Canada has agreed to buy an oil pipeline that many fear threatens resident orcas
An unprecedented deal between the Canadian federal government and Houston-based Kinder Morgan to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline poses grave risks for the critically endangered southern-resident killer- whale population, and drew a stiff rebuke from Washington’s governor, who called the pipeline “profoundly damaging.”
The expansion, planned to bring bitumen oil from Alberta to the West Coast for sale to Asian markets, would increase by seven times the oil-tanker traffic in the transboundary waters between Washington and Canada, prime orca habitat.
That would ramp up noise levels underwater that already are interfering with the whales’ foraging time for scarce chinook salmon. The whales have not managed a successful pregnancy in two years, in part because they are starving.
The increase in traffic through tricky navigation channels by tankers also puts the J, K and L pods at risk of extinction in the event of an oil spill. The pipeline twins an existing line built in 1953 for more than 600 miles and will nearly triple capacity for the Trans Mountain to 890,000 barrels of bitumen oil per day.
Bitumen is one of the most energy-intensive oils to produce, and carbon-polluting to burn. Mixed with chemicals to make it flow, it sinks in water and defies conventional cleanup methods.
On Tuesday, Canada’s federal government agreed to buy the pipeline system and expansion project for $4.5 billion Canadian and to work with the board of Kinder Morgan to seek a third-party buyer for the project.
The government also will pay to resume planning and construction work this summer by guaranteeing all costs under a separate line of credit guaranteed by Canada.
It has been undisputed for years that the pipeline expansion would make both noise and the threat of a spill worse for orcas.
In its assessment of the project, Canada’s National Energy Board stated in its approval in May 2016 that the pipeline expansion “would likely result in significant adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale.”
The energy board recommended approval anyway. The board also said the project would set back recovery efforts for the population of fish-eating whales unique to Puget Sound and would undermine cultural values of First Nations and tribes in the United States that regard the whale as family.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was given no courtesy call before the announcement of the plan to rev up construction of the pipeline this summer, spokeswoman Tara Lee said. Inslee vehemently voiced his disagreement.
“Now is not the time to increase our chances of a marine oil spill, nor is it the time to hinder our efforts to protect our already endangered orcas,” Inslee wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times. “The effects of increased noise pollution from oil tanker traffic is significant. Noise is one of the reasons the southern resident orca population is at a 30-year low. When large tankers cruise over the waves, the sound blankets the undersea world for miles, drowning out a whale’s ability to use echolocation clicks to find food and communicate with other whales. This is a moment for protecting orcas and combating climate change. The proposed pipeline expansion would take us backward in profoundly damaging ways. It does not have the support of Washington state.”
Inslee has just created a task force charged with restoring the southern-resident killer-whale population, dwindled to only 76 animals.
“The proposed pipeline expansion project would undermine efforts to protect our communities and economy from the risk of oil spills, fight climate change, and save the orca population,” Inslee said in a prepared statement. “I have expressed my concerns about this project repeatedly and I believe this is the wrong direction for our region.”
Opposition remains strong beyond Washington, with 22 British Columbia municipalities and 150 First Nations registering opposition, 14 legal challenges in the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal, and ongoing public protests.
More than 250,000 people have signed a petition against the project, with an additional 24,000 pledging to “do whatever it takes to stop the project.” More than 200 people, including several members of Parliament and First Nations leaders, have been arrested.
The deal, set to close in August or in the fourth quarter of the year, does not displace the lawsuits, which include a challenge by the B.C. government to the permits for the project and challenges by First Nations because the pipeline would cross their lands without their consent.
Kinder Morgan in its statement Tuesday said the backing of the Canadian government ensures the project will be built. “We are pleased to reach agreement on a transaction that benefits the people of Canada, Trans Mountain Expansion Project shippers and Kinder Morgan Limited shareholders,” said KML Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Kean.
“The outcome we have reached represents the best opportunity to complete the Trans Mountain Expansion Project and thereby realize the great national economic benefits promised.”
Opponents warned that the costs will be far higher and that the project will haunt the liberal Trudeau government, which has backed the project in hopes of higher prices overseas for Canadian oil than in the U.S. market, plus tax revenue on those sales.
However, indigenous leaders warned Tuesday the fight is just getting started.
“The answer is still no,” said Will George, Tsleil-Waututh member and spokesman for the Coast Salish Watch House, a spiritual gathering place and de facto headquarters for the opposition. “The cost they did not calculate in their $4.5 billion purchase is that indigenous front lines will stop this pipeline. The Watch House will continue to stand in the way of pipeline development.”
The Tsleil-Waututh, or People of the Inlet, have opposed the project since its inception and on Tuesday vowed that outrage at the federal decision would spur direct action against the project.
“The fight is far from over, and now that Justin Trudeau has turned the Canadian government into a fossil-fuel company, it’s crystal clear who we are up against,” said Aurore Fauret, Canadian tar-sands campaign coordinator for 350.org, which opposes fossil-fuel projects.
In addition to Inslee, 79 elected leaders from around the region, including King County Executive Dow Constantine and 29 Washington state legislators, last week sent a letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan in solidarity with his government’s opposition to the project.
Even Al Gore weighed in Tuesday, tweeting, “Fossil fuels are subsidized 38x more than renewables globally. Now the Canadian government wants to spend billions more of taxpayer dollars to increase its country’s contribution to the climate crisis. This is not in the public interest. We must keep fighting to #StopKM.”
For the orcas, the Salish Sea already has become a hostile place they visit with increasing rarity. In a new paper published by the San Juan Island-based Orca Behavior Institute in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology, research documented what longtime Pacific Northwest residents already know: The whales are spending less time here.
Peak whale-watching season in the Salish Sea for the southern residents used to be April through September. Twenty years ago it was typical to see the southern residents frolicking and feeding in the Salish Sea every day in May. This year, no whales have been seen locally since April 7.