“The central argument we make is that these permits have expired and the federal government has illegally kept them alive and on the books for over 40 years,” said Ecojustice attorney Ian Miron, who is repressing the two complainants.
“We certainly think the threat of oil and gas exploration…is not abstract.”
Miron cited the Bay du Nord offshore oil project approved this year off Newfoundland and Labrador as an example of how the government is still approving large extraction projects despite its climate commitments.
The permits cover an area extending over 5,840 square kilometers in the Hecate Strait Glass Sponge Reef Marine Protected Area and the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.
The Scott Islands attract 5 to 10 million migratory birds each year.
The coastal sanctuary has the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast, and the islands provide habitat for 40% of all seabirds in British Columbia.
This includes several species listed as “at risk” by the federal government, including marbled murrelets, short-tailed albatrosses and sooty shearwaters.
Four of the glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait, meanwhile, are believed to be 9,000 years old. Prior to their discovery, they were thought to be extinct worldwide, surviving only in the fossil record from the late Jurassic period.
Described as “exceptionally fragile” and vulnerable to human activity, glass sponges “play an important role in processing marine carbon and nitrogen”, according to the Department of Environment and Climate Change.
“In a nutshell, these two ecosystems support thriving biodiversity, but also contribute to the prosperity of the culture and livelihoods of communities along the coast,” Miron said.
Miron said environmental groups are going to court as a last resort after questions to the federal government and the two permit-holding companies — Chevron Canada and ExxonMobil Canada — “fell on deaf ears.”
“We believe there is an urgent need to get these permits off the books,” the lawyer said. “Our clients believe that the mere existence of these permits in these protected areas actually hampers efforts to fully protect and manage the areas.”
Glacier Media has contacted the Ministry of Natural Resources and ExxonMobil Canada, but neither responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
A spokesperson for Chevron Canada declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
If the defendants choose to challenge the application for judicial review, a case could be brought to federal court within a year, Miron says.
(This article first appeared in business in Vancouver)