B.C. marine protected areas one step closer to freedom from oil and gas development threats
VANCOUVER | UNCEDED xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (MUSQUEAM), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (SQUAMISH) AND səlilwətaɬ (TSLEIL-WAUTUTH) TERRITORIES – ExxonMobil has relinquished the exploration permits it holds for offshore British Columbia, including two exploration permits within or bordering the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area. Environmental groups celebrate this move as a major milestone in the fight to protect sensitive B.C. marine habitat from oil and gas development.
The permits were granted more than 50 years ago. World Wildlife Fund-Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, represented by Ecojustice lawyers, disputed one of these permits in a court challenge launched in July 2022. Following ExxonMobil’s relinquishment, the groups have discontinued the challenge against the company.
While the groups welcome the move by ExxonMobil, the court challenge also asserts the federal government has unlawfully kept 50-year-old offshore exploration permits held by Chevron Canada on the books. These permits, which lie within the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area and Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area, continue to undermine protection of these sensitive areas. WWF-Canada and the DSF continue to dispute these permits through the court challenge.
Megan Leslie, president and CEO of WWF-Canada, says: “ExxonMobil’s relinquishment is great news for at-risk wildlife, from seabirds like the marbled murrelet to the globally unique, and 9,000-year-old glass sponge reefs. Coming on the heels of the recent prohibition on oil and gas exploration in all federal MPAs designated since 2019, it’s a reminder why we must safeguard earlier marine protected areas from the ongoing threat posed by the 19 remaining unlawful old permits.”
Jay Ritchlin, director general for Western Canada and nature programs at the David Suzuki Foundation, says: “This is an encouraging move by ExxonMobil to bring sensitive B.C. marine habitat in line with best practices and minimum standards announced by Canada at IMPAC5. Oil and gas leases have no place in B.C.’s offshore. It’s time for Chevron and other permit-holders to follow suit.”
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Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area
Nineteen of the disputed permits, including one relinquished by ExxonMobil, lie within the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area, which surrounds an archipelago of five unique islands off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island. This region supports the highest concentration of breeding seabirds on Canada’s Pacific coast.
The wildlife area attracts between five and 10 million migratory birds each year and provides key nesting habitat to 40 per cent of B.C.’s seabirds, including many listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, such as the short-tailed albatross and the marbled murrelet.
The marine area around the Scott Islands is also recognized by Fisheries and Oceans Canada as an ecologically and biologically significant area, representing one of the most diverse marine ecosystems on Canada’s West Coast.
Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Glass Sponge Reef Marine Protected Area
One permit lies within the Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area, located between Haida Gwaii and the British Columbia mainland. The reef is home to rare large colonies of glass sponges estimated to be 9,000 years old.
Glass sponge reefs, mostly unique to British Columbia, are an integral part of a healthy marine habitat. These reefs provide shelter for marine life including rockfish and shrimp, store carbon on the ocean floor, filter bacteria out of the water and fertilize the ocean. These special ecosystems support thriving culture and livelihoods for coastal communities.
The David Suzuki Foundation (DavidSuzuki.org | @DavidSuzukiFdn) is a leading Canadian environmental non-profit organization, founded in 1990. We operate in English and French, with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. We collaborate with all people in Canada, including First Nations leadership and communities, governments, businesses and individuals to find solutions to create a sustainable Canada through scientific research, traditional ecological knowledge, communications and public engagement, and innovative policy and legal solutions. Our mission is to protect nature’s diversity and the well-being of all life, now and for the future.
For more than half a century, WWF-Canada has worked to protect and restore nature. As the country’s largest international conservation organization, we connect the power of a strong global network operating in more than 100 countries with on-the-ground conservation efforts across Canada. World Wildlife Fund Canada draws on scientific analysis and Indigenous guidance to expand and protect habitats, decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, reduce industrial impacts and, as a result, reverse wildlife loss.
Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.