Oil and gas should not be allowed in these spaces.”
Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director, Sierra Club Canada Foundation said:
“The Call for Bids shows the exemption for drilling is being used to incentivize drilling, largely in secret, during a global pandemic – all in an effort to extract oil and gas that we cannot burn if we wish to ensure climate safety. The region included in the Call for Bids includes areas Canadians and the fishing industry have set aside for protection, and will be preceded by seismic blasting that will harm marine mammals that make the area their home. All in a region that has seen an increase in large spills. It is past time for Canada to take its foot off the pedal on offshore oil and gas. ”
Sigrid Kuehnemund, Vice President, Ocean Conservation, WWF-Canada said:
“Oil and gas exploration and exploitation is never compatible with ocean conservation. Opening up the Northeast Newfoundland Slope Marine Refuge to these activities undermines its contribution to Canada’s domestic and international marine conservation targets. The Northeast Newfoundland Slope was declared a marine refuge to protect fish nurseries and cold-water corals and sponges and a call for bids in this area puts marine ecosystems at risk.
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.