A River Of Oil

Dwindling orcas and expanding pipelines


What: “Caution: Oil Pipeline Crossing Nooksack River"

When: 1 pm Sat., Aug. 18

Where: Hovander Homestead Park, 5299 Nielsen Ave, Ferndale


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Tahlequah the mother orca is no longer carrying her dead calf.

“The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles is now over,” Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, reported.

People around the world were moved as Tahlequah carried her dead baby, a female, day after day, in a seeming protest against her loss.

Tahlequah, also known as J35, is part of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. Balcomb said J35 probably has lost two other offspring since giving birth to a male calf in 2010.

But her loss is not unique to the resident orcas. The Southern Resident population has not had a successful birth over the past three years, according to researchers. And reproductive females have been dying off one by one.

Based on recent trends, the population is likely to decline further until it reaches a level of “quasi-extinction,” in which there are not enough breeding animals to sustain the population.

Researchers also understand why the population is failing—a complex network of factors, nearly all of which lead back to increased human activity in Northwest waters.

A task force created by the governor met last week to consider short-term actions that might slow the extinction for the iconic Salish Sea orcas. But it is becoming increasingly clear that there are no easy answers, no “silver bullet,” as the 45-member task force drafts an emergency recovery plan. The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force is scheduled to meet again Aug. 28 in Anacortes.

But while experts are unsure how to make conditions much better, conditions are on the threshold of being made worse.

“The Canadian province of Alberta—home to a massive tar sands industry that produces some of the globe’s dirtiest and most polluting oil—has put the Pacific Northwest in its crosshairs,” writes Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst with Seattle-based Sightline Institute. “The province is partnering with the Canadian government to ram through the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, a 715-mile conduit that would carry up to 890,000 barrels of oil per day from the Canadian interior to southwest British Columbia.”

Much of that oil would be exported by tanker from a port just outside Vancouver—resulting in a seven-fold increase in oil tanker trips from the Port of Vancouver into the Salish Sea. Additional tar sands oil would make its way south to Puget Sound refineries, via a 69-mile pipeline called the Puget Sound Pipeline (PSP).

In operation since 1954, the Puget Sound Pipeline system ships Canadian crude oil products via the Trans Mountain pipeline system from Abbotsford, British Columbia, for delivery to Washington state refineries in Anacortes, Cherry Point and Ferndale. The line crosses the Nooksack River near Everson to a pump station at Laurel, just north of Bellingham. There, the line branches. The Cherry Point spur again passes under the Nooksack, while the southern branch continues on to Padilla Bay.

Canada’s purchase of the PSP went completely unmentioned by Kinder Morgan and the Canadian government until late last May, when a regulatory filing blandly admitted that Kinder Morgan had bundled its Puget Sound assets into the Trans Mountain deal.

But Kinder Morgan has been telling investors for years that it is planning to double the capacity of the Puget Sound Pipeline.

The Trans Mountain expansion, which is the twinning of an existing oil pipeline that carries diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to British Columbia’s shores, is expected to cause the number of oil tankers passing through these waters to jump from around the 60 that annually service the existing pipeline to more than 400.

“The ships go exactly where the whales go,” Misty MacDuffee, a marine biologist and the Wild Salmon program director for British Columbia’s Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said in a recent interview.

Apart from the increase in vessel traffic and noise, “a spill near the Nooksack would quickly make its way into the Salish Sea, putting the 75 remaining Southern Resident orcas and the region’s salmon in even greater jeopardy” cautioned Eddy Ury, the Clean Energy program manager for RE Sources. “The Puget Sound Pipeline currently carries about 30 percent of all crude oil shipped into Washington state,” Ury said.

The advocacy group RE Sources plans a gathering on the banks of the Nooksack River at Hovander Homestead Park in Ferndale, where the 65-year-old pipeline crosses beneath the river, to help the public learn about the hazards of the pipeline and the importance of protecting the Nooksack River for salmon and people.

Environmental nonprofits, tribes and First Nations, and the local British Columbia government oppose the pipeline expansion, as does Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee.

“The pipeline expansion would increase Canadian oil-tanker traffic sevenfold, putting an estimated 350 more tankers a year in the Salish Sea, critical habitat where our orcas do most of their hunting,” Inslee noted in a recent editorial. “It would significantly increase the risk of oil spills and take us backward in our transition to a clean-energy future.”

Williams-Derry notes the concern is particularly keen, given the characteristics of the product shipped from Alberta.

“Because this oil—this tar sands oil that they’re trying to ship our way—is some of the dirtiest oil on the planet, some of the most carbon intensive oil you can find anywhere,” he said.   

That’s because getting it out of the ground is more like mining and takes a lot more energy than for ordinary crude oil. Tar sands extractions are projected to boost climate-warming emissions by 30 million tons per year from today’s level. That increase amounts to about one-third of total emissions from the state of Washington, Williams-Derry said.

“The original Trans Mountain pipeline has been operating since 1953, including a connection to the Puget Sound Pipeline that supplies several Washington state refineries,” Brandon Lee, Canada’s consul general in Seattle, noted. “It contributes to the $20 billion annual trade relationship that Canada shares with the Evergreen State. Marine vessels have been transporting oil from the Westridge Marine Terminal without incident since 1956. We are proud of this safety record. Once the expansion project is complete, Trans Mountain tankers will represent less than 7 percent of the total large commercial marine vessels transiting the Juan de Fuca Strait.”

“This project,” Inslee commented, “runs counter to everything our state is doing to fight climate change, protect our endangered Southern Resident killer whales and protect communities from the risks associated with increased fossil-fuel transportation—by rail and by sea.”

“The Southern Resident killer whales are the canary in the coal mine,” Dr. Jason Colby, associate professor of environmental history at the University of Victoria, noted. “They’re at the very top of the food chain in the Salish Sea, and if they’re starving, and if their bodies are so toxic they have to be treated as hazardous waste when they die, something’s really wrong with our ecosystem.”

“It’s a sad indication of a society that is one of the wealthiest and most affluent in the world, that we can’t find a way to protect this iconic and emblematic animal that so many people care so deeply about,” MacDuffee observed.

We may not know how to make their lives better. But we certainly do know how to make their lives worse.

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