12/21/2011 01:30 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST

Cape Breton group opposed to test drilling hoping to achieve legal precedent

HALIFAX - The co-chairman of a citizens' group in Cape Breton says they're headed to court not only to block a proposal for an exploratory drilling project but also to set a key legal precedent.

Neal Livingston said Wednesday the Margaree Environmental Association has filed a court appeal to quash a permit that would allow Toronto-based Petroworth Resources Inc. to drill a conventional oil and gas test well near Lake Ainslie.

If the group's court challenge is successful, the ruling could be used by other communities to stop the oil and gas industry from drilling too close to homes and in ecologically sensitive areas, Livingston said in an interview Wednesday.

"We're going to court because it was absolutely inappropriate that the minister had given this authority (for drilling) so close to homes and watercourses," he said.

"In the absence of any proper guidelines being established by the province, we think that these permits should not be issued by the government."

Petroworth's proposed well would sit about 600 metres from Cape Breton's largest freshwater lake, and only about 30 metres from a brook that is part of the Margaree River watershed.

The activists say seven homes are within a kilometre of the proposed well. Residents also say they are concerned about possible air pollution and increased truck traffic on rural roads.

The appeal process should take about three months, during which the environmental group will be poised to file an injunction should Petroworth start drilling, Livingston said.

"If this goes ahead, this is an indication that the Nova Scotia government is prepared to give a permit out absolutely anywhere," Livingston said. "It's like a permit being given for your neighbour's front yard."

Petroworth first applied to drill a 1,200-metre well in September 2010. It received approvals from the Nova Scotia departments of Environment and Energy last July.

Livingston's group launched an appeal in the fall under the provincial Environment Act, but it was rejected Tuesday by Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau.

Belliveau's office issued a statement saying the appeal was dismissed because the department had responded in a timely manner to public input. As well, Belliveau said his department had imposed conditions necessary to protect the environment and public health.

Livingston said the group has already raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the looming court battle.

The company website says it has until July 15, 2012, to drill the test well.