by Janet Alderton and Michael Riordan
Despite overwhelming opposition from British Columbia, Washington state, and tribes on both sides of the border, plus strong evidence that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project will inevitably harm the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population, the Canadian National Energy Board has recommended that the project should proceed. This is a deeply flawed decision.
Of paramount concern to San Juan Islanders are the adverse impacts on the struggling orcas, whose wild population is now down to 74 members — the lowest level in decades. If this project is completed as planned, an additional 590,000 barrels of Canadian crude oils would be shipped daily from a Burnaby, BC, terminal; this would result in a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic to 800 transits per year through the orcas’ critical habitat in and around Haro Strait.
The additional underwater noise from hundreds more tankers annually will be difficult if not impossible to mitigate. This noise will further obscure their favorite Chinook salmon prey, which the orcas track and find using echolocation. And the tugboats necessarily accompanying these tankers for safety reasons would ironically generate even more underwater noise.
If there’s a major oil spill in the Salish Sea from one of these tankers, the impact on the orcas will be devastating, possibly wiping out the species. The “clean up” of conventional, floating oils is a widespread myth, as their recovery level is 20 percent at best. Not only could such a large spill in Haro Strait coat our shores and tidelands. If the tanker carries diluted bitumen from tar-sands deposits in Alberta, a sizable portion of it could also separate and sink to the seafloor under conditions of high winds and waves — smothering benthic species there, including the Pacific sand lance that is prey of Chinook salmon.
So why does the Canadian government want to push forward with this ill-considered project in the face of such overwhelming opposition and evidence? It’s because the Trans Mountain pipeline is the only option left to get Alberta tar-sands crude oil to tidewaters, where it could then be shipped overseas and purportedly earn higher profits. Two other such pipelines have been canceled, and the federal government bought up the existing Trans Mountain pipeline for CA$4.5 billion.
But the likely government decision expand this pipeline is based on deeply flawed economic analysis. The demand for high-sulfur tar-sands crude is projected to fall when the International Maritime Organization’s global pollution standards change in less than a year. All large commercial vessels must significantly reduce their sulfur emissions by January 1, and most of them will do that by switching to low-sulfur fuels rather than the high-sulfur bunker fuels currently used. Because the Albertan tar-sands crudes have among the highest sulfur content, making refining them costly, the market for them is likely to plummet.
In that case, all the added pipeline capacity will be for naught. And Canadian citizens will be left holding the bag, wondering how they ever got snookered into wasting billions on such an economic dinosaur.
Janet Alderton is President of the Friends of the San Juans, and Michael Riordan is a former member of its Board of Directors.