Tar Sands Pipeline Threatens Our Endangered Orcas

A pod of Southern Resident orcas swimming off the coast of Seattle

Credit: NOAA

Southern Resident killer whales—one of the United States’ most iconic and endangered species—are now facing a new and formidable threat: Big Oil. This time, in the form of the newly approved Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

In a time when we need to be transitioning towards a clean energy future, the Canadian government has approved a C$6.8 bn ($5 bn) project spearheaded by Texas-based energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan, which will lay nearly 1,000 km of new pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Vancouver’s coast. The new pipeline would transport up to an additional 590,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day—more than Keystone XL—and increase oil tanker and barge traffic by 700%, to as many as 408 tankers every year.

The approved pipeline will bring up to 590,000 more barrels of tar sands oil every day to Vancouver's coast

Credit: PIPE UP Network

Oil spills and noise pollution associated with the planned expansion threaten the shared U.S. and Canadian waters of the Salish Sea, which is home to the 78 remaining Southern Residents. The orcas are already fighting for their lives: starving due to dwindling numbers of Chinook salmon, being poisoned due to toxins and polluted water, and finding it harder and harder to communicate and find food over the increasing din of industrial noise.

Any additional impacts from the Kinder Morgan pipeline will likely drive our iconic orcas to extinction.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline also threatens the home and livelihoods of Coast Salish tribes and coastal communities, including fishermen, on both sides of the border. A catastrophic oil spill could decimate salmon and shellfish, which form the basis of the Coast Salish way of life and their economy. Increased vessel traffic poses safety risks to fishers and worsening noise pollution may negatively impact commercially important species.

More than 400 massive oil tankers will pass through the Salish Sea every year if the pipeline is built

Credit: Danny Cornelissen/Wikimedia Commons

But First Nations communities are working together and fighting back in the courts. They are challenging, through Judicial Review, both the Decision of the Canadian government to approve the project in November 2016 and the finding by Canada’s National Energy Board that the pipeline is in the public interest and that it is unlikely to cause any significant environmental effects. They are arguing that the Decision infringes on their Aboriginal title and rights, and that Canada breached its constitutional duty to consult with and accommodate First Nations.

What can you do to help? NRDC, and some other members of the Orca Salmon Alliance – whose organizations work to prevent the extinction of Southern resident killer whales by recovering the wild Chinook populations upon which they depend—support the goals of the “Pull Together the People vs. Kinder Morgan” campaign, a legal defense fundraising effort to assist the First Nation’s work to stop the project in the courts. Multiple events have been organized in the San Juan Islands, Anacortes, Billingham, and Seattle. Visit www.pull-together.ca for more information and, if you are in the Seattle area today, stop by the “Seattle v. Kinder Morgan” community supported fundraising event with members from the Lummi and Tsleil-Waututh Nations to show your support.

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Marine Mammals Science Fellow, Marine Mammal Protection Project

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