Why WWF-Canada is in court to protect a vital Arctic habitat

Op-ed originally appeared on Arctic Journal 
On the road to conserving ecosystems and species, a courtroom is sometimes a necessary stop.
As an environmental lawyer, I know going to court has to be one of the last arrows in your quiver. There are occasions, however, when there is no choice but to fire that arrow. Whether on a local matter or one with international implications, going to court is sometimes the only way to resolve an issue.
While WWF-Canada prefers to pursue collaborative and science-based resolutions, we will turn to the courts if those tactics fail.
This is where we find ourselves today on the issue of active Shell exploratory oil permits in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut. Yesterday WWF-Canada, represented by Ecojustice, filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of these leases, and asking the federal Registrar to indicate their expiry.
Lancaster Sound is one of the richest and most biodiverse marine areas in the Arctic. For more than 30 years, communities have sought to protect it from the threat of offshore oil and gas. Scientific studies have made the case for fully protecting this region.

Two narwhal in Nunavut, Canada
Two narwhal (Monodon monoceros) surfacing to breathe in Admiralty Inlet, Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Over the last few years, the Government of Canada has made regular statements indicating that this region is a priority for protection. But the protections on offer so far have not lived up to the expectations of local Inuit communities, who have been seeking a larger area that better protects ecosystem integrity. The new federal government, in office for six months, has reiterated support to create a National Marine Conservation Area around Lancaster Sound as part of its larger commitment to protect 5 per cent of marine areas by 2017 and 10 per cent by 2020.
While this sounds increasingly promising, there’s one problem: There are remnant oil and gas permits, held by Shell and dating back to the 1970s, that are within the boundary desired by Inuit. These permits should have expired along with all the other permits issued as part of the 1970s exploration boom. But the government bureaucracy has kept them listed as active.
This is what has brought us to launch a legal challenge. Our research shows that these permits, issued in 1971, should have expired in May of 1979. And so in February this year, we approached the Government of Canada to request the federal Registrar update records under the Canadian Petroleum Resources Act to indicate that the Shell oil and gas exploration permits had expired.
To date, the federal registrar has not resolved this request. We have not seen the change in records that we requested, nor have we heard a rationale for why a change has not been made. So, when science and dialogue failed, we started a legal challenge, represented by lawyers at Ecojustice.
This challenge comes at a time when the Canada Petroleum Resources Act is under review. We believe it demonstrates why expiry limits on exploration licenses are necessary. In a world that has changed considerably, the Canadian Arctic oil and gas regime is still stuck in the 1980s. The Government of Canada has an opportunity to not only right past wrongs by declaring these long-ago expired permits invalid but also to ensure that oil and gas exploration will not infringe on land claims rights and a community’s desire to protect their environment.