Environmental groups are celebrating after ExxonMobil relinquished offshore oil and gas exploration permits in British Columbia dating back more than 50 years.
Lawyer Ian Miron with Ecojustice Canada says the company has been dropped from a Federal Court lawsuit filed by the David Suzuki Foundation and World Wildlife Fund Canada last year challenging the Canadian government's continual renewal of the permits.
Miron says the permits formerly held by Exxon covered "really environmentally significant areas" off the B.C. coast.
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Margot Bruce-O’Connell confirms the company gave up nine permits it held in B.C. but is refusing to comment further.
Miron says the groups' legal challenge remains active against Chevron Canada, which also holds long-standing permits in the province.
He says there's a "policy-based moratorium" that prohibits oil and gas exploration in marine protected areas off the B.C. coast, but it's not legally binding and the existence of the permits undermines environmental protection and conservation efforts.
"It can be lifted at any time. It's subject to change at the whims of the government of the day," Miron says. "The concern was that the fact that these these permits exist, they are impeding the full conservation of those areas, and there was a risk that they could have opened them up and and gone in to drill."
Miron says the driving concern behind the court action is that a policy-based moratorium doesn't fully protect ecologically sensitive areas on the B.C. coast including Queen Charlotte Sound and the Hecate Strait.
"Drilling is a possibility at some point," he says. "These have been identified as really important, ecologically important areas and they should be fully protected, and they're not currently fully protected."
Jay Ritchlin, B.C. and western director-general for the David Suzuki Foundation, says in a statement the relinquishment by ExxonMobil "is an encouraging move."
"Oil and gas leases have no place in B.C.’s offshore. Now is the time for Chevron and other permit holders to follow suit.”
Representatives from Chevron Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.