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Pilot whale

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News from the North

News from the North: Despite heavy criticism, Canada has officially announced approval for the Northern Gateway pipeline, the Canadian equivalent of the much debated, much delayed Keystone XL pipeline here in the U.S.  Environmental concerns over the development of the two pipelines are similar – damage from extraction and transport, the potential for catastrophic oil spills, reliance on non-renewable energy sources, and the use of a heavier, cruder form of oil.  The Northern Gateway pipeline may have been “officially approved,” but that approval comes with a list of 209 conditions to be met, among them requiring Enbridge (the company that applied to build the pipeline in 2010) to have $950 million (Canadian) in liability coverage, lead research efforts on heavy oil spills, build extra oil storage facilities, and establish an emergency response plan with the ability to handle a spill of 230,000 barrels (3 times the size for the current legal requirement).  These conditions are intended to make sure the company is prepared in the event of a major oil spill – an event that Nature Canada says has a 1 in 4 chance of occurring over the lifetime of this pipeline.

Even with this long list of requirements and supposed advanced planning, multiple groups and towns in British Columbia, where the majority of the pipeline will be located, still oppose the pipeline and have vowed to continue to fight its development.  Environmentalists and scientists, labor unions, and First Nations are among those who have long fought against the Northern Gateway pipeline, for a multitude of reasons.  The port of Kitimat, B.C., where the 731 mile (1,177km) pipeline would deliver approximately 525,000 barrels per day to Asia-bound oil tankers, voted against the project, citing concern about the effects an oil spill would have on their town’s coastal resources.

Oil from tar sands is a thicker, denser, more viscous form of oil called bitumen – this form is what will end up on tankers passing from Kitimat, B.C. across the Pacific.  Enbridge has been responsible for a number of spills and leaks in recent years, including a major spill of bitumen in my home state of Michigan.  This spill has been incredibly difficult to clean up due to bitumen’s tendency to sink in water, and has become the most expensive pipeline spill since the US began keeping records in 1968.


A tanker spill in this area would be catastrophic.  Kitimat is in a pristine coastal region of British Columbia, Canada, connecting to Hecate Strait and the Pacific Ocean through a series of narrow channels and inlets.  The area is within the known range of Northern Resident orcas, which are listed as Threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).  Based on the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, oil spills are listed among the main threats of concern to Resident orcas, and the Recovery Plan for Northern Residents notes that increased extraction and transport of oil in British Columbia would put the population at risk.  In fact, the Recovery Plan refers to a potential oil spill as a “catastrophic event,” due to the potential impacts on the population.


Following the Exxon Valdez spill, one Alaskan resident pod lost 13 members and has yet to recover, and one group of transient (mammal-eating) orcas lost 9 of 22 members, has not successfully reproduced since the spill, and will likely die out completely.  Gil Island, which lies between Kitimat and Hecate Strait, has been designated as critical habitat for humpback whales, and three other areas are nearby.  Hecate Strait itself is home to a number of marine mammals, including resident and transient orcas; harbor and Dall’s porpoises; fin, minke, humpback, gray, and sperm whales; Steller sea lions, and harbor seals.  The Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve extends into Hecate Strait and champions the “extraordinary diversity of ecological features, habitat and creatures.”

That extraordinary diversity will be put at high risk if the pipeline moves forward and large tanker traffic increases.  Not only is a catastrophic oil spill possible, but increasing noise from large ships and from construction and maintenance of a new marine terminal in Kitimat will add to the chronic background noise that is a growing issue of concern for life in the ocean.  Northern Resident orcas are known to react to vessel traffic, both their presence and the noise produced.  The humpback, fin, and minke whales present in the area are also highly acoustic species, and the effects of increasing chronic ocean noise on these whales are less well-known.  It is known, however, that they are more prone to ship strikes than orcas, and increasing the amount of large oil tankers in these narrow passages will certainly increase the risk of collision for large whales.

Regardless of the long list of conditions and Enbridge’s promise to build a “safer, better pipeline,” the risks involved far outweigh any benefits proponents of the pipeline could come up with.  One single tanker spill will decimate this environmentally unique and diverse area for decades, and would substantially harm the whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine life in the area.  We are still dealing with the cleanup and aftermath of the Exxon Valdez 25 years later, and problems from the Deepwater Horizon spill are expected for decades to come.  Putting more oil in more tankers on the water is a move in the wrong direction, but one that we still have time to fight.