Environmental groups say they are surprised to learn that the federal Liberal government has been rewriting and consolidating the regulations governing offshore oil and gas drilling for more than a year without informing them or obtaining much input beyond that of the petroleum industry.
A draft of the proposed changes would allow the industry to decide what safety measures can be reasonably and practicably implemented, the environmentalists say. They suggest oil and gas companies would be able to argue that some are too expensive or too difficult.
At least four organizations that lobby for greater protection of Canada's oceans have written to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in recent weeks to urge him to halt what is known as the Frontier and Offshore Regulatory Renewal Initiative (FORRI), a regulatory overhaul that was started last year and is in its final stages.
The groups say they became aware of the effort to amalgamate and update five existing regulations under the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act only after it was raised incidentally at a meeting this summer between representatives of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the federal government ministry that is leading the initiative, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada.
"We are extremely active on this issue all over Canada, so we were very surprised that we hadn't been formally notified," said David Miller, the WWF-Canada president. "And when we contacted colleagues, whether in Indigenous communities including in the North, or other [environmental organizations], we found the same reaction. Almost nobody had heard about it."
In his letter to Mr. Carr, Mr. Miller says the process must be immediately suspended to allow all stakeholders to participate and provide input. The WWF was joined in that call by the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia, the Clean Ocean Action Committee and the Ecology Action Centre.
The current draft of the regulations requires the oil and gas industry to implement the safety measures that companies determine to be "reasonably practicable," but the environmentalists say it imposes no minimum standards. That is unacceptable, they say, especially in the Arctic, which has few resources to deal with a catastrophic spill and it is out of step with what is being done in other jurisdictions, including the United States, where rules were tightened after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
John Davis, director of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, said the regulations, as currently written, suggest the government "is capitulating to the oil and gas industry and to an immensely powerful lobby. We have immense concerns."
NRCan said on Wednesday that it is nearing the end of the third of four consultation phases, with the opportunity for input at this stage closing on Sept. 20. Stakeholders will be able to review and comment during a final consultation phase in the spring, it said.
But the NRCan website says the development of policy and the consultation will take place in three phases. Environmentalists are concerned the fourth phase will occur after it is too late to make significant changes.
The ministry said its stakeholders list includes more than 20 non-governmental organizations representing environmental and fisheries interests as well as 18 northern and Indigenous organizations, and that it has offered to hold additional meetings with other Indigenous groups.
But, while the FORRI website includes many responses to the draft regulations from the petroleum industry, the only Indigenous feedback is from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), an Inuit company that manages a land claim in the western Arctic. The IRC expressed significant concerns about the initiative and the consultations.
Other Inuit groups, including the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which represents Inuit on Baffin Island, say they got no opportunity to give input.
"We believe in order to work collaboratively with Inuit, there needs to be greater efforts to include opportunities for meaningful participation from our communities," said Rosanne D'Orazio, the director of lands for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
The Trudeau government came to power in 2015 promising more consultations with Indigenous groups. The FORRI has been a departure for the Liberals, Mr. Miller said. "It is certainly unlike the Trudeau government not to properly consult."