Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal voted Thursday to halt a major pipeline expansion project after finding the country’s National Energy Board did not adequately consult First Nations people or consider its impacts on the environment and marine mammal species, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW).
The expansion would almost triple the flow of oil from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific Ocean and would lay around 980 kilometers (600 miles) of new pipeline and reactivate another 193 kilometers (120 miles) running parallel to the existing 1,150-kilometer route (over 700 miles).
Of particular concern was the amount of underwater noise and risk of vessel-strike the project would bring to the SRKW clan, one of two resident orca families in the area that have been facing increasing population pressures from catastrophically low birth rates, disease, and a lack of primary prey, such as salmon. (You might recall the orca mother from the same family who was made famous after pushing her dead calf for almost three weeks).
“The operation of Project-related marine vessels is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale, and that it is likely to result in significant adverse effects on Aboriginal cultural uses associated with these marine mammals,” reads the court's decision.
The finding states the expansion would further impede the recovery of this species, and that “the operation of Project-related marine vessels is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale.”
Project-related marine shipping follows a route through the Salish Sea to the open ocean that travels through the whales’ critical habitat as identified in the Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern resident killer whales. Underwater noise from marine vessels would cause sensory disturbances to marine mammals and, according to the ruling, would be likely to occur for a long period of time over the duration of the expansion.
While Trans Mountain made a commitment to guide and shift vessel paths as a solution to potential animal-boat strikes, the court agreed such measures were “out of Trans Mountain’s control.” A strike between a vessel and one of the resident killer whales is low, but should it happen it would have “population-level consequences.” The likelihood of a spill is also very low, but the consequences would be high.
The government approved the pipeline in 2016. Following the court decision, the Texas-based company voted to sell the $3.4 billion USD Texas-based company to the Canadian government as early as Friday. It is unclear whether the Canadian government will appeal the court decision. If they don’t, the board will need to conduct a new review that considers both First Nation’s perspectives and concerns and how the expansion would impact the environment and marine mammals.