Seeking Justice for Endangered Species and Their Habitat.
I have barely had time to update you on our legal challenge to a proposed regulation that would accelerate the rapid roll-out of oil and gas drilling off Eastern Newfoundland.We are opposing this regulation because the regional assessment performed as a precursor to allowing it to come into force is even worse than the status quo assessment exploratory drilling received before we went to all the trouble of re-writing our federal assessment laws. If allowed to stand, whales, ocean life, and climate targets are at even greater risk from oil spills, seismic blasting, and swelling GHG emissions from drilling and burning of fossil fuels. And, if applied as a precedent for regional assessment in Canada, the bar has been set dangerously low.As we told the regional assessment committee, the offshore oil and gas reserves on offer off Newfoundland and Labrador will eat up a big chunk of the global carbon budget. The GHG emissions from exploratory and production drilling alone will produce up to 88% of Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial GHG emission target for 2030 – even without accounting for new information on methane emissions from drilling.We also told them to improve risk assessment for oil spills, since the offshore industry in NL has had several spills in recent years, including a spill of 250,000 litres of oil in 2018. Instead of doing this work now – before new wells are drilled – the committee pushed this off to an unspecified date and time.We also asked them to look at the cumulative impacts of seismic blasting on ocean life – since over a hundred thousand kilometres of seismic blasting will precede drilling – with impacts on rich whale habitat – including that of the endangered Northern bottlenose whale and other threatened species.Our friends from WWF-Canada and Ecology Action Centre pointed out time and again that the proposed drilling would threaten coral and sponge habitats and ocean conservation targets. In fact, a significant number of the wells currently on the books are in areas supposedly protected as marine refuges.All of which is why we chose to take on this case, even as all of us struggle to confront COVID-19. COVID or no COVID, the federal government hopes this regulation will be in place by the end of the month, and things have been moving at warp speed as our dedicated lawyers from Ecojustice and co-litigants from Ecology Action Centre and WWF-Canada submit our affidavits, arguments, and respond to the government’s case. This spring, under cover of Canada’s emergency response to COVID-19, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers asked for this regulation. We know the intended timeline for the new regulation is June 4th – a week from today. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has stated, “we are willing to explore anything” to help Newfoundland’s oil industry and the “first thing on their list” is exploration.Environment and Climate Change Minister Wilkinson has refused to meet with us to discuss the regulation. The oil industry off Newfoundland has already received a subsidy of $75 million dollars – even though we’ve committed to stop subsidizing fossil fuels. And, like I say, the case is proceeding at a lightning pace – a sign of how quickly the government wants drilling to proceed.Right now, Newfoundland and Labrador is hurting. It’s hurting because it allowed the mega hydro Muskrat Falls to proceed despite warnings of an environmental assessment panel that the economic case for the project was not proven – and that impacts like methyl mercury pollution were not addressed. It is also hurting because it has gambled on the volatile oil markets – essentially making it vulnerable to the geo-political maneuverings beyond its control. And as oil demand is projected to decline in 2025, it’s continuing to bet on the wrong horse.We are pushing for a just recovery that would help confront the problems faced by Newfoundland and Labrador, and would position them to become part of climate solutions – not climate problems. For example, instead of accelerating drilling, one smart move would be investments in efficiency or truly renewable energy like wind power. These shifts would save people money and put people to work in businesses, municipalities, and the homes across the province AND help deal with the 75% increase in electricity bills brought on by the Muskrat Falls “boondoggle.”Pursuing this case might also result in the government finally having to explain to a court whether projects currently on the books – up to 144 exploratory wells – will or won’t be automatically approved once the regulation came into force. This was something we could not get a commitment on before this case, so an answer would be a victory of sorts.But those projects would undergo assessment under the old assessment act, CEAA 2012 – which in the past failed to prevent spills, potentially catastrophic accidents such as two kilometres of drilling pipe falling within 12 metres of a wellhead, and drilling near critical habitat for right whales – so this is definitely a mixed blessing.Tomorrow, a judge will determine if the Minister’s decision to push this regulation through warrants a judicial review, and if it does, if the regulation will be allowed to stand as our case makes its way through the courts.If the case does get tossed out – we will continue to fight the roll-out of offshore oil and gas and to push for just recovery support for those affected by this shift, and no more bailouts for offshore oil and gas. But maybe, with Oceans Day on its way, we will get to celebrate early.Fingers crossed.Gretchen FitzgeraldNational Programs Director