Do oil and whales mix?

September 21, 2015

Last week, the heads of Canada’s largest environmental organizations, including our own Diane Beckett, met in New Brunswick. The main item on the agenda was the Bay of Fundy and the Energy East Pipeline.

Our partners, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and the Fundy Baykeeper, have produced a must read report: TANKER TRAFFIC AND TAR BALLS: What TransCanada’s Energy East Pipeline Means for the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine(link is external). Everyone concerned about the ecology of Canada’s east coast should have a copy. It clearly examines the implications of piping nearly a million barrels of bitumen (tar sands oil) to St. John, New Brunswick for export. It is respectful, contemplative, and like all good reads, leaves us with more questions than answers.

Twice a day, 160 billion tonnes of seawater rushes in and out of the Bay of Fundy – the largest tides in the world. It is a unique and biologically productive region, attracting several species of large whales, porpoise, dolphins, seals, and many kinds of fish, birds, scallops, clams, and crustaceans, such as lobster and krill.  It is major tourist destination and supports a vibrant fishery.

The Irving Oil refinery in St. John is Canada’s biggest, but can only process 300,000 barrels a day. Clearly, the Energy East Pipeline is about exporting oil rather than meeting Canadian demand. This means tankers. Lots of tankers. As many as 290 more a year, and it gets worse. The pipeline is not the only project in the works. Potash Corp is expanding its port facility to increase potash exports from 60-70 ships to 125-135 ships per year, the LNG plant is expanding and adding 30 more tanker trips per year, and the container terminal is being expanded to handle more ships in the future.

Increased traffic in the Bay of Fundy cannot be dealt with by building another lane on the expressway. These additional ships and tankers must share the space with fishers, tourism, and endangered whales. The number of collisions with whales has gone down in recent years because of concerted efforts to keep ships and whales apart. However, it is pretty clear more traffic means more collisions. Fishers must exercise a higher degree of caution to avoid collisions and are threatened by an increase in the loss of equipment. Even with today’s traffic, losing lobster traps and other equipment is a common occurrence as the big ships churn through the water.

Noise created by increased tanker traffic in the Bay of Fundy is another concern. Endangered Right Whales have to shout to make themselves heard. There has been some work done to understand the impact of noise on Right Whales and it clearly causes stress. The report calls on the government to conduct significant research on the effect of noise on the poor whales.

The Bay of Fundy supports about 5,000 direct jobs in the Fishery. Lobster and scallops are currently the primary wild fisheries in the Bay of Fundy and the northern Gulf of Maine, though there are also fisheries for herring, sea urchins, shad, gaspereau, halibut, clams, and periwinkles. As the report says, “Wild seafood remains the mainstay of the economic, cultural, and culinary lives of the communities surrounding the Bay of Fundy, as it has been for thousands of years.”

This brings us to everyone’s greatest fear -- an oil spill. The report makes it clear we should be concerned. The study looks at a number of previous spills in the Bay and points out those cleanup efforts have in most cases been stymied by rough water and weather.

To complicate things further, ‘bitumen,’ when mixed with water and sediment, turns into tar balls that sink to the bottom. This is what happened when bitumen spilled into the Kalamazoo River a few years ago. Lobster and scallops, the most lucrative part of the fishery, live on the bottom.

There are also serious concerns about the use of dispersants. When a spill occurs and weather and sea conditions allow for a cleanup, the plan is to use chemical dispersants to break up the oil slicks on the surface. The old dilution is the solution to pollution approach. Studies by Georgia Tech, for example, found the mixture of dispersants and oil to be 52 times more toxic than oil itself.

This toxic brew on the bottom of the Bay of Fundy could wipeout a fishery that has fed communities for at least 4000 years.

These were just a few of the issues raised by the report.

Sierra Club Canada Foundation has applied to participate in the National Energy Board hearings on Energy East to bring these, and other issues, forward. We need your financial support to work with our partners to build a winning case in opposition of the project. Most of all, we need you to join us in advocating for a fossil fuel free future. Please help today!

John Bennett 
National Spokesperson
Sierra Club Canada Foundation sends e-mail) • (613) 241-4611

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