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press release

Flawed environmental assessment of offshore drilling in NL to be scrutinized in court

June 4, 2020

Environmental groups disappointed exploratory drilling will proceed in the interim

For immediate release: June 04, 2020

St. John’s, NL – Ecojustice and its clients welcome the Federal Court’s decision to reject the federal government’s attempt to shut down a judicial review application challenging a flawed Regional Assessment (RA) on the impacts of exploratory drilling off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, they are disappointed that the Court has not granted an interim injunction against a regulation that will “fast-track” exploratory drilling approvals and vastly increase exploratory drilling activity in the area. The government has stated it intends the regulation to come into force on June 4th.

On behalf of Ecology Action Centre, Sierra Club Canada Foundation and WWF-Canada, Ecojustice took legal action against the federal government last month for failing to properly assess the risks of exploratory drilling for oil and gas off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The government filed a motion to dismiss the case, but the federal court has found in favour of Ecojustice and its clients.

The RA in question is the first to be conducted under the new Impact Assessment Act (IAA). The federal government stated that it intended to use the flawed RA and a loophole in the IAA legislation to allow for a broad exemption of all future offshore exploratory drilling in the region. Regional Assessments have the potential to be a valuable tool for assessing the cumulative effects of all projects in a region, but this type of assessment was not conducted in this RA. Left unchallenged, this would set a poor and dangerous precedent for regional assessments, which could otherwise be a promising new mechanism under the Impact Assessment Act.

An increase in exploratory activity in Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore waters threatens important marine ecosystems while also damaging Canada’s ability to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Thorough impact assessments need to be conducted to understand and mitigate possible negative impacts on important species, habitats and climate change targets.

Additional information:

Due to the urgent need to prohibit the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada from using the flawed assessment to give blanket exemption to potentially hazardous projects in Canadian and international waters, Ecojustice, on behalf of its clients, requested an expedited hearing. The Court accommodated this request by holding the hearing via the video platform Zoom on May 29, 2020.

James Gunvaldsen-Klaassen, Ecojustice lawyer said:

“Canadians need to be assured that potentially hazardous projects are fully assessed for environmental risk and for the cumulative effects all activities in the offshore have on climate change and vulnerable offshore species. Today’s decision from the Federal Court is important as it allows the flawed regional assessment to be scrutinized in court.

“It is extremely concerning, however, that harm could be inflicted now that the Impact Assessment provisions of the Act will no longer apply to the study area.

“The Impact Assessment Act was introduced to make government decision-making more transparent and improve the assessment process. Exempting exploratory drilling in the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador using a flawed assessment is unlawful and would remove decisions regarding offshore drilling from public and judicial scrutiny.”

Jordy Thomson, Senior Marine Coordinator, Ecology Action Centre said:

“We’re disappointed that yesterday’s ruling did not close a loophole that could allow exploratory drilling in Newfoundland’s rich and productive offshore waters without a full impact assessment. At the same time, we’re happy that the court will proceed with a review of the deficient and damaging regional assessment. Because it is the first of its kind and sets a national precedent, Canada must get this one right. We now have an opportunity to make sure that our Impact Assessment Act has teeth, that we protect sensitive marine life, and that we take the necessary steps for a just transition to a low-carbon future.”

Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director, Sierra Club Canada Foundation said:

“We are pleased that the flawed regional assessment for drilling off Eastern Newfoundland will get reviewed in court. However, we are alarmed that, in the interim and under cover of the COVID crisis, the regulation exempting exploratory drilling from further assessment will stand, even as political pressure is mounting to accelerate drilling. We are concerned that this loophole will subvert Canada’s climate goals, result in even more spills, and that the seismic blasting that will precede this drilling will harm whales that make the region their home – some of which are endangered.

“In the days to come, we will be considering our options to ensure greater protection of the environment and that projects that are reviewed meet the climate test. We will continue to push back against offshore drilling and subsidies to the offshore sector, and call for improved laws and policies to reduce risk of spills, threats to ocean life, and ensure a safe climate and just recovery.”


Sigrid Kuehnemund, Vice President, Ocean Conservation, WWF-Canada said:

“With this court challenge, it is our hope that the flawed regional assessment will be strengthened to include a robust cumulative effects assessment and set aside no-go zones to protect sensitive marine habitats, such as deep-sea corals and sponges found within the Northeast Newfoundland Slope Marine Refuge. It is essential that this and all future regional assessments support Canada’s environmental decision-making, to align with national climate and biodiversity commitments and achieve the necessary safeguards for people and nature.”



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.