Canada’s tentative approval of an oil pipeline expansion is a disturbing development that reverberates in Washington.
As Marie Zackuse, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, said: “The Salish Sea does not recognize this border. Our relatives, the salmon and the killer whales, do not recognize this border. Pollution, industrial waste, and climate change do not recognize this border.”
On Friday, Canada’s National Energy Board approved an expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. The proposal would increase oil flow from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels a day in an effort to increase access to foreign markets, especially Asia.
The proposal has been contentious from the start. Following a trade war over the pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia, and following dissent from native populations and environmentalists, the Canadian federal government purchased the pipeline last year with the intent of completing the expansion.
Washington officials also have expressed opposition. The expansion would increase tanker traffic through the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and our state from about 60 vessels a year to more than 400 vessels annually, further endangering southern resident killer whales that inhabit the waters. The declining population is affected by noise and pollution from tanker ships, as are chinook, the orca’s primary food source.
Following Friday’s announcement, Gov. Jay Inslee said: “This is deeply irresponsible. While they may think this is in Canada’s best interests, this is not in the best interests of the people of Washington or of the world.”
The National Energy Board’s 700-page approval was tepid. The report acknowledges that the project would be detrimental to orcas and increase global carbon emissions, but says the economic benefits outweigh those concerns. Judy Wilson, chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band in British Columbia, noted that a federal agency approved a federal project: “It’s a complete conflict of interest. They have acknowledged they can justify harms to orcas or to our southern whale populations. Are they saying to First Nations that they can justify the harm to our lives?”
While the board identified 156 conditions — including 16 new ones — that will be applied if the project is approved, the preliminary decision creates a rift between Washington and its neighbor to the north. Inslee said: “We have a good working relationship with Canada and the province of British Columbia, where we recently reiterated our support for shifting our region to a clean-energy economy. Now is the time to protect our orcas and combat climate change, not invest in long-term fossil fuel infrastructure that would increase our emissions.”
Washington leaders are on the right side of the issue. From our state’s viewpoint, there would be few benefits while increasing the danger to orcas and the likelihood of a devastating oil spill, and it is notable that leaders in British Columbia oppose the expansion.
The United States is negotiating an updated Columbia River Treaty with Canada. The agreement provides Canada with low-cost electricity in exchange for flood management for the Columbia River. While the treaty has been beneficial for both sides and should be reapproved, it also could be a valuable bargaining chip but would require support from the U.S. federal government.
But the best strategy likely is to continue to point out the devastating potential of the pipeline. And to hope that Canadian officials do what is best for the Pacific Coast.