A Nova Scotia-based fisheries organization is raising concerns about changes the federal government is quietly proposing to the regulations governing oil and gas extraction in Canada's offshore and northern regions.

Environmental and fisheries groups say they only found out about the proposed changes by happenstance, even though the consultation process has been ongoing for over a year and is nearly complete. Consultation on the third phase of the initiative closes Sept. 20.

John Davis, the director of Clean Ocean Action Committee, said his group was told about the initiative by the World Wildlife Fund, which only learned of it this summer.

"We've been communicating with the fund and with other fisheries organizations, and nobody knows about it," he told CBC's Information Morning.

'Extreme' changes

Davis described the proposed changes, which include a shift from a prescriptive set of regulations to a performance-based model, as "extreme."

"Our reading of the documents that are provided in Phase 3 indicates that the Canadian government … will no longer prescribe any technologies that oil and gas operators have to use," he said. "The new regulations will only state objectives that operators have to meet."

Davis said proposed regulations include guidelines such as stopping the flow from an uncontrolled well "as soon as circumstances permit" or minimizing the duration and environmental effects of oil spills by reducing risks to "as low as reasonably practicable."

John Davis environmentalist Nova Scotia

John Davis is director of Clean Ocean Action Committee. (CBC)

That latter concept is of particular concern, Davis said, because it lacks a clear definition in proposed regulations.

"What is 'reasonably practicable' … could mean that it's not too expensive, or it's convenient for the oil and gas industry. It could be technically practicable and achievable, but that doesn't mean that it's going to get used."

'They're not appropriate'

Industry groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have expressed support for performance-based regulations in the feedback to proposed regulations, stating they can lead to innovation, and a safer, more efficient and more flexible industry.

But Davis said 2013 research by Canada's Department of Natural Resources only supports the use of outcome or performance-based regulation in low- to moderate-risk industries, and not in high-risk industries such as frontier or offshore drilling.

"They're not appropriate to the Scotian Shelf," Davis said, in reference to the area off the coast of Nova Scotia that's been the site of oil and gas exploration. 

Modernizing regulations

The Department of Natural Resources said in an email statement that the regulatory modernization will help Canada maintain the highest standards for operational safety, environmental protection and management of offshore petroleum resources.

The department also said that the fourth and final phase of consultation will happen in late spring 2018, although there are only three consultation phases listed on Natural Resources's website.

But Davis said Clean Ocean Action Committee and other organizations have written Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, asking the federal government to start the consultation process over again.

"We haven't heard back yet, so we don't know — we literally don't know whether these changes are just going to go through, and they're extreme changes. It's not a small process here."

With files from CBC's Information Morning