ExxonMobil and Chevron give up 20 offshore oil & gas exploration permits
Two U.S.-headquartered energy giants – ExxonMobil and Chevron – have relinquished 20 offshore oil and gas exploration permits off the coast of British Columbia, following a lawsuit challenge brought by Ecojustice, Canada’s largest environmental law charity.
Ecojustice, on behalf of World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada) and the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), decided to challenge the validity of 20 offshore oil and gas exploration permits it described as “sleeper” permits last July. These permits, held by two oil majors, Chevron Canada Limited and Exxon Mobil, were first issued in the 1960s and 1970s. While the environmentalists believe these permits should have expired decades ago, Natural Resources Canada extended them indefinitely and this move is perceived to be in direct conflict with the Canada Petroleum Resources Act by Ecojustice.
After the challenge Ecojustice brought, Chevron surrendered 19 offshore oil and gas exploration permits within sensitive marine areas on the West Coast while ExxonMobil relinquished its permit earlier this year along with several more in off British Columbia, which were not challenged. According to Canada’s largest environmental law charity, these 20 permits for offshore oil and gas exploration went under the radar, thanks to what it argued to be “multiple unlawful extensions” by the federal government.
The environmentalists describe the marine ecosystems off the coast of British Columbia as being among the most beautiful and biodiverse in the world, however, these habitats and the species that depend on them, have been facing “a looming threat from oil and gas exploration for decades,” says Ecojustice.
The groups, which challenged the permits say that these permits – if left unaddressed – could pave the way for exploratory drilling to take place in the biodiversity-rich waters off the coast of British Columbia, including the Scott Islands Protected Marine Area and the Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area, and impede efforts to protect species at risk and critical marine habitats.
Ian Miron, lawyer at Ecojustice, remarked: “This is a huge win for marine protected areas in Western Canada. These permits were an invisible threat hanging over the vulnerable Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound glass sponge reefs, and the Scott Islands marine national wildlife area.
“To give you an idea how precious these areas are, the living glass sponge reefs outlived the dinosaurs, and they only exist in one place on Earth: right here, in Pacific coastal waters. And the Scott Islands are home to the most important breeding colonies for seabirds in B.C., attracting between five to ten million migratory birds each year.”
Furthermore, Scott Islands National Wildlife Area is an archipelago of five unique islands off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island that supports the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific Coast. While attracting 5-10 million migratory birds each year, the area provides key nesting habitat to 40 per cent of British Columbia’s seabirds, entailing many listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act like the short-tailed albatross and the marbled murrelet.
Moreover, the Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Glass Sponge Reef Marine Protected Area, located between Haida Gwaii and the mainland of British Columbia under the surface of the Pacific Ocean, is home to rare large colonies of glass sponges estimated to be 9,000 years old. Glass sponge reefs, mostly unique to British Columbia, provide shelter for marine life – such as rockfish and shrimp – store carbon on the ocean floor, filter bacteria out of the water, and fertilize the ocean.
By April 2023, Exxon Mobil and Chevron surrendered all 20 permits before Ecojustice’s litigation proceeded to court, meaning these two areas are now entirely free from oil and gas rights. Since all of the permits that were challenged are now gone, Ecojustice has discontinued the lawsuit.
However, Ecojustice claims that there are around 50 other “sleeper” permits – issued decades ago – still on the books, scattered across ecologically sensitive zones throughout the British Columbia coast while similar permits remain active in the Arctic and are currently under a legal moratorium that expires in December.
“We’re pleased that these permits have been taken off the books, but that doesn’t mean our work is over. As long as the planet needs us, we’ll be here — using every legal tool at our disposal to secure a better future,” added Miron.
Ecojustice underscores that the threat of oil and gas exploration off the British Columbia coast is not abstract while expanding oil and gas production is out of step with warnings from scientists about the pressing need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
To illustrate the Canadian government’s interest in expanding oil and gas exploration and production, Ecojustice uses Equinor’s Bay du Nord offshore oil and gas project in Newfoundland and Labrador, which it challenged in court earlier this year. The environmental law charity claims that this project threatens marine ecosystems and will dump up to 400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere through its life cycle.
While the final investment decision is expected in the next couple of years, the first oil could be achieved as early as late 2028. Previously, the FID was anticipated in 2021 and the first oil in 2025.