K’JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – Earlier this week, Canada’s federal government gave $320 million to support Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil and gas industry. Last week, the province also established an offshore exploration initiative that will encourage more drilling and reinvestment in offshore petroleum. These announcements to spur oil and gas development come on the heels of a report from Fisheries and Oceans’ Science branch that identified critical flaws in a major environmental assessment for oil and gas in the region.
Ecology Action Centre, Sierra Club Canada Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund Canada have found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Science branch review of the Regional Assessment (RA) for oil and gas exploration of offshore Newfoundland and Labrador was not in keeping with the Government’s own policies as required in Canada’s Impact Assessment Act (IAA).
Expressing strong concerns about the assessment, DFO Science concluded that many of the sections of the RA that they reviewed were “not considered reliable sources of information for decision-making processes from a scientific perspective.”
The RA was completed in less than a year despite the study area being larger than the province of Alberta. Despite the clear rebuke from DFO scientists, the RA resulted in a new regulation that allows exploratory drilling projects to proceed without further environmental assessment or public input as long as they meet a set of minimal requirements.
The DFO Science critique echoes many of the major concerns raised by environmental groups that participated in the assessment. Both the DFO report and environmental groups noted that the assessment was wildly rushed, that critical data gaps were not identified nor addressed, and that important habitats will need special mitigations to protect them from the impacts of oil and gas exploration.
While the Government of Canada has accepted the RA, many of the concerns raised in the DFO report appear not to have been addressed. The review contradicts the IAAC’s narrative that the precedent-setting assessment, would “meet or exceed the rigour and performance of the current environmental assessment and regulatory review process.”
Lawyers for Ecojustice representing Ecology Action Centre, Sierra Club Canada Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund Canada are currently taking the government of Canada to court over the legitimacy of the assessment and the related exemption. The groups are seeking to have the assessment reopened so it can be completed to the high standard intended by the IAA and to have the exemption regulation struck.
- The aim of a Regional Assessment (RA) is to conduct an analysis of potential impacts to ecosystems from a certain type of activity at a regional level. This type of assessment can pre-approve certain activities if they meet a set of conditions. In this case, oil and gas companies won’t need to do a project-specific impact assessment to drill exploration wells.
- Since this RA is the first of its kind in Canada under the new Impact Assessment Act, it sets an important precedent for future RAs.
Key points of the DFO Science critique include:
- In the four technical modules sent to DFO for review, most of the baseline information about the Study Area was incomplete and outdated, putting their credibility and the appropriateness of the conclusions and recommendations of the RA into question.
- DFO was not provided with key sections of the RA to review. In particular, the cumulative effects (the combined impacts of all human activities in an area) section was omitted, even though assessing cumulative effects is one of main reasons for conducting an RA.
- The RA is intended to improve the rigour and scientific defensibility of the impact assessment of exploratory drilling projects in the region, so it must be based on the most up-to date scientific information, with data gaps clearly defined. It also must be based on an ecosystem approach, considering the interconnectedness of the living and non-living aspects of the environment, according to DFO Science.
- The Study Area was treated as a single ecological unit despite being 735,000 km2 and containing many habitats with large variations in sensitivity to disturbance.
- The RA included “errors and omissions” regarding marine mammals, including endangered species, which resulted in downplaying the ecological and biological significance of the area. The recommendation that increased monitoring and mitigation measures be put in place to protect endangered Blue, Right, and Fin whales was ignored in the RA and the exemption
- DFO Science noted that sensitive areas, especially those with defined benthic conservation objectives, should be managed with a higher risk aversion and special mitigations should be applied for any future exploratory drilling activity within these areas.
Jordy Thomson, Senior Marine Coordinator (Ecosystems), Ecology Action Centre said:
“Environmental groups participated in the regional assessment process in good faith and time and again our concerns were ignored. The report written by DFO experts should be alarming to anyone with an interest in protecting Atlantic Canada’s offshore environment. An exemption regulation based on such a flawed use of science should not be allowed to stand. We will continue to fight in court to make sure that regional assessments don’t become a tool for rubber stamping industrial projects.”
Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director, Sierra Club Canada Foundation said:
“This report makes it abundantly clear that the regional assessment attempted to paper over established science about whales present in the area, including a recommendation to protect critically endangered whales. Science-based decision making was meant to be a keystone of the new Impact Assessment Act: but this report makes it abundantly clear the assessment did not take scientific advice seriously. Canada is subsidizing and recklessly deregulating the oil and gas industry – placing oceans and biodiversity at risk. Endangered whales, fisheries, and our climate will pay the price if we do not put a stop to this now.
Sigrid Kuehnemund, Vice President, Wildlife and Industry, WWF-Canada said:
“Wildlife is in decline in Canada, and the impact assessment process is meant to protect those species from industrial pressures. Assessments must be based on the best available science so that industrial impacts on sensitive habitats and species can be mitigated – which was not the case for this Regional Assessment. It’s unfathomable that such a flawed process was used to eliminate the need for further environmental assessment of oil and gas exploration in a large and diverse ocean area.”
Ecology Action Centre takes leadership on critical environmental issues ranging from biodiversity protection to climate change and environmental justice. It is an independent organization that strives to catalyze change through policy advocacy, community development and acts as a watch-dog for the environment. EAC takes a holistic approach to the environment and our economy to create a just and sustainable society. The organization is a strong proponent for marine protection and pollution reduction, advocating for marine protected areas and preserving biodiversity both in Canadian waters and 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.
For media inquiries
Jordy Thomson, Senior Marine Coordinator (Ecosystems), Ecology Action Centre
Gretchen Fitzgerald, National Programs Director, Sierra Club Canada Foundation
Tina Knezevic, communications specialist, WWF-Canada