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Is Canada Protecting At-Risk Species or Risky Industries?

10/20/2014 06:05 EDT | Updated 12/20/2014 05:59 EST

When Obama phoned Harper on November 10, 2011, informing the prime minister that TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline was on hold, the beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River were probably holding their breath in apprehension of what would be tried next.

Who could have imagined that a victory for climate would encourage Canada's pipeline pushers to then push for a path right through the protected beluga population of the St Lawrence estuary?

This Summer, TransCanada started doing exploratory drilling and seismic testing in the port of Cacouna, Quebec, as part of their plans for a tarsands export terminal on the St. Lawrence River for their proposed 1.1 million barrels per day Energy East Pipeline. The site also happens to be the heart of the critical habitat and breeding waters for the threatened St. Lawrence beluga whales.

Back to Obama's 2011 phone call: within a month, the Harper Government (formerly known as the Government of Canada) had edited the Aquatic Species at Risk website to completely remove language saying that oil spills significantly threaten the struggling beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence. With this, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans took one of the first steps in the scheming to help ease the way for TransCanada's newest and largest tarsands exporting project, the Energy East Pipeline.

By comparing archived versions of the Aquatic Species at Risk website on the Internet Archive, we can see that within one month of Obama's cooling to Keystone XL, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans edited out the references to oil spills being a bad thing for the beluga whale population. Most notably, the sentiment that "exposure to significantly higher numbers of oil spills, further affect(s) the species' survival." (Before and after)

To rule out the possibility that such information is simply updated as frequently as our social media status updates, we can also see this was the only time the information about belugas was edited in the entire internet age. In fact, the "Beluga Whale St. Lawrence Estuary" page was the only species at risk page modified in that general timeframe.

The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale population is listed as threatened and protected under the Species at Risk Act, and has been officially protected by the Canadian Fisheries Act since 1979. We naturally run into concern when those trusted to protect these species are scrubbing their content to make it more friendly for oil interests who are rummaging around for an alternate route to the ocean. Canada's Species at Risk Act is actually intended to protect at-risk species, not risky industries.

What they failed to realize is that we don't need to be reminded by a government agency that oil spills and sonar disruption kill whales; we know that well, thank you very much. Removing reference to risk or acknowledgment of threat will not remove our care and concern, nor will it silence our duty to protect.

This is not just about limiting the kind of information attainable to a fifth graders doing school projects on whales. Mega energy projects like this come with the companion of heavy influence for their interests. What makes this not some casual wrong, but instead a terrible and crooked act is that it shows just how deeply oil interests have become inseparable from our government departments.

This content scrubbing was even an entire year before 2012's omnibus Bill C-38 when Canada started gutting our Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the habitat-protecting Fisheries Act. This was even two years before the Department of Fisheries and Oceans quietly and questionably handed responsibility for fish and fish habitat along pipeline routes over to the pipeline regulators themselves (the National Energy Board), an announcement that went largely unnoticed due to its Christmas holidays timing.

It's not just the oil spills that will hurt the beluga's potential for survival, the industrial noise from such a significantly large bitumen exporting terminal will make the beluga's dizzy from confusion, affecting their ability to find food and stay clear of boat traffic. One can learn a great deal about belugas from the pre-edited version of their Aquatic Species as Risk profile. "Belugas also have a well-developed sense of hearing and refined ability to detect objects by sound. Called echo-location, this natural sonar is important to a species that lives a good part of its life in dark waters. ... To navigate and catch prey, belugas use a series of clicking sounds that bounce off fish and other objects in the water. The resulting echoes enable the belugas to build an accurate picture of what's around them."

Honestly, what kind of publicly traded company would even want to consider building the largest oil pipeline in North America and attaching it to an export terminal they want to build in the waters where an at-risk and protected whale species goes to have their babies? TransCanada likely doesn't give a hoot about beluga whales -- but more troubling is that they don't fear the bad PR when folks find out they are keen on intentionally annihilating our whale population. The hot blood of greed does strange things when mixed with a desperate attempt for a pipeline.

That same Department of Fisheries and Oceans that scrubbed out the reference to oil spills being a bad things for the struggling beluga population also gave TransCanada the green light for this exploratory drilling and seismic testing they started this Summer. They authorized the drilling work for the Energy East oil terminal and said no permits would be required under existing laws protecting fish and endangered species.

In September, Quebec Superior Court suspended the drilling, ruling that the provincial environment ministry had given TransCanada the okay without properly studying the impact on the threatened beluga population.

Justice Claudine Roy's ruling scolded Quebec's newly elected Liberal government, saying Quebec's Environment Department authorized the drilling without obtaining the answers it was seeking from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. "If the minister did not get the answers to his questions, he should have continued the process or at least explained why he suddenly decided to recommend approval," the judge wrote.

TransCanada simply indicated they would resume drilling as soon as the temporary injunction expired on October 15th. When that time came around, Quebec's Environment ministry was somewhat more awake to the shipwreck of harm that awaits the beluga population and denied approval to resume work, saying it was not persuaded TransCanada will respect noise levels to protect belugas. The ministry cited evidence that TransCanada had disobeyed provincial rules for the project.

Further complicating this drama, it has been reported that the Canadian government muzzled marine scientists from speaking with the Quebec Environment Department during TransCanada's application process. Federal scientists had been raising concerns "not only about the exploratory work, but also of the proposed oil terminal itself that would service 250-metre long supertankers shipping western Canadian crude overseas."

That pretty much bleeds away the last bit of confidence that projects like this proposed Energy East Pipeline can be done with any care or integrity whatsoever.

The St. Lawrence beluga population has dwindled to about 880 today from over 10,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. This is a time where we should be most wakeful with our conservation efforts.

What TransCanada and their enablers in the federal departments need to realize is that pushing a risky project that could be "fatal" for our protected and beloved beluga whale population could in actuality end up being fatal to TransCanada themselves, who are already hemorrhaging confidence from investors for their inability to complete acceptable projects with acceptable methods.

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