Earlier this year, energy giant Kinder Morgan submitted an application to the National Energy Board (NEB). The application proposes to increase the capacity of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline that is delivering tar sands crude to the Westridge Marine Terminal in British Columbia's Burrard Inlet. Nothing new for Kinder Morgan; two earlier applications had already increased capacity to the current 300,000 barrels per day. This and other ensuing applications propose expansions that would deliver 700,000 barrels per day to the Westridge Terminal by 2016.
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 tariff applications are an effective way for Kinder Morgan to quadruple the amount of crude oil going from Burrard Inlet through Georgia Strait, the Gulf Islands, Haro Strait and the Juan de Fuca without ever mentioning the terms "oil tanker" or "tar sands." The implications of these expansions are enormous both globally and locally, and the Salish Sea populace will be asked to bear the immediate risks with virtually no public engagement.
According to Kinder Morgan, an estimated 288 tankers (576 transits) will leave Westridge Terminal by 2016, up from 71 tankers (142 transits) in 2010. This translates to more than one tanker per day transiting our region's front yard. The risks posed by oil tanker and barge activity here are poorly understood. However, one does not have to look very far to get a sense of the myriad concerns.
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 and the Gulf Islands. These areas include wild salmon populations, migratory birds on the Pacific flyway, 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 Pacific‐Southern Group, which are currently listed under the federal Species at Risk Act.
The impacts of increased oil tanker traffic must also be considered within the context of cumulative stresses that local ecosystems and wildlife are already under. The Georgia Basin is an ecologically fragile region under intense pressure. These pressures have already had measurable impacts on water and air quality, as well as habitat quality and habitat availability for fish, birds and mammals. Additionally, changes to ecosystem function and processes within these waters -- such as shifts in marine food webs and increasing ocean stratification -- are a growing concern. Chronic oiling and spills will only exacerbate the declining health of the region.
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the Gulf Islands Alliance and the Georgia Strait Alliance have all written the NEB arguing that the Kinder Morgan tariff application has serious implications for the marine environment which require, at minimum, broad public consultation and a federal risk assessment of oil spills. It is our hope the NEB will subject the application to much greater scrutiny and adequately engage the public who will be assuming the risk.
This article was co-authored by Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and chair of the Gulf Islands Alliance. A version of this article previously ran in the Edmonton Journal.