A seabird swiming in the ocean. There is kelp in its mouth.

Court challenge dropped after Chevron surrenders offshore oil and gas permits in B.C. ocean conservation hot spots

Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Environmental groups have dropped a court case against Chevron Canada after it surrendered a number of historical oil and gas permits posing risks to sensitive marine conservation areas on the B.C. coast. 

Chevron voluntarily gave up 19 permits in the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area north of Vancouver Island and in rare protected glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound.

The fossil fuel giant made the announcement after the David Suzuki Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada, represented by the legal charity Ecojustice, launched a court challenge disputing the permits in July 2022. 

The groups planned to argue historical offshore oil and gas rights (or “sleeper permits”) granted by the federal government to oil corporations as far back as 50 years ago shouldn’t remain valid — especially in dedicated conservation areas. Natural Resources Canada has continued to extend the permits indefinitely, a move at odds with the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, Ecojustice said. 

Chevron’s announcement is a bittersweet win, said Ecojustice lawyer Ian Miron. 

The retirement of the permits in question improves the protection of the two fragile sponge colonies and the Scott Islands — which boasts the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast. But Chevron’s remaining sleeper permits in B.C. waters pose an ongoing threat to other critical marine ecosystems, Miron said. 

“Our focus was on those particular permits in the conservation areas,” he said. 

“But, obviously, there are other important and sensitive and ecologically valuable areas up and down the coast.” 

Giving up the oil and gas permits ensures the Scott Islands and glass sponge reef marine protected areas (MPAs) can fully count towards Canada’s marine conservation targets, Chevron said. 

Canada, along with nearly 200 other nations, promised to protect 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030 at last winter’s global UN biodiversity summit, COP15, in Montreal. 

“Chevron is continually assessing its portfolio and has been in communication with Natural Resources Canada since 2020 on the opportunity to contribute to … Canada’s international marine conservation targets,” said Christopher Mazerolle, Chevron Canada president, in a press statement. 

However, Chevron’s remaining sleeper permits could continue to hinder Canada’s ability to meet its ocean conservation targets, Miron stressed. 

The federal government recently confirmed new minimum standards for any future MPAs that prohibit oil and gas activity, along with mining, dumping and destructive bottom-trawling fishing. 

So Chevron’s permits could still limit or complicate the creation of new conservation areas, including a massive proposal to create a  network of marine protected areas along the B.C. coast, or the Indigenous-led effort to protect ocean waters adjacent to the Great Bear Rainforest, Miron said 

“The fact that there are still permits out there can impede designating new protected areas,” he said. 

“If a company has a claim [in a given location], the government might think twice about whether they want to protect that area.” 

Other oil and gas companies, including Shell and Exxon, have relinquished all their permits on the West Coast, which has been under a federal moratorium on offshore oil and gas activity since 1972. 

It’s unlikely the provincial and federal stance on offshore drilling will change in the immediate future, Miron acknowledged, but he stressed oil and gas exploration on the B.C. coast is not off the table. 

The moratorium is a policy decision not supported by law or legislation and so is vulnerable to changes in the political climate, he said. 

When in power, the former B.C. Liberal government committed to developing offshore oil and gas in its 2007 BC Energy Plan and lobbied the federal government to reverse the moratorium, stating it would do the same with the provincial moratorium. 

“The moratorium is just a policy, and can be changed by the government of the day,” Miron said. “It’s not legally binding.”

All outstanding offshore oil and gas permits on the West Coast are at odds with Canada’s promises to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet its 30×30 pledge to protect nature, he added. 

“We’d like either the industry or government, or both, to give up remaining permits or cancel them,” Miron said. 

“I think that’s well in keeping with those [government] commitments.”

Chevron Canada did not reply to a request for comment before publication deadline.

Top image credit: Conservation groups celebrate a win after Chevron retires offshore oil and gas permits in B.C.’s Scott Islands conservation area, vital to Pacific seabird populations. – Photo tufted puffin by Eric Ellingson / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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