The Clean-Energy Project That Could Harm Killer Whales

A mystery firm wants to build underwater power turbines in critical orca habitat off Canada’s Pacific coast.

A northern resident killer whale swims in Johnstone Strait in British Columbia in 2008. (Photo: Ashley Coates/flickr)

Mar 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Energy generated by underwater turbines can replace power created by burning gas, coal, and oil, which is the leading cause of global warming. But could it also harm marine wildlife even as its helps to save them from the effects of climate change?

That’s the question some scientists and activists are raising since the provincial government of British Columbia, Canada, opened a public comment period on three proposals to develop tidal energy projects along Johnstone Strait, a narrow waterway between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Why? Because while the strait’s powerful currents could be great for spinning power turbines, the area is already critical habitat for northern resident killer whales, which are listed as threatened by the Canadian government.

Every summer and fall, these killer whales prowl the strait for dwindling Chinook salmon stocks, their preferred prey.

“This is the latest assault by the underwater energy industry,” said Paul Spong, a veteran orca researcher and founder of OrcaLab in British Columbia. “It’s going to potentially interfere with the orcas’ ability to catch the food they need. That’s really significant and it should raise a big stop button, or at least a pause button.”

Jackie Hildering, a Canadian whale researcher who runs The Marine Detective website, wrote that the projects are “in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk, which is to ‘protect critical habitat for resident killer whales.’ ”

Details of the projects, aside from location maps, are unavailable. The applications were filed by Weyl Power Ltd., a company without a website or published phone number. British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations offers no information about the company.

“I’m blown away that the government allowed this proposal to go forward to the comment stage,” Spong said. “It’s unreal that the government is considering a permit without even knowing who it is that applied.”

In 2012, Spong was instrumental in convincing another company, SRP Projects, to abandon a turbine plan in the killer whales’ critical habitat.

“I’m not opposed to alternative energy,” Spong said. “But I don’t see any benefit from a technology that’s potentially harmful to an iconic species.”

This is not the first arena in which scientists have raised concerns about the potential effects of ocean energy on the environment. A 2010 report from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration catalogued “a number of indirect ecological effects” that turbines might have, including alteration of currents, waves, sediment, and habitat for seafloor organisms; construction and operational noise; electromagnetic-field emissions; paint and lubricant toxicity; interference with animal migration; and strikes by rotor blades.

But so far, data collected from existing sites, including several in Alaska, Maine, and New York City’s East River, have found no negative effects.

“We’ve done appropriate studies ahead of time and extensive monitoring, and for the sites that we’ve selected, the net result is that there’s no known adverse impact,” said Chris Sauer, president and CEO of Ocean Renewable Power Company, which operates turbines in Maine and Alaska.

“There’s not one case where a fish ran into or was somehow impacted by our systems,” Sauer said, adding that harbor seals and minke whales swimming near the turbines were also unaffected.

ORPC’s annual environmental reports are submitted to, and signed off on by, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A 2013 report on an ORPC project found no “changes in marine mammal presence or behavior [and] no evidence of marine mammal strike with system components.”

“It’s very encouraging, but it’s not a definitive statement that we can guarantee there will never under any conditions be any negative impact,” conceded Sauer, who added that ORPC would never attempt to install turbines in places such as Johnstone Strait.

“You’ve got to be smart about selecting your sites,” he said. “We just don’t think it makes any sense to site a project in an area where there’s a critical habitat, even if it means we’re going to another area where the current isn’t quite as good.”

Weyl Power, Sauer said, “obviously haven’t done their boots-on-the-ground work by talking with local stakeholders.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction March 24, 2015: An earlier version of this article misstated the conservation status of northern resident killer whales. They are listed as threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act.