NEB's Trans Mountain Reconsideration raises bigger questions about future of the Salish Sea

What responsible management of oil shipping can teach us about protecting ecosystems around the Salish Sea, starting with our sewage. Stewart Muir looks at recent developments.


The recent Reconsideration process by Canada's National Energy Board was ostensibly about potential harm to Southern resident killer whales and the indigenous customs surrounding the animals.

At the end of its proceedings in February 2019, the board returned with the recommendation that the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) is in the Canadian public interest and should be approved.

In March 2019, a parallel process on indigenous consultation is still underway, and ultimately a federal Cabinet decision will be what determines the fate of a project that is designed to allow Canada to gain full market value for its most valuable commodity export. 

The project was initially approved with 156 conditions covering a broad range of issues including emergency preparedness and response, protection of the environment, consultation with First Nations, socio-economic matters, pipeline safety, project viability, and financial responsibilities.

As a result of the new killer whale process, there are now 16 additional recommendations, which Cabinet may or may not accept. These are worth talking about because they point indirectly to a much larger issue: is this really about the addition of a relatively small number of rigorously piloted oil tanker ships, or could the overall growth of human activity in the region have something to do with awareness of the need to manage larger risks?

Check out the list below.

Wider lens: New Trans Mountain recommendations that aren't just about the pipeline

  • 1 & 2: There should be a regional cumulative effects management plan specifically looking at “impacts from all vessel traffic”;
  • 3: This recommendation on marine bird monitoring & protection references “understanding impacts of all vessel use”;
  • 5 & 6: The reference is to offsets for increased underwater noise and increased whale strike risk for all appropriate vessels and is not limited to Trans Mountain project related vessels;
  • 7: Spill response point specifically points to all ocean-going vessels
  • 8: Enhanced tug escorts should be "considered for other vessels as appropriate”
  • 9: A Transboundary Traffic Risk Assessment process should “not be limited to project related vessels”
  • 12 to 16: These are designed to cover all marine vessels, not just those that are project related.

For years now, environmental groups have been loudly insisting that we can't have the Trans Mountain pipeline because it means more shipping risk. It turns out this isn't the issue at all. If we're concerned about ecosystem management, the impact of an extra few hundred tanker sailings is almost negligible. What must be contemplated is the bigger picture. 

Let's face it: whether or not a new Canadian oil pipeline is built, the combined population of Salish Sea cities Vancouver and Seattle is forecast to hit 10 million by 2050 - in effect, a new megacity on the Pacific. With this growth in people will come greatly increased industrial activity, goods traffic and waste management challenges.

While the NEB doesn’t state it directly in the report, the regulator is clearly telling various levels of government to be more mindful of the cumulative impacts associated with population growth around the region.

Washington State governor Jay Inslee, who is seeking the 2020 Democrat presidential nomination, recently has been lashing out at Canada's modest bid to add a ship a day to its export capacity, because he says he is concerned about the environment. Yet, of all the places that BC could look to as an example of good environmental practice, Washington State is nowhere near the top of the list. Washington voters have now rejected the idea of putting a price on carbon emissions not once, but twice. Inslee continues to ignore the existence of five oil refineries on the American side of the Salish Sea, and he will not talk about the US Navy's Kitsap-based nuclear submarines that at any given time may be adding potentially catastrophic hazards to our shared waters.

The NEB's additional recommendations don't even mention the fact that all Salish Sea communities, on both sides of the border, continue to use the ocean to manage their surface runoff and sewage. Communities that rely on decades-old methods to treat and manage their liquid waste are not sustainable no matter how many bicycle lanes they build or climate litigation threats they issue to fuel suppliers. 

It's not enough to subject one high-visibility project to an extra level of caution and scrutiny. If we are to protect the marine environment and move to a low carbon economy, it's going to be necessary to have an honest conversation about all of the impacts associated with increased population growth. If environmental groups want to latch onto an issue where they can make a massive difference, and still have the killer whale as their poster creature, a good place to start would be with pressuring municipalities to do the right thing on using the Salish Sea as a sewer.

Stewart Muir is a co-author of The Sea Among Us: The Amazing Strait of Georgia, the first book to present a comprehensive study of the Strait of Georgia in all its aspects with chapters on geology, First Nations, history, oceanography, fish, birds, mammals, invertebrates and plants. Prizes the book won include: Vancouver Aquarium Coastal Ocean Award for Conservation and Research Communication (2016); American Fisheries Society's Haig Brown Award (2015); Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize (2015).

Image courtesy Landsat Image Gallery.





Do you like this?