"Mark my words, that pipeline will be built," vows Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
With multiple lawsuits before the courts, including one by Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and an anti-Trans Mountain provincial government taking power in British Columbia, Notley's audacious guarantee seems intemperate at best. However, if Notley's intention was to harden opposition in B.C. to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion, she certainly accomplished that. Notley's inflammatory "mark my words" throwdown, coupled with her hectoring and lecturing that Kinder Morgan's oil sands pipeline and supertanker mega-project is in the best interests of British Columbians, will never win hearts or minds in B.C.
What Notley clearly does not understand is that many British Columbians consider the Salish Sea and its Southern Resident killer whales as priceless and irreplaceable; a worth immeasurable in monetary terms.
With a dangerously small population hovering around 80 individuals, the Southern Resident killer whales are labouring under an existing suite of stressors, including a lack of food (i.e. Chinook salmon), chronic and acute vessel disturbance, and a high contaminant load.
The Trans Mountain pipeline will deliver 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen to Vancouver per day, all destined for offshore markets. Tanker traffic in the Salish Sea will increase by an estimated 700% with more than 800 in-and-outbound annual oil tanker trips to and from Burrard Inlet.
Raincoast biologists Adrianne Jarvela Rosenberger, Misty MacDuffee and Andrew Rosenberger, along with Ocean Wise research scientist Peter Ross, have just published a peer-reviewed paper in the scientific journal "Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology" examining how marine mammals are inherently vulnerable to oil spills. The authors developed a conceptual framework to evaluate the impacts of potential oil exposure on marine mammals and applied it to 21 species inhabiting coastal British Columbia. Oil spill vulnerability was determined by first examining the likelihood of each species being exposed to spilled oil, and then the consequent likelihood of population-level effects. Oil exposure pathways, ecology, and physiological characteristics were used to assign vulnerability rankings to each species.
The paper, "Oil Spills and Marine Mammals in British Columbia, Canada: Development and Application of a Risk-Based Conceptual Framework," found that killer whale populations were deemed at highest risk due to small population sizes, complex social structure, long lives, slow reproductive turnover, and dietary specialization. The paper's findings challenge the typical "indicator species" approach routinely used; it underscores the need to examine marine mammals at a species and population level for risk-based oil spill predictions.
Noise is another significant and increasing threat to the whales and their critical habitat. A recent publication by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, "Southern Resident killer whales: A science based review of recovery actions," states that underwater noise can interfere with the ability of Southern Residents to conduct their life functions. Such disruptions include decreased foraging success, displacement from their feeding habitats, displacement of their prey, and impaired hearing - either temporarily or permanently.
Kinder Morgan's shipping route transects critical habitat that the federal government has identified as essential for the survival and recovery of these endangered killer whales. As interveners in the National Energy Board (NEB) review of Trans Mountain, Raincoast submitted extensive scientific evidence, including a population viability analysis for the Southern Residents, which was not contested by Kinder Morgan or by the federal government.
Raincoast's evidence showed that even without oil spills, the additional noise from the increase in tanker traffic significantly escalates the risk of extinction to the already imperiled Southern Residents. As we pointed out to the NEB, acoustic disturbance due to vessel noise will make it more difficult for killer whales to communicate, navigate, mate, hunt and feed.
A key component of our written evidence to the NEB is a report by Cornell University's world-renowned bioacoustician and marine mammal expert Dr. Christopher Clark, which focuses on acoustic impacts of the oil tanker traffic associated with the Trans Mountain project on Southern Resident killer whales. The report explains the importance of sound to killer whales' critical life functions and how elevated noise from vessel traffic, including Trans Mountain, can hinder these.
What the Alberta premier also doesn't understand is that British Columbians are not buying her "the decision has been taken" line either, given the NEB's politically expedient and specious decision making process that favoured accommodation and compromise rather than scientific evidence. When the NEB chose to arbitrarily dismiss consideration of potential marine impacts, including those to Southern Resident killer whales, from the Trans Mountain expansion in their final approval, the project review lost all credibility. Does Notley actually believe that the B.C. citizenry will accept that "the decision has been taken" on Trans Mountain when the process of getting to "yes" was based on cynically truncating the project review at Burnaby after the fact?
Contrary to the claims by Notley and other pipeline proponents, the approval of the Trans Mountain expansion was not based on scientific facts or evidence. Rather, the official sanction of Trans Mountain was a political calculation, one that happens to hold grave consequences for the Salish Sea and its most iconic species.
A version of this article previously ran in the Vancouver Sun.
Also On HuffPost: