Canada’s fisheries minister defends Trans Mountain decision as orca advocates slam pipeline

VANCOUVER—Scientists say B.C.’s iconic orcas will disappear into extinction if the Trans Mountain pipeline is built, even as the country’s fisheries minister defended his government’s decision to restart the expansion project that could triple the amount of bitumen pumped to the Pacific coast.

“There are no inconsistencies with our climate plan,” Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver, told Star Vancouver in a phone interview Wednesday.

The federal government’s climate plan already accounts for upstream emissions from the pipeline project, Wilkinson said, adding that he entered politics largely out of concern for climate issues.

He acknowledged that some people, including residents in his riding, have long been against the pipeline due to the environmental risks associated with an oil spill, as well as the projected sevenfold increase of tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet. The federal government approved the controversial expansion project Tuesday, a day after it passed a symbolic motion declaring a climate emergency.

Environmentalists are slamming Ottawa for prioritizing the economy over climate change targets.

Those voters “want to know that their government has assessed those risks and has worked to ensure they can be addressed in meaningful and substantial ways,” he said.

Wilkinson pointed to the myriad of marine safety policies the ministry has enacted in recent years, including re-opening the Kitsilano coast guard, creating six new radar stations, and increasing tugboat escort requirements for any large vessel in the Burrard Inlet (not just oil tankers).

This spring, his office also introduced stricter rules around vessel behaviour near the critically endangered southern resident killer whales and tightened fishing regulations for their main prey, Chinook salmon.

But regardless of these measures, giving the green light to a major fossil fuel infrastructure project is a policy idea that “belongs in a different era,” said Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist at Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Her organization has long maintained that the 75 southern resident killer whales left on B.C.’s coast are already on the brink of extinction and will die off if tanker traffic and climate change continue to impact Chinook Salmon stocks and the orcas’ ability to find food.

The shipping routes to Vancouver’s harbour cut through the whales’ critical habitat, where the orcas are already in the presence of vessels 85 per cent of the time, she said.

“The whales don’t have the ability to go somewhere else. This is where the fish are. This is where the whales need to be,” she said.

And if a vessel does leak fuel into the ocean, MacDuffee added that other marine animals like harbour seals and sea otters will struggle to survive the resulting toxins and fumes.

Opponents of the pipeline project, including the province of B.C. and the local governments of Vancouver, Burnaby and Coast Salish nations, are already looking at legal options to halt the pipeline. Tseil-Waututh leaders vowed Tuesday it would take the federal government to court over the Trans Mountain project for a second time.

For climate scientist Simon Donner, this pattern of weighing short term economic gain with long term environmental risk is deeply entrenched in Canada.

“What we’re seeing is … the real challenge of dealing with climate change. It’s a long term problem, yet our politics works in four-year cycles.”

Regardless of whether authorities are able to mitigate the effects of increased tanker traffic in the Salish Sea, Canada is unlikely to reach its greenhouse gas emissions targets if the Trans Mountain pipeline goes online, said Donner, an associate professor of geography at the University of British Columbia.

And the effects of climate change will hit the coast of B.C. hard. Everything from oyster farms to wild seabird populations to coastal cities will be affected by rising sea levels, warming ocean temperatures and the increasing acidification of the water, he said.

Donner said he wants the federal government to be honest about their priorities.

“The political math has looked good to them,” he said, “but as somebody who does math for a living, you see that making decisions like this compromises our climate goals.”

Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts and conservation issues. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii

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