Now a Canadian Tar Sands Pipeline Threatens Endangered Whales

Environmentalists are fighting plans to send an armada of oil tankers through whale feeding grounds.

(Photo: Giles Martin/Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Canadian tar sands oil are bad for whales too.

That's what environmentalists are arguing as they fight energy giant Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of a $5.4 billon pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to a coastal terminal in Vancouver, British Columbia, to be shipped overseas. The number of oil tankers traversing the feeding grounds of endangered whales—such as the blue whale, the North Pacific right whale, and the Southern resident whale—would jump 600 percent, according to estimates by environmental groups.

The fear: As more huge tankers ply the marine mammals' habitat, the risk of oil spills and whale deaths from ship collisions will rise. 

Last Friday, Living Oceans, EcoJustice, First Nation tribes, and Canadian municipalities filed motions with Canada's National Energy Board seeking a temporary halt to the 18-month review process for the pipeline expansion.

The groups say the environmental review of the proposed pipeline has not adequately considered the impact of the project on half a dozen whale species.

If approved, the new pipeline would nearly triple the amount of oil exported from Canada, from 300,000 barrels a day to about 890,000, according to Mint Press News.

But the real impact on marine life would come from tanker traffic. Not only would the pipeline result in larger tankers that are potentially more lethal to whales, but it would increase shipping in the region from five or six tankers a month to between 30 and 34.

Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans, said that the additional ships would harm whale populations along the coast of British Columbia and Washington state and would pass through parts of the ocean designated as critical habitat for the endangered Southern resident whale.

Once an area has been designated a critical habitat, Canadian law is supposed to protect whales from threats such as shipping and oil spills, Wristen said.

Spills from tankers, while rare, can have effects that last decades, Wristen said. More worrisome is that most of the tar sands to be shipped through the new pipeline would be diluted with chemicals to make a highly toxic liquid known as bitumen. "It sinks to the bottom instead of floating to the surface," Wristen said, making cleanup after a spill all the more difficult.

Other concerns are ship noise, which can stress and disorient whales, and the potential for ship strikes, which are estimated to kill 80 percent to 90 percent of all whales hit. 

Officials at Kinder Morgan in Canada did not return emails seeking comment.

Last January, environmentalists filed suit in Canadian court to block the Kinder Morgan expansion as well as another pipeline project proposed by Enbridge Inc. that would be located farther north.

Wristen said now is the time for concerned citizens on both sides of the border to intervene. "They should ask the government how it can defend the viability of sending oil across the fourth-most-dangerous waters in the world," she said, adding that spills in northern British Columbia could easily reach Alaska, and spills in the south could affect Washington.

"There is not enough room on the Canadian side for all those tankers to pass in and out of the strait," Wristen noted. The ships will need permission from the U.S. government to traverse the American portion of the waterway.

"A few years ago, an American oil company was looking for permission to run liquefied natural gas tankers through Canadian waters, and the Canadians denied it because it was too dangerous," Wristen said. "America could respond the same way in this case."

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