For many orca advocates, the Trans Mountain pipeline was a looming threat to the endangered local population. On Thursday, it turned out the whales were the threat to the pipeline.
There are just 75 southern resident killer whales left in the Salish Sea, enough to earn them protected status — along with serious concern from scientists and conservationists.
Orcas use echolocation, a sort of sonar, to communicate and hunt prey, a method scientists worry is being overwhelmed by growing noise from marine traffic.
So the prospect of a project-related increase in tanker traffic through the Port of Vancouver, from five to 34 large vessels per month, had advocates on edge.
“We’re relieved, and maybe a little bit surprised, but when you look at the law, it shouldn’t have been surprising at all,” said Misty MacDuffee with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion’s federal approval was quashed by a three-judge panel at the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled, in part, that the National Energy Board (NEB) had failed to consider the effects of project-related marine shipping when approving it.
The court went further, to specifically — and repeatedly — single out the potential impact on killer whales.
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Indeed, the court ruled that both the federal government and the NEB were well aware of the potential impacts to the region’s struggling orca population.
“The Governor in Council was also fully aware of the effects of Project-related marine shipping identified by the Board and that the operation of Project-related vessels is likely to result in significant adverse effects upon both the Southern resident killer whale and Indigenous cultural uses of this endangered species,” states the ruling.
The judgment went on to highlight that the NEB accepted both that vessel noise was a key factor in depleting local populations, and that an oil spill would be “potentially catastrophic.”
“What the court has said is that the National Energy Board took the approach that its responsibility ended when tankers left the dock,” said Tuytel.
“So it only considered the project as far as the marine terminal.”
In the wake of the ruling, it appears it’s back to the drawing board for the expansion’s proponents, at least as far as the marine aspect goes.
MacDuffee said with the existing NEB permits essentially “torn up,” Trans Mountain would now have to do a project-related assessment of consequences and risks on southern resident orcas.
“And that’s what the courts did, is uphold that.”