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NEB renews support of Trans Mountain pipeline with proposed changes to protect marine life

The National Energy Board has reiterated its approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion with 16 new recommendations designed to better protect marine life on the B.C. coast, and Trans Mountain's chief executive responds by calling the report a step forward.

Pipeline remains in the public interest of Canada, energy board says

An aerial view of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain marine terminal filling an oil tanker in Burnaby, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The National Energy Board has reiterated its approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion with 16 new recommendations designed to better protect marine life on the B.C. coast, where the line ends.

The regulator published a report Friday after it was ordered to reassess the $7.4-billion pipeline expansion from Alberta to the coast, including the impact of increased oil tanker traffic on the region's endangered killer whale population.

The project would cause "significant adverse environmental effects" on the southern resident killer whale population, and while a worst-case spill from the pipeline or an oil tanker is not likely, "the effects would be significant," said Robert Steedman, the NEB's chief environment officer.

A pipeline marker for the Trans Mountain pipeline as it passes by a playground near the Coldwater River and Coldwater Reserve in B.C. (CBC)

"While these effects weighed heavily in the NEB's reconsideration of project-related marine shipping, the NEB recommends that the government of Canada find that they can be justified in the circumstances, in light of the considerable benefits of the project and measures to mitigate the effects," Steedman said to reporters in Calgary.

The recommendations include increasing marine spill response and reducing emissions from marine vessels.

Construction of the pipeline was halted following a Federal Court of Appeal ruling last August that found the NEB's project assessment was flawed and couldn't be relied upon by the federal cabinet when it gave final approval to proceed in November 2016.

The NEB said Friday the pipeline remains in the public interest of Canada. The regulator provided a list of "considerable" benefits from the project including jobs across the country, government revenues, spending on pipeline materials, greater market access for Canadian oil, and training, jobs and business opportunities for local Indigenous communities.

The number of marine vessels travelling off B.C.'s coast is expected to increase regardless of whether the new pipeline is constructed and will require more oil tankers.

"The [NEB] panel feels strongly that if these recommendations are implemented, they will offset the relatively minor effects of the project-related marine traffic and, in fact, will benefit the entire Salish Sea ecosystem," said Steedman.

The NEB released several recommendations to the federal government related to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project 0:52

With these recommendations, the final decision of whether to proceed with the controversial project rests with the federal Liberal government.

Environmental groups are urging the federal government to scrap the NEB's latest report.

"The NEB has effectively ignored the impacts on whales, Indigenous communities and the climate. Now it is up to cabinet to reject the NEB's recommendation and refuse to approve the project," said Ecojustice lawyer Dyna Tuytel in a statement.

Others, like Joseph Doucet, the dean of the University of Alberta's business school, say the regulator's 689-page report was thorough.

"I do think that the National Energy Board responded appropriately and with the care and caution that is necessary in reaching their conclusions," said Doucet.

The chief executive of Trans Mountain called the NEB's report a step forward for the proposed pipeline.

"It provides specific and achievable conditions under which we must operate to ensure, if approved, the project will protect the marine and terrestrial environment and communities," said Ian Anderson in a statement.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called the decision an important step, but not a victory. She continues to be "cautiously optimistic" there will be shovels back in the ground in the fall and "then it's just a question of how long it takes to get it built."

A southern resident killer whale passes a bulk carrier ship in the Haro Strait shipping lane near Vancouver. (Valerie Shore/Shorelines Photography)

The taxpayer-owned pipeline project aims to ship more diluted bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to tanker terminals in Burnaby, B.C., but it has been met with political and environmental resistance.  

The court also found there was insufficient consultation by the federal government with Indigenous communities. As a result, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi ordered a new round of consultations with them, to address the court's concerns that the consultations weren't done adequately the first time.  

"We know how important this process is to Canadians," said Sohi in a statement. "We are hopeful the work we are doing will put us in a strong position to make a decision."

A female resident orca whale breaches while swimming in Puget Sound near Washington state. (Associated Press)

So far, the government said, its consultation teams have met with more than three-quarters of all Indigenous communities affected by the pipeline expansion project.  

"We still say no to the project. Even if one nation, one community says no, that project is not happening," said Chief Judy Wilson, secretary treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, during a news conference in Vancouver.

The president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs is opposed to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. 0:45

The 16 new recommendations are:

  • Develop and implement a regional cumulative effects management plan.
  • Report publicly on the cumulative effects and health of the Salish Sea.
  • Develop a marine bird-monitoring and protection program.
  • Expedite the work in completing the feasibility study for establishing a Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve.
  • Develop a program to offset both the increased underwater noise and the increased strike risk posed to Species at Risk Act-listed marine mammal and fish species.
  • Consider slowdowns in certain marine shipping routes and noise reduction on ferries.
  • Update federal marine shipping oil spill response requirements.
  • Mandate enhanced tug escort in the Salish Sea for tankers.
  • Consider the need for a Canada/United States Transboundary Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment.
  • Develop greenhouse gas reduction measures related to marine shipping.
  • Seek feedback from the Indigenous advisory and monitoring committee on the marine safety system.
  • Continue engagement with coastal Indigenous communities, recreational boaters, fishing vessel operators and operators of small vessels.
  • Enhance the safety of all sizes of marine vessels.
  • Provide financial incentives to promote innovation in new oil recovery technologies.
  • Review the federal marine oil spill compensation regimes.
  • Develop a formal complaint resolution program.

About the Author

Kyle Bakx

Reporter

Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.

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