Oil Pipeline Expansion Presents A Whale Of A Problem

Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand a pipeline pose major environmental threats -- especially to whale populations still reeling from past oil spills and noise pollution.
By @katierucke |
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    Energy giant Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand its existing Trans Mountain oil pipeline in order to triple the amount of oil shipped out of Canada from 300,000 barrels a day to around 890,000 barrels per day, has been met with strong resistance from environmental protection groups and concerned members of the public who argue that the increase in oil shipments will have a negative impact on marine life — particularly whales that live in the Northern Pacific Ocean.

    Of particular concern to environmental protection groups such as Living Oceans, though, is that the energy company has not examined the “potential cumulative effects on sensory disturbance” of the whales. This presents a problem, as these acoustic disturbances will likely interfere with the animals’ ability to communicate, hunt and essentially survive.

    “It is ironic that it is whale oil’s replacement, fossil fuel oil, that poses the most direct threat today to the recovery of Pacific whale populations,” a Living Oceans report examining the consequences of the pipeline expansion says, pointing out that whale populations are still struggling to rebound to pre-oil spill numbers in places around the globe where spills have occurred.

    In addition to environmental protection groups, a host of environmental agencies in the United States, including the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, have expressed concern about the animals’ safety amid the pipeline expansion, since, as Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans, pointed out in a statement, “The Northern Gateway tanker route would travel directly through critical humpback habitat identified in the government’s own recovery strategy.”

    “Tankers servicing Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline will run through the identified killer whales critical habitat,” Wristen said. This will affect four species of whales — blue, Sei, North Pacific right, and southern resident killer whales — living on the British Columbia coast that have been classified as endangered wildlife by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, under the Species at Risk Act.

    Humpback and fin whales would also be affected by the pipeline. Since these species of whales are currently listed as threatened, they could become endangered in the near future if steps are not taken to improve their living conditions. (Humpback whales have received additional legal protection since 1966, when hunting and placement at marine theme parks threatened to wipe out the species.)

    Given that whales often migrate along the west coast, stopping near Washington state and sometimes going as far south as central California, NOAA and the Washington State Department of Ecology have asked Kinder Morgan to explain how it plans to help whales in the event of a spill and how it plans to keep whales away from the tankers, as an endangered or sickened whale population could deal a nasty blow to the Pacific Northwest’s environmental tourism industry.

    The energy company says it plans to work with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the lead Canadian response agency, to keep the whales safe from oil spills and ships by “hazing” the whales.

    Hazing includes streaming water from firehoses directly at whales, using boat traffic and helicopters to generate noise, or introducing other acoustic deterrents, which is why some environmentalists refer to this tactic as a kind of frat party for the whales.

    While hazing has been successful in driving away other forms of marine life, the tactic hasn’t been as successful with whales, which is why many are not convinced that Kinder Morgan’s pipeline should be approved. Hazing tactics do sometimes annoy whales enough that they will leave an area, but since items such as underwater firecrackers or Oikomi pipes — metal pipes that hang from a vessel and produce a ringing sound — are not always effective, Don Noviello, an oil spill response specialist at Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the company needs to come up with a back-up plan.

    “I am unaware that any whale hazing techniques have been, or will be, scientifically tested on actual whales,” Noviello said, noting that even Kinder Morgan has admitted that when it comes to hazing whales, “No single deterrence technique will work in all situations.”

     

    Loss of habitat

    Unlike sharks and some other marine animals, whales and other cetaceans have a lousy sense of smell, so they often have no idea that they are swimming in oil-polluted waters. Instead of avoiding oil slicks that formed in the waters of the Pacific Ocean after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, for example, numerous gray whales, porpoises and orcas swam right through the contaminated waters, which likely explains why the mortality rate for the animals was so high.

    Twenty-two orcas were killed directly by the spill, and a study conducted in 2008 found that 21 years later, the whales migration patterns had still not changed, which explains why the whales are still struggling to return to pre-spill population numbers.

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    Given that these animals are not only endangered or at high risk of becoming endangered, and they appear to lack the ability to smell oil spills in order to stay away from polluted waters, Wristen cautioned the Canadian government to do all it can to keep these critical habitats protected.

    She pointed out that under Canadian law, once a critical habitat has been established for an animal, the government is supposed to protect the area from major threats, which would include ships and oil spills. But she said that is not happening.

    “Before the current federal government changed the face of environmental law in Canada, environmental assessments would not allow a project to proceed if it had significant adverse effects that could not be mitigated,” Wristen said. “Now, the federal cabinet has the power to decide if a project’s harmful effects are “justified in the circumstances.”

    “The proposed tanker route travels directly through humpback whale critical habitat identified in the recovery strategy,” Dr. Paul Paquet, senior scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, noted in a statement. “Yet the panel refused to consider this potential conflict when making its recommendation.”

    Though no critical habitat has been created for blue, fin, Sei or North Pacific right whales, Living Oceans points out in its report that whales use Canadian waters primarily to feed. Whale diets predominantly consist of zooplankton and small schooling fish that are often found in cold productive inlets along the North Coast.

    In the event of an oil spill, whales would not only be inhaling these oil fumes and swimming through the oil, they would be eating fish contaminated by the spill as well.

    In particular, baleen whales gulp or skim large amounts of zooplankton and small fish, which is especially dangerous in the event of a spill, and since the animals appear to struggle to find new feeding grounds — they continue to frequent the same areas for years — a spill may be exceptionally detrimental to the baleen whale population.

    According to NOAA, these contaminants are affecting the health of whales — specifically, in their ability to reproduce and find food. When the animals don’t have enough food to eat, Lynne Barre, a spokesperson for NOAA, says their bodies will turn to the blubber reserves — which is where the pollution contaminants are stored — to maintain body function.

     

    Oil spills: Rare but deadly

    In its report, Living Oceans recognizes that catastrophic oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez spill, may be rare, but their impacts linger. They also pose a catastrophic risk to the recovery of whale populations, which is why the Canadian government has for so long tried to block the introduction of pollutants into environments where whale populations are known to live.

    The Exxon Valdez spill occurred 25 years ago, and whale populations aren’t the only ones still struggling to recover. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can still be found on the beaches and in the water, and scientists, environmentalists and those in the fishing industry are concerned that these oil patches are still testing at toxic levels despite more than 20 years of weathering.

    Scientists estimate that it will take at least several more decades, possibly even centuries, for traces of the spill to disappear entirely and for the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to no longer be toxic. In light of this, the true environmental impact of the spill is still not known.

    Kinder Morgan’s reputation isn’t as bad as Exxon or BP’s, for example, but the Trans Mountain pipeline has reportedly spilled at least 78 times, including a spill in 2007 that resulted in evacuations of the town of Burnaby.

    The pipeline’s route and any subsequent spills wouldn’t just affect whales, though. The route, which runs along the Salish Sea, is home to wild salmon, migratory birds, estuaries, shellfish beds, and many other types of rare, threatened and endangered marine and coastal species.

    Oil isn’t the only issue plaguing marine life at the moment. Due to rising ocean temperatures and the increased acidification of the ocean waters, zooplankton is dying off and types of zooplankton such as crustaceans (krill and copepods) are struggling to form shells. Even without complications from oil spills, the whales’ food supply is already in danger.

    Moreover, should a spill occur, it’s not easy to clean up. As Noviello noted, whales often swim right through the oil slicks because their sense of smell is not as sharp as their hearing, so Kinder Morgan needs to come up with a way to keep the oil away from the animals — not rely on hazing tactics.

    One solution has been to use chemical dispersants to dissolve the oil or make it gel, sink or move in a specific direction. However, oil companies in Canada have long been prohibited from using these methods, since these dispersants are known to “smother life on the ocean floor and prolong the natural breakdown of the oil.”

    Given that the Canadian government had also previously pledged to protect wildlife habitats, but now appears to be in favor of the pipeline expansion, it’s not known whether these chemicals may soon be legal.

    Because the toxicity levels of the chemicals combined with oil has never been tested, nor has the impact on fish and zooplankton been examined, environmentalists have expressed additional concerns about these dispersants.

     

    Acoustic disturbances

    Whales would not only be affected by the oil spills and the acoustic disturbances, but one of the largest threats to whale species is shipping traffic, since noise and boat traffic from shipping lanes, commercial whale watching organizations and recreational boat traffic increases the underwater noises whales hear.

    In a recently published 10-year study on whales, NOAA found that when there is greater vessel activity near whales, the animals change their behavior. For example, they call louder to other whales, they spend more time traveling than foraging for food, and they engage in more high-energy activities such as breaching and tail slapping. This is why the agency has fought to create a protective zone around the animals that would allow people to still see the animals, but would reduce stress to the animals.

    Additionally, whales are killed and seriously injured after they are run over or struck by vessels — including smaller ships such as ferries. The exact number of whales affected each year is unknown, as those on a vessel often have no idea that the vessel just struck a whale, but it’s estimated that between 70-80 percent of all whales that are struck by ships will die. Even when it is noticed that an aquatic animal has been hit, these types of accidents often go unreported.

    Large ships are the most lethal, and as part of the proposed expansion, Kinder Morgan said it would need larger oil tankers than the ones the energy giant is currently using. This is presents a significant problem, since humpback whales are most often involved in ship-strike incidents.

    Fin and blue whales are also often involved in these accidents because they hang out in shelf-break areas, which is where shipping lanes have been created.

    According to Kinder Morgan’s own estimates, the $5.4 billion pipeline expansion would increase shipping traffic in the Pacific from about five or six vessels per month to between 30 and 34 vessels a month.

    If the board approves the expansion, construction on the pipeline could begin as early as 2015 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. This timeline means that the 574 percent increase in the amount of tankers traveling these highly populated portions of the Pacific could happen really soon. However, the National Energy Board said earlier this year that it didn’t anticipate issuing a decision until around mid-2015, as the group found at least 12 issues it wanted to further investigate.

    Kristin Hobbis of the whale watching organization Victoria’s Eagle Wing Tours said whales appear to be curious animals who often approach the boats, which is why tour operators make sure to keep their distance and shut off the engines when necessary.

    But not all captains are this responsible, prompting the Raincoast Foundation, an environmental group, to argue that there must be a study done on what will happen to the waters that will see increased tanker traffic.

    “The Salish Sea is a fragile region already suffering intense pressure from growth,” the group argued. “These pressures are impacting water and air quality, as well as habitat availability for fish birds and mammals.

    “Additionally, changes to ecosystem function and processes within these waters — such as shifts in marine food webs and increasing ocean stratification — are a growing concern. Chronic oiling and spills will only intensify the declining health of the region.”

     

    Economic boost

    Money is part of the impetus for expanding the pipeline, as the increase in oil production would mean more jobs and more money for Canadians, which Kinder Morgan argues could give a boost to the local economy.

    However, there is a wealth of anti-pipeline sentiment in Burnaby and other cities that would be affected by the pipeline. Part of the reason the city’s mayor and council have been so vocal about their opposition to the expansion is because it wasn’t that long ago — 2007 — that residents of the town had to clean up the city after a Kinder Morgan pipeline ruptured, spraying crude oil all over homes. About eight homes had to be evacuated and 92 others were placed on a voluntary evacuation list.

    And as many environmentalists, native populations and concerned citizens have pointed out, the increase in oil production is not occurring because Canadians have a need for more oil. In fact, Kinder Morgan plans to export all of the additional oil.

    Last November, Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan Canada, attended a Burnaby Board of Trade luncheon and addressed concerns about the pipeline, while simultaneously trying to sell the expansion to residents.

    “I’ve always thought: are those benefits worth the risk?” Anderson said while addressing environmentalists’ concerns at the luncheon. “Are those benefits worth jeopardizing our beautiful environment in British Columbia, and I know that’s foremost in everyone’s mind.

    “I’m the first to admit that there’s no way people would put up their hands and say, ‘I want a pipeline down the street, I want a pipeline in my yard, I want a pipeline adjacent to the school.’ We understand that,” he said. “And we need to do that as sensitively and as neutrally a way as we can to understand and respect those interests, while at the same time providing something that offsets that.”

    But since the increased vessel traffic could have a negative impact on tourism, including the whale-watching industry, not to mention the environment, this appears to be one project that the people of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest probably can’t bring themselves to endorse.

    If the expansion plans fall through, Anderson said the company won’t be at a financial loss because “all of the development costs are being covered by the firm service fees that we are collecting, so there is no risk to us.” In other words, Canadians are footing the bill for a project they are largely opposed to, since Kinder Morgan has tacked on a $1.45-per-barrel surcharge on oil shipped through the existing pipeline.

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