Canada’s plans for the Trans Mountain Pipeline may pose risks for orca whales
Tanker traffic associated with pipeline construction is expected to interfere with the endangered orca whales’ communication behaviors. // Photo by Nicole Martinson
The Canadian government agreed on May 29 to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline and expansion project from Kinder Morgan, an energy infrastructure company, for CAD $7.5 billion, according to the Trans Mountain website.
With this decision, the Canadian federal government announced its intention to continue pipeline construction that would bring oil from Alberta to British Columbia’s west coast to sell in Asian markets. According to the Trans Mountain website, the deal will close in August.
The expansion of this pipeline would increase oil-tanker traffic in the shared Salish waters between Canada and Washington by seven times, according to a Seattle Times article.
Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, explained the tanker traffic associated with pipeline construction and maintenance is expected to increase noise heard underwater by endangered orca whales and interfere with the whales’ communication behaviors.
Raincoast consists of a team of conservationists and scientists dedicated to protecting the waters and wildlife on the British Columbia coast.
MacDuffee said the chance of an oil spill increases the resident orca whales’ chance of extinction by 50 percent. Even without an oil spill, though, she said the noise alone increases their chances of extinction by 24 percent.
“Without Trans Mountain, these whales are already crucially endangered. This is a population of whales that can’t sustain any more stressors if we hope to recover them in the future,” MacDuffee said.
She said that while there is an unpredictability associated with the risk of an oil spill, the high volume coming from the tanker traffic is certain.
The presence of noise is associated with a reduction in foraging efficiency. This means the volume and frequency of the noise from the ships reduces the communication space in which the whales can hear and be heard.
“The presence of these boats themselves can change [the whales’] behavior and reduce their feeding activity,” MacDuffee said.
In a press release from the Department of Finance in Canada, the government said the pipeline expansion project will create thousands of jobs and enable Canadian resources to be sold to international markets. The press release explained that further pipeline construction would increase the amount of oil being sold and help grow the economy.
Although the Canadian government intends to become only a short-term owner of the project, they explained that investment in such a project will benefit Kinder Morgan shareholders and the Canadian economy.
According to Canada’s National Energy Board, dozens of legal challenges have been filed by cities and individuals against the Trans Mountain Pipeline since the idea of purchasing it was brought up by the government.
MacDuffee said moving forward, activists must continue to raise concerns. Americans should voice their opposition and get U.S. officials to properly pressure the Canadian government not to build this pipeline, MacDuffee said.
“A spill up here [in Canada] can be just as catastrophic for the whales in Puget Sound as in Canada,” she said.
In an opinion special to the Seattle Times, Washington Governor Jay Inslee voiced his disapproval of the pipeline expansion and called on the Canadian government to rethink the recent agreement.
“It is with great disappointment that we view this proposal. The pipeline expansion would take us backward in profoundly damaging ways. It does not have the support of Washington state,” Inslee said in the piece.
Inslee explained that the project goes against previous efforts made by both nations to fight climate change, promote clean air and energy and protect endangered southern resident orca whales.
“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 endangered orcas,” Inslee said.
Western students have also raised concern over the pipeline and agreed with Inslee. Recent environmental studies graduate Ben Jaffe called the expansion project a “potential disaster.”
“Ideally, everyone in the Salish sea watershed should have a say in what happens in the same body of water,” Jaffe said.