Of Whales and Off-Shore Drilling

by CHRIS GENOVALI

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently released its 2008 list of threatened species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). While this news was reasonably encouraging for the global recovery of populations of humpback whales, these assessments have far-reaching impacts on their conservation management. Populations in the Atlantic may now be approaching pre-whaling levels, and while the situation may also be trending in a positive direction on this side of the world’s oceans, in the North Pacific researchers still consider the humpback-whale population threatened, and the western North Pacific population endangered.

Until a few decades ago, commercial whaling severely depleted many of the blue, fin, sei and humpback whale populations that inhabited British Columbia’s waters. Today, our image of whales has changed, and the global moratorium on whaling has given these species an opportunity to recover. For reasons not fully understood, in the North Pacific, however, populations have yet to rebound to historic levels of abundance, and indeed, fin, sei and blue whales remain endangered.

Raincoast Conservation is now at sea completing five years of systematic marine mammal surveys from Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border. Aboard our research vessel, Achiever, a team of scientists and observers work, eat and sleep on rotations for one to two months at a time. The team records observations of all marine mammals as Raincoast surveys the waters between Dixon Entrance (near the Alaska-B.C. border) and Vancouver Island. Our pre-set tracklines take us back and forth across Hecate and Queen Charlotte Straits and into inlets along the central and north coasts. To date, Raincoast has surveyed over 12,000 kilometers at sea.

In addition to recording sightings of large whales, the results of our surveys provide population estimates for harbour and Dall’s porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins and minke whales, among others. At present there are no population estimates for any of these species in the area. We are working in conjunction with our partners at Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab to rectify this data gap.

Collecting distribution and abundance data on marine animals is critical to making informed decisions about oil and gas development on the B.C. coast. The habitat of these species and other marine life is under threat from coastal oil and gas exploration and drilling, as well as a potential increase in tanker traffic linked with the proposed liquid natural gas and oil pipeline terminals intended for the north coast.

In fact, every stage of the B.C. government’s looming "energy corridor" scheme poses a threat to cetacean populations on the coast, starting with harmful noise impacts generated by seismic activity all the way through to the prospective spills, underwater noise and ship strikes associated with the transport of the recovered oil and gas. Specific to the IUCN report, the good-news story regarding humpbacks could be put in jeopardy if this array of hydrocarbon-based projects is allowed to proceed.

Addressing the frenzied election-year driven drumbeat in the United States to pursue a similar strategy as is being flogged in B.C., Thomas Kostigen of the online business journal MarketWatch wrote last month that "Coastal drilling for oil is mindless, not only from a supply perspective but from an environmental perspective. The amount of oil to be found off our nation’s coasts would be a trickle of what¹s needed to meet consumer demand."

Coastal oil drilling in the contiguous U.S. is a transparent politicized panacea that will not make much of a dent in terms of demand or pricing in that country. Despite this reality, a collective state of election-fed delusion has distorted the debate as the Republicans attempt to force-feed coastal drilling down the Democratic Party’s throat. The Democrats’ response has been, as one pundit put it, to crumble like feta cheese. In his article, Kostigen pointed out, "Drilling creates hazards, and costs the economy dearly. Take a look at the local Alaskan economies that suffered because of the Valdez spill. Not a pretty picture." This begs the question as to why there is such a push to expose the B.C. coast to these same "hazards" when lifting the drilling and tanker moratoria is so fraught with risk.

The Stats Can website just might have the answer: "Canadian oil companies derive the majority of their revenues from exports; in 2005, two-thirds (66 percent) of Canada¹s crude oil production flowed out of Canada. Since 1995, thirsty Americans have received practically all (99 percent) of Canadian oil exports."

We do not need coastal oil exploration to satisfy domestic consumption in Canada and the oil sands crude from Alberta anticipated for shipping to Kitimat will be headed straight out of the country (likely to Asian markets) on Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC’s) approximately the size of the Exxon Valdez – or larger. The not-so-hidden agenda behind all the chatter about rescinding the moratoria in B.C. has everything to do with export markets. For instance, the U.S. has five percent of the world¹s population, yet their oil usage makes up 25 percent of world oil consumption; Canada ranks as the number-one supplier of oil to the U.S., well above Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq.

Both the current provincial and federal governments have indicated their desire to lift the coastal moratoria, even if it means having to double down on the odds of a catastrophic oil spill, not to mention significantly contributing to the already dangerous level of carbon dioxide in the Earth¹s atmosphere once all those foreign consumer countries of Canadian oil burn up the product. Parenthetically, in a July article by Gwynne Dyer, climate scientist James Hansen of NASA stated that we have passed what he considers the threshold for "maximum permissible concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

It remains to be seen whether federal and provincial opposition parties will ultimately make like feta cheese as the Democrats have in the U.S. or whether they will actually stand up to the ruling parties’ oil and gas blitz. The real question, however, is whether British Columbians are willing to gamble with the future of this coast and allow their governments to play the role of hydrocarbon pusher to oil-addicted American and Asian markets.

CHRIS GENOVALI is the executive director of Raincoast Conservation Society. He can be reached at: chris@raincoast.org

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