Flawed environmental assessment of offshore drilling faces scrutiny in Federal Court


ST JOHN’S, N.L./TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF THE BEOTHUK AND MI’KMAQ – Ecojustice will be in court today to challenge the federal government’s failure to properly assess the impact of exploratory drilling for oil and gas on ecosystems off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and its attempt to exempt all future exploratory drilling from assessment.

Lawyers from Ecojustice are acting on behalf of Sierra Club Canada Foundation, World Wildlife Fund Canada and Ecology Action Centre, who say the Regional Assessment for offshore exploratory drilling in the area was conducted unfairly. The groups say the government decided to give exploratory drilling projects a pass from environmental assessment before the Regional Assessment even began. As a result, the assessment skipped key parts of its mandate to identify effects of oil and gas exploration on the ecology of the area. These activities, they say, would also inhibit the ability to meet vital provincial and national greenhouse gas reduction targets.

A new report from the International Energy Agency has emphasized that net-zero scenarios need to focus on immediate action, including no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects going forward. The report calls for an immediate phase out of fossil fuels.

Despite the urgency of the dual biodiversity and climate crises, the federal government has used the flawed Regional Assessment to create a dangerous exemption regulation and plans to use it to waive individual assessments for a slew of exploratory drilling projects.

The groups say the government cannot rely on this single flawed assessment to exempt all future drilling in the region from much-needed scrutiny under the Impact Assessment Act (IAA). This misguided exemption sets a dangerous precedent for what kind of industrial activities will or will not be properly assessed in the future.


Sigrid Kuehnemund, Vice President, Wildlife & Industry, WWF-Canada says:

“We are in the midst of a biodiversity and climate crisis, and while impact assessments are meant to help minimize industrial pressures on wildlife, this assessment fails to acknowledge known damaging impacts. We hope this court challenge will strengthen the Regional Assessment process to more fully assess cumulative impacts, incorporate the best available science, and ensure sensitive marine habitats, like Newfoundland’s deep-sea corals and sponges are off limits to exploratory drilling.

“As Canada works toward ambitious climate and nature targets, we need stronger assessments of potential environmental effects, not blanket approvals that ignore the potentially devastating consequences of proposed development.”

James Gunvaldsen Klaassen, lawyer, Ecojustice said:

“Exploratory drilling off the eastern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador must be properly assessed due to the dangers it poses to marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

“The Regional Assessment failed to consider the cumulative effects of exploratory drilling or assess the effects of oil spills and other accidents, while suppressing scientific evidence.

“The federal government has tried to rely on this unfair RA to exempt future exploratory drilling in the region from environmental review and shield it from public scrutiny. A blanket exemption of this nature, based on this flawed RA, is unlawful and sets a dangerous precedent allowing industry to bypass meaningful environmental review of potentially harmful activities.”

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

“Offshore drilling needs to be phased out, not accelerated through permissive processes such as this flawed regional assessment and the de-regulation the assessment was intended to prop up. We cannot continue to approve and accelerate projects that threaten global and regional GHG emissions targets, and divert much-needed support from upskilling and just transition opportunities in the clean energy future.

“The assessment as it stands also completely fails to address cumulative impacts on whales and other vulnerable marine life from seismic blasting that precedes drilling, or to confront the fact that there is no credible plan to deal with oil spills in the offshore.”

Jordy Thomson, Senior Marine Coordinator (Ecosystems), Ecology Action Centre, said:

“In the face of dual biodiversity and climate crises, it is more important than ever that Canada’s impact assessment laws result in robust and meaningful studies of the effects of potentially harmful industrial activities.

“The regional assessment offshore of Newfoundland and Labrador failed to live up to this standard and sets a dangerous precedent for oil and gas exploration in our oceans. We are challenging the regional assessment and drilling exemption in court today to help safeguard Atlantic Canada’s sensitive marine life and to work toward a stable global climate.”



The Atlantic waters off the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador are one of the most important marine environments in the world and home to a large amount of ocean life from the endangered cod to humpback whales, corals, and sponges.

These waters have sustained local communities for years and are an important part of local Indigenous traditions. Their livelihoods depend on clean, healthy ocean conditions.

Recent experience shows that spills in the region are commonplace and hard to recover from. For example, in November 2018, the White Rose field offshore production facility spilled 250,000 litres into the ocean; no oil was ever recovered. In another instance in June 2018, BP’s exploratory drilling operations off Nova Scotia spilled 136,000 litres of dense drilling mud, which sunk rapidly and smothered the seabed.


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