Environmentalists are suing the federal government over a petroleum oil refinery proposed by Irving Oil Ltd. in Saint John, N.B., after alleging Ottawa ignored its own laws that require a full environmental impact assessment of the project.

The lawsuit, launched by Ecojustice on behalf of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, the Fundy Baykeeper and Friends of the Earth Canada, challenges the federal government's decision to restrict its environmental impact assessment of the proposed refinery to the facility’s wharf structure.

The environmental groups said the lawsuit is intended to make sure that the proposed multi-billion refinery — called Project Eider Rock and expected to produce 48 million litres of crude oil a day and emit three million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually — faces a full scrutiny by the federal government.

"What a federal environmental assessment could do is ensure that if this goes ahead, the impacts on the environment, on people's health in Saint John and on the broader Bay of Fundy are minimized," said David Coon, the Conservation Council's policy director. "We don't believe that will happen with simply a provincial assessment, as is currently planned."

The lawsuit argues that under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the federal government must study and minimize the harmful environmental impacts of large-scale industrial projects.

The Conservation Council said that if the Federal Court doesn't force a full review, the assessment of the refinery's environmental impacts would be left to the province, and it has been critical of New Brunswick "whose environmental assessment process failed to protect the environment from the massive upgrade of an existing Irving refinery."

The council said the emissions from Irving's existing refinery of carcinogenic benzene have increased by a factor of ten since the upgrade, increasing the levels of benzene in Saint John’s air by 60 per cent. 

The provincial environmental assessment process found there would be no change in emissions of this carcinogenic air pollutant, the group said.

The council said that the latest Irving refinery is one of three new proposed refineries to be built in Canada in 25 years, and in each case the federal government didn't order a full environmental impact assessment.

It's expected the Federal Court will hear the case in mid-2008.