Representatives of Washington tribes perform a "paddle song" at the start of a 2018 hearing in Victoria, B.C., to oppose the Trans Mountain Pipeline
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Representatives of Washington tribes perform a "paddle song" at the start of a 2018 hearing in Victoria, B.C., to oppose the Trans Mountain Pipeline
Credit: National Energy Board

Washington tribes and Inslee alarmed by Canadian pipeline approval

One day after declaring a national climate emergency, Canada has approved a pipeline project to boost the flow of climate-damaging oil from Alberta to global markets.

Expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline to the Vancouver, B.C., area would also increase tanker traffic in Washington waters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all revenue from the government-owned pipeline will be spent on clean-energy projects to help Canada transition away from relying on fossil fuels.

“We should take advantage of what we have and invest the profits in what comes next: building the clean energy future that is already at our doorstep,” Trudeau said at a press conference Tuesday.

“The people expect us to move forward in ways that both create good jobs for the future and protect our environment for our kids,” Trudeau said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing today.”

Yet the Transountain pipeline carries tar sands oil, an exceptionally polluting fossil fuel, from Alberta to refineries in Burnaby, B.C., and northwestern Washington state.

Energy researchers have concluded that 85 percent of Canada’s tar sands oil needs to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming exceeding 2 degrees Celsius.

Many tribes in Washington and coastal British Columbia have bitterly fought the project for more local reasons: They say it threatens their way of life and the endangered orcas and salmon they revere.

“We’re going to continue to fight for the Salish Sea,” Suquamish tribal chair Leonard Forsman of Suquamish, Washington, told KUOW.

“Increased vessel traffic and noise obviously is a big impact, and also the threat of oil spills, and they're already overwhelmed right now,” Forsman said, referring to the endangered orcas.

“What happens to qwe ‘lhol mechen [orcas] will happen to us," Raynell Morris with the Lummi Nation said in a statement. "And I don’t mean just us, the Lummi people, I mean all of us.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called Trudeau's decision “alarming and deeply disappointing."

Flow through the expanded pipeline would nearly triple to 890,000 barrels a day.

Trudeau said exporting oil overseas from landlocked Alberta, Canada's dominant oil-producing region, would solve a core economic challenge for Canada.

“Right now, we basically have only one customer for our energy resources: the United States,” he said. “As we’ve seen over the past few years, anything can happen with our neighbors to the south.”

Canada’s National Energy Board has estimated that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would lead to a 60 percent jump in tanker traffic in the Salish Sea and a near-tripling of tanker traffic in Haro Strait, the water body immediately west of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Haro Strait has long been a critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whales, though in the past decade, the orcas have spent less time there as the Fraser River Chinook salmon populations they hunt in the strait have dwindled.

The Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada, a governmental advisory body, assessed 13 runs of Fraser River Chinook salmon last year: 8 were found to be endangered, 3 threatened and 1 “of special concern.” Just 1 run out of 13 was not at risk of extinction.

In June, southern resident orcas were spotted off the west coast of Vancouver Island, but none have been seen in the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia since April..

Environmentalists questioned Trudeau’s logic of fighting pollution tomorrow by expanding polluting infrastructure today.

“That’s like saying we need to keep selling cigarettes to have money to fight cancer,” Eugene Kung, an attorney with West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver, told Vice.

Trudeau said pipeline construction should resume this summer.

The Trans Mountain project has been in limbo since last November, when Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the government had failed to properly consult indigenous First Nations along the pipeline route and had overlooked the harm increased tanker traffic would do to orcas.

Canada’s House of Commons Monday night adopted a motion, introduced by Trudeau’s Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna, declaring climate change a national emergency that requires deep emission reductions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Trudeau missed the parliamentary debate and vote on the climate emergency: He was attending the Toronto Raptors’ victory parade and rally.

Correction 6/19/2019: An earlier version incorrectly stated the last date endangered orcas have been spotted in the Salish Sea and the amount that tanker traffic would increase in Haro Strait.