A Federal Court decision is in bald conflict with Canada’s national climate targets, advocates say, after a judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging Ottawa’s assessment of the ecological impacts of exploratory offshore oil drilling in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Rampant rollout of offshore drilling via this assessment and deregulation is completely inconsistent with Canadian and global climate commitments and threatens biodiversity,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, in an Ecojustice news release.
Ecojustice lawyers representing a group of applicants including the Sierra Club Foundation, World Wildlife Fund Canada, and Ecology Action Centre, claimed a final report submitted by a regional assessment committee under the federal Impact Assessment Act failed to fully consider potential ecosystem threats.
One of the key reasons to require such assessments “is to look at the cumulative effects of activities in a region,” Fitzgerald told The Energy Mix, and they should therefore include considerations for greenhouse gas emissions.
“Even discounting the methane and fugitive emissions,” she added, “the planned projects would likely contribute to an overshoot of provincial GHG emissions targets.”
But the decision issued by Justice B. Richard Bell “determined that a regional assessment for exploratory drilling in the area was—in his opinion—satisfactory,” writes Ecojustice.
The applicants say the ruling contradicts the intent of the Act.
“One of the main reasons the federal government revamped the Assessment Act in 2019 was to better assess our ability to meet climate commitments,” Fitzgerald told The Mix. “The proposed project and the production drilling they are in the first stage for would blow climate commitments.”
The applicants also contested a regulation proposed by then-environment minister John Wilkinson that exempts future exploratory drilling from assessment. The minister intended the rule to “improve the efficiency of the assessment processes of offshore oil and gas exploratory drilling,” CBC News reports.
Although the applicants contend that improving efficiency was not the intent behind the IAA, Bell disagreed and upheld the regulation, stating [pdf] that “improving efficiencies must be an objective of all government actions”. If an exemption succeeds in reducing time and expenses, he added, “then, of course, such a process constitutes parts of the objective of the statute.”
That ruling “sets a dangerous precedent that blanket exemptions may be used in the future to accelerate development across the country without proper scrutiny,” says Ecojustice.
“This decision is a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go in Canada to meaningfully address the biodiversity and climate crises,” said Jordy Thomson, senior marine coordinator (ecosystems) at the Ecology Action Centre.
Since the final report was written, Newfoundland and Labrador has increased its 2030 emissions reduction target, and the province’s emissions have been found to be “50% above the target it needs to meet in next eight years,” Fitzgerald pointed out. “At a time when all signs are telling us that we need a just transition away from fossil fuels, [Bell’s] decision takes us in the wrong direction by allowing for accelerated oil and gas exploration,” Thomson added.