Environmental groups in Canada have launched an appeal to overturn a recent court decision in a move to rein in oil and gas exploration activity offshore Newfoundland & Labrador.

Three non-governmental organisations lost a case in the Federal Court in Nova Scotia last month after the presiding judge upheld the government’s Regional Assessment (RA) process which is designed — in this particular instance — to streamline the approval of offshore exploration drilling activities.

On 13 December, Justice Richard Bell dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, World Wildlife Fund Canada and the Ecology Action Centre that challenged the ability of an RA to protect marine ecosystems.

The court in Halifax determined that the Newfoundland & Labrador RA was “satisfactory” and upheld a regulation exempting future exploration drilling activities in the region from further scrutiny under the Impact Assessment Act (IAA) of 2019.

Justice Bell found the RA final report “meets the hallmarks of transparency, justification and intelligibility… and is justified in light of the relevant factual and legal constraints…”.

Lawyers from Ecojustice — representing the three non-profits — filed the appeal last week with the Federal Court of Appeal.

The groups claim that increased exploration activity off Newfoundland and Labrador threatens important marine ecosystems, while also damaging Canada’s ability to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The RA being challenged was the first to be conducted under Canada’s IAA and covers a huge 735,000-square kilometre marine area of the Atlantic province.

According to the appeal, the groups believe the “flawed” RA — which was published in February 2020 — did not properly consider the cumulative effects of all exploratory drilling projects in the region and “sets a poor and dangerous precedent” for regional assessments, which could otherwise be a promising protective mechanism under the IAA.

Ian Miron, an EcoJustice lawyer, said the Impact Assessment Act is intended to make government decision-making more transparent and improve the assessment process.

However, he argued that this assessment process has failed to adequately scrutinise the cumulative effects of exploratory oil and gas drilling, leaving marine ecosystems off the eastern coast of Newfoundland & Labrador, and the communities that depend on them, “vulnerable” to unchecked fossil fuel development.

“As the climate emergency continues to escalate, Canada must recognise the harmful social and economic impacts of fossil fuels. An open-door policy to exploratory drilling is inconsistent with the urgent action needed for Canada to meet its critical climate targets.”

Sigrid Kuehnemund, head of wildlife and industry at WWF-Canada said: “The outcome of this case has massive negative implications for marine biodiversity and environmental legislation in Canada.

“WWF-Canada believes the judge failed to properly assess the many risks of exploratory drilling to Newfoundland & Labrador offshore habitats and the species that use them. Safeguarding marine ecosystems from the impacts of drilling and ensuring Canada’s environmental legislation remains strong is too important to let this decision stand.”

Jordy Thomson, senior marine coordinator for ecosystems at the Ecology Action Centre said: “To address the climate and biodiversity crises, Canada needs impact assessment laws that provide the highest standard of environmental protection.

“The court’s decision to let the deeply flawed regional assessment for exploratory drilling stand, instead props open the door for further degradation of our marine environment and global climate. We are appealing this decision to strengthen the Impact Assessment Act and help safeguard sensitive Atlantic marine life.”

According to Gretchen Fitzgerald, national programmes director at the Sierra Club Canada Foundation: “We know that no new oil drilling can be allowed if we are to create a safe climate. We know that fragile marine ecosystems and imperilled species, like the critically endangered right whale, require protection from things like seismic blasting and oil spills.

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“People who participate in assessments deserve to have their concerns assessed and know they are not merely rubber-stamp exercises for approving more damage to the environment.”

She said: “We have no choice but to appeal the decision to uphold it, and to challenge further deregulation of offshore oil and gas it was designed to create a ‘fig leaf’ of legitimacy for.”