ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- The Canadian government is moving ahead with new rules it says will speed up approvals for exploratory oil and gas drilling off the east coast of Newfoundland, but conservation groups are warning the changes undermine environmental protections.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan issued a statement Thursday saying the new regulation will improve the efficiency of assessments while upholding the "highest standards" of environmental protection.
"Our government recognizes that Newfoundland and Labrador's ability to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic will depend largely on a strong, resilient and innovative offshore," O'Regan said.
Three environmental groups have launched a federal court challenge, arguing exploratory drilling off Newfoundland will now be green-lit without proper environmental assessments.
The Ecology Action Centre, Sierra Club Canada Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada argued earlier this month that the science behind the new "regional assessment" or RA process is flawed.
Lawyer James Gunvaldsen-Klaassen, whose firm Ecojustice is representing the groups, argued that the regulation "flies in the face" of the purpose of environmental scrutiny under the new Impact Assessment Act.
The court later decided the case can proceed to a judicial review, but denied the group's request for an injunction.
"The federal government stated that it intended to use the flawed RA and a loophole in the ... legislation to allow for a broad exemption of all future offshore exploratory drilling in the region," the groups said in a statement Thursday.
"Left unchallenged, this would set a poor and dangerous precedent for regional assessments, which could otherwise be a promising new mechanism under the Impact Assessment Act."
O'Regan said the new regulation will help the oil and gas industry remain competitive because it will provide investors with "more predictability and certainty."
As well, O'Regan said the regulation strengthens conditions to ensure projects adhere to environmental protection standards.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government said the new assessment process will shorten timelines to as little as 90 days. The province said the existing process can take up to 900 days.
"This is a significant improvement over the previous process which caused considerable delays," the province said in a statement.
Siobhan Coady, Newfoundland and Labrador's natural resources minister, said the province can now "explore its offshore and hopefully make some great discoveries."
Provincial officials say the delays started in 2010 when the responsibility for offshore environmental assessments were shifted from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, environmental assessments for exploratory wells in other countries take far less time to complete: 44 days in Australia; 96 days in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico; 79 days in Norway; and 18 days in the U.K.
During a recent industry conference in St. John's, Coady warned that with oil prices plummeting, companies are closing and jobs are being lost.
In mid-March, Equinor and Husky Energy announced the decision to defer the Bay du Nord offshore development project due to falling oil prices and the economic downturn as countries responded to the novel coronavirus.
In addition, Hibernia has recently suspended its drilling program, the Terra Nova refit for May has been suspended and the West White Rose project has been deferred.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association has said in order to remain competitive with Norway, the United Kingdom and Australia, the federal government needs to provide a renewed program of "incentives for offshore exploration."
The offshore industry accounts for close to one third of the province's GDP, 13 per cent of wages and 10 per cent of all jobs.