OTTAWA — The federal fisheries minister said Tuesday it will be more difficult for cabinet to give another green light to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion if — or more likely when — the National Energy Board's new environmental review determines the project is going to harm killer whales.
Jonathan Wilkinson said such a finding wouldn't mean cabinet will reject the project — but ministers will have to be convinced there are appropriate measures in place to protect the extremely endangered Southern resident killer whales.
"Cabinet has to consider that very seriously, but it has to then be convinced that we've done the appropriate things to actually more than mitigate the impact of the shipping traffic," Wilkinson said.
The future of the controversial pipeline is in limbo after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned its approval. In its decision, it cited a lack of proper consultation with Indigenous communities and the fact the National Energy Board failed to properly examine or consider negative environmental impacts of having more oil tankers leaving from Vancouver Harbour.
Last week, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi ordered the NEB to conduct such a review — and to emphasize risks to the killer whales.
The NEB has been asked to respond to the government's request before the end of February with a report and new recommendations on whether the pipeline should be approved and, if so, under what conditions. Additional consultations with Indigenous groups are expected to be announced shortly.
Many environmental groups watching the process unfold say the NEB will surely determine the addition of about six more oil tankers per week in the Salish Sea as detrimental to the killer whales. The NEB, they say, noted the risks when it recommended the project go forward in May 2016.
At the time, the NEB approved the project because marine shipping was outside its purview and it deemed the environmental risks posed by the pipeline itself could be mitigated.
On Tuesday, Wilkinson acknowledged the conclusions related to the whales will likely be the same.
But he said the government has already taken steps to mitigate the noise from oil tankers as well as thousands of other container ships, cruise vessels, ferries and pleasure craft that travel through the whales' habitat.
Shipping lanes have been moved, speed limits have been voluntarily lowered, he added. The government is also open to doing more, including making it mandatory rather than just voluntary, for boats to slow down in the area.
"It's not just about addressing TMX," said Wilkinson, using the abbreviation for the Trans Mountain pipeline.
"We're looking for solutions where economic growth can be done in an environmentally sustainable way."
A negative impact finding would trigger requirements under the Species at Risk Act, but Wilkinson said that wouldn't guarantee a pipeline rejection — it would just mean specific protections will have to be ensured.
Misty MacDuffee, a biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation on Vancouver Island, said additional noise from just six extra oil tankers each week would raise the possibility of extinction for the Southern resident killer whales to between 15 and 24 per cent. Right now, that risk is less than 10 per cent, she said.
"The Salish Sea cannot get any louder if we have any hope of recovery," said MacDuffee.
There are now only 74 Southern resident killer whales left in the Salish Sea, an area that surrounds the San Juan Islands in Washington State and the Gulf Islands in B.C. One Southern resident killer whale lives in captivity in Florida.
MacDuffee said since the summer, several news headlines that attracted widespread attention helped boost public support for the iconic species.
The stories included the 17 days that a 20-year-old, grieving whale named Tahlequah spent carrying her dead calf through the water and the unsuccessful attempts to save three-year-old Scarlet.
Although antibiotics were administered with a dart, Scarlet has not been seen now for weeks and is presumed dead.
Scarlet, named because of the red scars she carried after other whales literally pulled her from her mother's womb during her birth with their teeth, is the 73rd orca to die or go missing in those waters since 1998. Forty whales have been born and survived in that time period, but the last successful birth was almost three years ago.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misidentified the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.