Damn the Torpedoes! Cdn. Gov't Rubber Stamps Oil Transit Through Salish Sea

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Tanker traffic increase threatens the Salish Sea
by Chris Genovali & Misty MacDuffee
On British Columbia's south coast, Kinder Morgan wants to triple the amount of crude oil being shipped from Vancouver's Burrard Inlet through Georgia Strait, the Fraser estuary, Gulf Islands, Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait.
The proposed pipeline expansions would deliver 700,000 barrels of tarsands oil per day to Burrard Inlet by 2016. This month, the National Energy Board approved the most recent request by Kinder Morgan to divert more oil to their Burnaby terminal, which will increase tanker traffic in the Salish Sea.

Despite requests to the NEB by Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the Gulf Islands Alliance and other organizations, this was done without a full public process. Kinder Morgan is seeking approval for additional increases in pipeline capacity by 2016, which would further expand tanker traffic.

While concerned British Columbians are focused on the threat of oil tankers to B.C.'s north coast posed by the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, these incremental applications to the NEB are an effective way for Kinder Morgan to significantly increase the amount of crude oil exported out of Burrard Inlet without mentioning the terms "oil tanker" or "tarsands."

The implications are significant globally, regionally and locally, The Georgia Basin-Puget Sound region will be asked to bear the immediate risks with virtually no public engagement.

The implications of Kinder Morgan's plans are enormous for the Georgia Basin-Puget Sound ecosystem. This archipelago hosts wild salmon populations, migratory birds on the Pacific flyway, important estuaries, shellfish beds and the habitats of many rare, threatened or endangered marine and coastal species. The Salish Sea is already suffering intense pressures from growth;
chronic oiling and spills will only intensify the declining health of this ecologically fragile region.

Last year, the federal auditor general expressed concern about risks, gaps and inadequacies in Canada's marine oil spill response system. The audit found that current spill response capacity by Transport Canada, Environment Canada and the Coast Guard is insufficient to respond to spills in any of Canada's oceans.

In addition to these limitations, the U.S./Canadian Transboundary Spill Planning and Response Project Workgroup found that agencies on both sides of the border are ill-prepared to deal with oil spills. The final report contained over 130 recommendations for improvement.

Yet, even with better response capabilities, most oil from marine spills is never recovered. This implies significant risk to ecosystems throughout Georgia Strait, the Fraser estuary, the Gulf Islands, the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. These areas include wild salmon populations, migratory birds, important shellfish beds, and the habitats of many rare, threatened or endangered marine and coastal species.

One example of this risk is the overlay of the tanker route onto large sections of the critical habitat for Canada's endangered southern resident killer whales. The southern residents are a small population hindered by previous loss of individuals that make them vulnerable to chance circumstances.

Dropping birth rates, increasing death rates or random events like disease, food shortages or oil spills can be irreversible. A similar situation existed in Prince William Sound in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef with two populations of killer whales in the vicinity. In one population, 14 of the 36 resident whales died following the spill.

Twenty years later, the pod has still not recovered. In the second population, five breeding females died. Now, with no reproducing females and only males left, this population is going extinct.

The increased presence of tankers also brings concerns of physical and acoustic disturbance to killer whales. Physical and acoustic disturbance are two of the four threats, along with food quantity and quality, identified by Canada's killer whale scientists as reasons for their endangered status. Increased tanker activity could also potentially impact a geographically distinct cross-border population of grey whales termed the Eastern North PacificSouthern Group, which are currently listed under the federal Species at Risk Act.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin and the Islands Trust, as well as the mayors of Vancouver, Burnaby, North Vancouver, Delta, Sechelt, Whistler and Tofino, are entirely justified in expressing their consternation with the NEB, particularly given the lack of public consultation. Locally, the southern Gulf Islands and southern Vancouver Island are now left exposed to an increased risk of a catastrophic oil spill as a result of the NEB's decision.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Misty MacDuffee is a biologist with Raincoast and chairwoman of the Gulf Islands Alliance.


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