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British Columbia NEB urges Ottawa to toughen marine protection and monitoring for Trans Mountain

In this July 31, 2015, file photo, an orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker, some 96 kilometres distant, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands, Wash.

Elaine Thompson

The National Energy Board is urging the federal government to toughen marine monitoring and protection standards, including potential limits on the whale-watching industry, if the cabinet decides this spring to proceed with the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The NEB issued the set of draft recommendations as part of a hearing to reconsider the pipeline project, with a final report due in February. The project was approved by Ottawa, but then put on hold after federal authorization was quashed by the Federal Court of Appeal last summer owing to inadequate consultation with Indigenous communities and failure to consider the impact of the project – now owned by Canadian taxpayers – on endangered killer whales in the Salish Sea.

The NEB does not say whether the project, which would get Alberta oil across British Columbia and to overseas markets, should be built. Instead, the draft recommendations released on Thursday outline proposals to “reduce or eliminate” the environmental effects of increased oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea as a result of the tripled pipeline capacity.

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The three-member NEB panel says the federal government should implement a plan to assess and manage the cumulative effects of shipping along the marine tanker route. The plan would assess the overall environmental state of the Salish Sea, "as well as informing the consideration of future proposed projects.”

The recommendations target the broader issue of the impact of all marine traffic, rather than focusing solely on the increased tankers associated with the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The panel says cabinet should review and update oil-spill response requirements, and “should implement a suite of measures to offset both the increased underwater noise and the increased strike risk posed to Species at Risk Act-listed marine mammal and fish species (including Southern resident killer whale) due to Project-related marine shipping, at each relevant section of the marine shipping route." It says those rules should not be restricted to tankers carrying heavy oil from the Trans Mountain pipeline, but would apply broadly to marine traffic.

As well, the NEB says, cabinet should consider a series of restrictions for “all appropriate vessels” including slowdowns in each section of the marine shipping route, potential limits on the number of whale-watching boats and noise-reduction targets for regularly operating ferries in the area.

In the original NEB hearings on the expansion proposal, the adjudicating panel found Trans Mountain’s projected increase in oil-tanker traffic through the Salish Sea would likely result in significant adverse effects to the southern resident killer whales, whose population has diminished to just 74 animals. But the NEB concluded at that time that it did not have jurisdiction over marine traffic, and so was able to recommend to cabinet that the project was environmentally sound by considering only the pipeline route between Edmonton and Burnaby.

Ottawa has already rolled out a $1.5-billion Oceans Protections Plan and, in the wake of last year’s court ruling, a series of initiatives designed to protect the endangered whales, including vessel slowdowns and measures to help restore chinook salmon populations.

The pipeline expansion project has faced strong opposition in B.C., including from the provincial government, major municipalities including Vancouver and Burnaby, and many Indigenous communities.

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The hearings are restricted to information that was not raised at the first hearing related to the affect of marine shipping from the project between the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby and Canada’s 12-nautical-mile territorial sea limit. That includes the important feeding grounds for the southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea. Vessel noise, pollution and a diminishing number of chinook salmon – their prime source of food – have contributed to the whales' decline.

The federal government purchased the existing pipeline from Texas oil company Kinder Morgan last May, after investors soured over the level of conflict surrounding the project. Ottawa intended to complete the expansion, which it says is in the national interest. Despite the setback dealt by the Federal Court of Appeal, Ottawa wants to see shovels in the ground later this year. However, it is still conducting a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities, which has no set deadline for completion.

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