Giants of Nature versus Corporate Giants

A controversial bid by the Canadian government to pave the way for the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion has been stalled by a federal court ruling.

The Trans Mountain Pipeline

Export of oil is a major contributor to the Canadian economy. A 700-mile pipeline carrying oil already exists between the Alberta tar sands and the shores of British Columbia, where it is transferred to oil tankers for sea transportation. The expansion plans would see an additional, parallel pipeline, which would move 890,000 barrels of oil each day in contrast to the current pipeline’s 300,000 barrels, nearly trebling the capacity.

A Threat to Whales

In particular, the population of Southern Resident killer whales, a protected species, is critically endangered, with only 75 whales left. The planned pipeline expansion would cause an annual increase in oil tankers crossing the Salish Sea, the inland waters of British Columbia, from about 60 to over 400. This is the same region of sea where these particular orcas stay from May until autumn. Such a huge increase in traffic raises the already-present threat of physical injuries to whales. Additionally, it is known that the sonar of ships can adversely affect the creatures’ own sonar, or echolocation, which they use to hunt and to navigate. Interference with this ability can be devastating. Whales that become beached, for example, may have been confused by ships’ sonar.

More oil means more oil spills, and these are terribly toxic to marine life. After the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in 1989, two orca populations suffered a much increased death rate and never recovered their numbers. The company behind the projected expansion, Kinder Morgan, has suggested that a major spill is likely less than once in 473 years; other sources suggest that major spills are much more likely. Even without major spills, smaller spills occur. Whales can ingest or inhale spilled oil directly, by swimming up into an oil slick. Indirectly, they can ingest toxins via affected creatures in their food chain. When ingested by whales, the toxic oil causes many health problems. It can possibly cause infertility, a dire prospect for an already endangered species.

The Battle

When the pipeline expansion was proposed in 2013, the application was greeted with dismay by many groups, including indigenous populations and environmentalists. Negotiations ensued between Kinder Morgan and the British Colombian government, about the level of information provided by Kinder Morgan about how it would prevent spills and respond to any that occurred. Eventually, in 2016, British Columbia agreed to support the project. However, a huge number of well publicised court battles and challenges delayed the project, and in April 2018 Kinder Morgan suspended the project, not wanting to waste more money on a project that might not materialise.

At this point the Canadian government intervened, approving and effectively purchasing the project. It seemed as if the battle was lost for the whales, until in August 2018 a federal court revoked the approval. This was for two reasons: firstly, the effects of the pipeline on the orcas were not sufficiently addressed and secondly, the concerns voiced by the First Nations were not properly considered. The Court of Appeals has told the government it has to revisit the evidence regarding both of these issues.


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