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Shouting whales, tar balls, fog and jobs

Report highlights all the reasons why not Energy East

by Miles Howe

“Right now, we're already seeing projects being proposed that will increase tanker traffic in the Bay,” says Abbott. “Energy East is likely to be largest contributor of marine traffic. But we've also got Irving Oil's application to reverse their LNG plant to an export facility. The government has also spoken of expanding potash exports and constructing a new container terminal. The impacts of those projects are being looked at piecemeal." [Photo: Miles Howe]
“Right now, we're already seeing projects being proposed that will increase tanker traffic in the Bay,” says Abbott. “Energy East is likely to be largest contributor of marine traffic. But we've also got Irving Oil's application to reverse their LNG plant to an export facility. The government has also spoken of expanding potash exports and constructing a new container terminal. The impacts of those projects are being looked at piecemeal." [Photo: Miles Howe]

FREDERICTON, NEW BRUNSWICK -- A new report issued by the Conservation Council of New Brunswick suggests that TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline has the potential to have various, serious, impacts to the Bay of Fundy ecosystem and those who currently live in it, and benefit from it.

Penned by longtime 'Fundy Baykeeper' Matthew Abbott, the report paints a picture of a unique ecosystem, where industry and sustainability have struck an extremely fine balance. A mega-project such as the Energy East pipeline, which will potentially see an increase in traffic of between 115-290 new mega-tankers shipping unrefined bitumen for export, is simply too much for the Bay of Fundy to handle.

The fact that very little baseline data exists to measure the impact of current industrial stressors in the Bay, coupled with an incomplete and highly questionable mitigation plan in case of an environmental emergency in what is a highly complex marine ecosystem, makes Energy East, to Abbott, simply too big a risk to accept.

“Right now, we're already seeing projects being proposed that will increase tanker traffic in the Bay,” says Abbott. “Energy East is likely to be largest contributor of marine traffic. But we've also got Irving Oil's application to reverse their LNG plant to an export facility. The government has also spoken of expanding potash exports and constructing a new container terminal. So we're already in a context where other projects will be increasing tanker traffic. The impacts of those projects aren't being looked at in any collective way. The government is just looking at them piecemeal.”

Environmentally speaking, tanker traffic on its own is essentially guaranteed to have a deleterious impact. Current tanker traffic in the Bay already produces marine noise at a frequency similar enough to the one that local whales use to communication that cetacean signals are getting muffled and drowned out. Studies have shown existing levels of tanker-produced noise has increased levels of stress hormones in Bay of Fundy whales, including the endangered Right whale, of which the report estimates there are 510 individuals remaining.

“The Right whale has seen some recovery, but it is still an extremely threatened whale,” says Abbott.

“They're already living in a situation where to communicate they essentially have to shout. And we don't know what their noise threshold is. If there's a continued increase in noise frequency or noise levels, there will come a point where the impacts will be more dramatic than they are already, currently. We don't know at what point the Bay becomes inhospitable to Right whales and other large whales.”

Marine noise, notes Abbott, isn't mitigated by altering shipping lanes or traffic patterns. While these actions have played a role in reducing whale strikes in the Bay, the noise itself is bound the travel, regardless.

In the event of a spill, Abbott notes that there are numerous unknowns and potentials for disaster, both in regards to bitumen entering the Bay, and in regards to creating a workable clean-up plan.

“There's not a lot of studies out there that address the behaviour of bitumen when it enters salt water,” notes Abbott. “A 2012 study done by Environment Canada found that it can easily sink and form tar balls. We have a lot of healthy fisheries, like scallops and lobster, that depend on the bottom of the Bay. They get very worried when there's the potential of oil sinking and coating the bottom.”

The potential of cleaning up any spill is also made more difficult by the distinct Bay of Fundy environment. The Bay has the highest tides in the world and is notorious for its foggy conditions, which has already led to several documented instances of 'lost' and 'unrecoverable', smaller, spills.

From a socio-economic perspective, the report notes that there are currently 5,000 jobs directly related to fisheries in the Bay. These, to Abbott, are the types of jobs that can be sustainable for generations to come. The potential of a spill – even the damage to the reputation of the Bay as a still “relatively pristine” environment – puts these jobs at risk.

“Reputation is critical to local coastal communities. That reputation draws tourists and makes our seafood a premium product,” says Abbott. “An oil spill and any sort of accident can have a significant cause on local sustainable jobs. And this is also where impacts on the whales are impacts on our tourism industry. The lifeblood of the tourism is whale watching. It's whales, it's seabirds, porpoises and seals, but whales are the mainstay.”

The very notion of needing to prepare such a report, by an independent, relatively small, publicly-funded, environmental advocacy organization, is also not lost on Abbott. To the Bay-keeper, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the mega-project assessment system. The National Energy Board (NEB), the 'independent regulator', underwent serious reformations in 2012, reformations that arguably streamline the process of project assessment to the point where the NEB is in a constant state of 'hurry up and approve'.

Tight timelines, industrial capture at the executive level, exclusive and extensive 'intervenor status' applications, and a lack of “serious” intervention by the provincial governments of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia – all of this leads to the unfortunate necessity of Abbott's report.

“ As for the NEB process, we have some key recommendations around the type of research we'd like to see them do,” says Abbott. “We even recommend that the province of New Brunswick do its own Environmental Assessment of the project. Given all the support and excitement we've seen from government for Energy East, this isn't likely to generate a 'no'. But we'd like at least for the government to have a look at these issues from a New Brunswick perspective.”

Of course, any conversation of mega-projects and mega-money changing hands in New Brunswick must inevitably bring up the spectre of the Irving Empire, who critics say rule the province like its own company store. Abbott concedes that Irving has, in the past, altered its tanker shipping routes in the Bay to accommodate whale habitat. That being said, however, to Abbott, Energy East isn't a project about provincial prosperity. It's a project about prosperity for the moneyed class, of which Irving is king of the heap.

“Irving has a lot of support, politically, in this province,” says Abbott. “But one of the goals in this report is to have an honest conversation about jobs and about prosperity for people who aren't in positions of power at Irving oil. We need to start painting a picture of the economic risks to industries who have been with us for hundreds of years and can still be for hundreds of years to come.”


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