Trans Mountain expansion poses unacceptable risk to Salish Sea

The myth of “world class oil spill response, prevention and recovery” is just that, a myth.

Is Canada’s national interest best aligned with a Texas pipeline company? The suggestion of bailing out U.S.-based Kinder Morgan and investing tax dollars to access public assets in a sunset industry, while momentous questions of Canadian law are still before the courts, is nothing short of absurd.

Kinder Morgan and the province of Alberta have manufactured a crisis in which the goal is to pressure the federal government to force-feed British Columbians the Trans Mountain expansion. Some have speculated that this putative emergency is also designed to pressure the courts and judges that have yet to rule on nine legal challenges to the project’s approval.

The ensuing hysteria has drowned out pertinent facts and legitimate concerns with regard to the B.C. coast. Above the political clamour, what remains is this: 1) The expansion will push endangered killer whales closer to extinction and risk further declines in wild salmon populations already in crisis; 2) The mantra of “world class oil spill response, prevention and recovery,” is an empty platitude; and 3) The National Energy Board process leading to an affirmative recommendation, and subsequent approval by the federal cabinet, was not based on evidence or science, nor was it rigorous or fair.

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project will deliver 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen from Alberta to Vancouver daily, and ship it through the Salish Sea to offshore markets. The implications of Kinder Morgan’s plans are enormous for the Salish Sea, a region already suffering intense pressures from growth. Chronic oiling, spills and the underwater noise from more shipping traffic will only intensify the declining health of an ecologically fragile region.

The myth of “world class oil spill response, prevention and recovery” is just that, a myth. Estimates of open-water recovery by mechanical equipment recoup only 10 to 15 per cent of the oil from a marine spill at best; in other words, a very low bar exists to achieve so-called world-class status. As we have learned from previous spills, no response is possible in rough weather, high seas and dangerous conditions. All oil recovery options are futile in more than one knot of tide, winds and waves – routine conditions on Canada’s west coast.

In rough conditions or offshore spills, response is limited to the use of dispersants, as containment is not an option. Dispersants have proven to be largely unsuccessful on water-in-oil emulsions and on oil that has weathered, and will not likely be successful on bitumen. Furthermore, reliable knowledge regarding the extent of dispersant toxicity is lacking.

Even with better response capabilities promised by the federal government, the reality is that most oil from marine spills is never recovered. This implies significant risk to the Fraser River estuary, the Gulf Islands and Georgia Strait. These areas host wild salmon, herring, migratory birds on the Pacific flyway, shellfish beds, and many other rare, threatened and endangered coastal species, all of which are highly valued ecologically, economically and culturally.

The implications of Kinder Morgan’s plans are enormous for the Salish Sea, a region already suffering intense pressures from growth.  Tweet This!

One example of this problem is the overlay of the tanker route onto large sections of the critical habitat for Canada’s endangered Southern Resident killer whales. But oil spills are only part of the problem. These iconic and imperilled whales have not had a successful calf since 2015, 69 per cent of pregnancies in the last decade have failed, and what should be healthy animals are being lost to malnutrition and other human-caused mortality.

Even if oil tankers traversed the whales’ critical habitat completely according to plan with no oil spills, the additional noise from the increase in tanker traffic will push the whales far closer to extinction than they are now. Acoustic disturbance from vessel noise will make it more difficult for killer whales to communicate, hunt and feed.

Kinder Morgan, the National Energy Board and the federal government all agreed the noise from oil tankers will have significant and adverse effects on these whales. The NEB’s 11th-hour decision to arbitrarily truncate the Trans Mountain review at tidewater and refuse to earnestly address the marine environment, as well as reject the most recent and relevant science regarding diluted bitumen, rendered their recommendation for approval decidedly questionable.

The current dispute might have been avoided if Trans Mountain had been subjected to an impartial and comprehensive assessment. The outstanding legal challenge that Ecojustice lawyers have argued on behalf of Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Living Oceans Society contends the federal cabinet violated the law when it relied on the NEB report that used an overly narrow interpretation of the law to avoid addressing the harm caused to endangered Southern Resident killer whales and their critical habitat.

As provincial and federal political actors continue staging this faux crisis, British Columbians and Canadians would be best served to refocus on the real and substantial impacts facing our country’s Pacific coast, the Salish Sea, the Fraser River, wild salmon and killer whales from the Trans Mountain expansion.1

  1. A version of this article was first published at the Ottawa Citizen, 2018 04 16.

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