On Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

By now we all know about the Federal Court Decision on the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project. The two grounds for quashing the Order in Council’s approval of the project were on First Nations consultation and on the assessment of risk to the southern resident killer whales. This post is about the latter.

In the Federal Court decision the court described the NEB final decision which found:

the operation of Project related marine vessels is likely to result in significant adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale, and that it is likely to result in significant adverse effects on Aboriginal cultural uses associated with these marine mammals.

As I have pointed out online, in my opinion, the NEB’s assessment of the southern resident killer whales was one-dimensional in nature. You may ask what I mean by one-dimensional? What I mean is that the NEB only looked at the potential harms posed by the TMX to the population but it failed to consider whether the TMX may have positive influences. In this blog post I am going to take a holistic look at the TMX project with respect to the southern resident killer whales. I will consider how the project both increases risks and how it may reduce risks and/or stressors. In doing so, I want to help start a reasonable dialogue on southern resident killer whales and the TMX.

Let’s start by looking at the threats to this population. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada:

The greatest threats to Resident Killer Whales are reduction in prey availability, contaminants, and acoustic and physical disturbance; ship strikes have also been recently identified as a threat. Exposure to toxic spills, interactions with fisheries and aquaculture, and climate change are other human-related threats that may negatively impact the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

So let’s look at these topics one by one.


I will only briefly address this topic because I have previously addressed spills in detail. To summarize my previous post: the increased risk of a spill posed by the project is so small as to not represent a real concern. As I noted, the 7x increase in tanker numbers is counter-acted by the reduction in risk associated with the new safety requirements imposed by the NEB. This results in approximately a 30% increase in overall risk. However, the initial risk (1 major spill in every 3093 years) is so close to zero as to not elevate above de minimis levels. A 30% increase on an insignificant risk is still an insignificant risk. The real spill risks in the region are from barges, ferries and smaller, less well-regulated marine craft.

The other major contamination concern is from persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including chlorinated compounds, PCBs and dioxins. Now as we should know by now, the vast majority of these are derived from the current and historic activities in the Puget Sound and from Metro Vancouver. If you really want to reduce threats to the southern resident killer whales maybe it is time to upgrade water treatment in the Metro Vancouver area. Another suggestion would be to eliminate the combined sewers in Metro Vancouver. Our American cousins have huge historical pollution problems and maybe cleaning up some more of the Superfund sites in the Puget Sound would be appreciated by the whales. Unlike many, I don’t see the Victoria sewage as a major concern because Victoria has virtually no heavy industry so most of their waste is organics that don’t bioaccumulate and dissipate in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Physical Disturbances/Collision

With respect to physical disturbances and collisions, the argument goes: increasing the number of tankers would increase the number of collisions with marine mammals. This argument, while persuasive, is quite shallow. As the academic literature makes clear, killer whales are not at a major risk from collision in most of the Salish Sea. The major risk of collision is in Johnstone Strait, which would be a problem if tankers were heading in that direction, which they are not.

As for the increase in tanker traffic, the TMX tankers would represent an increase of 720 more ship movements in a Strait that sees 23,000 ship movements a year. Recognize that both the Port of Vancouver and the Port of Seattle are engaged in major expansions. So the increase in ship movements posed by the TMX will barely be significant.

So how did the court find differently? Well that is an example of the one-dimensionality of the NEB assessment and the Federal Court’s decision. In paragraph 425 of the Federal Court decision the court makes a big thing of noting that:

The Board expressed its expectation that Project – related marine vessels would represent a maximum of 13.9% of all vessel traffic in the regional study area, excluding the Burrard Inlet, and would decrease over time as the volume of marine vessel movements in the area is anticipated to grow.

This, of course, represents a massive case of cherry-picking. That number comes from Table 22 of the NEB report and represents the increase in project-related tanker traffic in Haro Strait compared to 2012 shipping. What a bizarre comparison.  In virtually every other part of the route the increase is much lower and by comparing the number to 2012 numbers it ignores the commensurate increases associated with the Port expansions. More importantly, this assessment ignores a critical consideration. Let’s look at Haro Strait (image source):


Now what do we see the to the east of Haro Strait? That would be Rosario Strait. For those unaware, Rosario Strait is the alternative marine route in the area. As has been pointed out:

Studies have identified Rosario Strait as the most dangerous tanker route in the inland waters of Washington state. Yet because of the location of refineries, this is the state’s busiest tanker thoroughfare, with more than 500 oil-laden ships sailing through it every year.

If there is ever a major spill here, its toll could be worse than that in Prince William Sound. Rosario Strait is in the middle of the delicate San Juan Islands and just a swift current away from the largest population areas of Washington state and British Columbia. All around it is the region’s richest concentration of sea birds, marine mammals, clams, oysters and commercial fish farms.

One of the benefits of the TMX is that it is intended to supply the Puget Sound refineries via the Puget Sound Pipeline System. The Puget Sound Pipeline, which is a spur line of the Trans Mountain, can supply the Ferndale Refinery, the Cherry Point Refinery, the Andeavor Anacortes Refinery and the Shell Anacortes Refinery. By supplying crude to these refineries, via the Puget Sound Pipeline, the TMX would reduce the number of tankers running through Rosario Strait. Consider that there are over 500 tankers that go up the Rosario Strait to the Cherry Point Refinery. |Moreover, a further 120 new tankers a year are proposed for the Andeavor Anacortes Refinery. That represents 620+ tankers that could be reduced/eliminated if the TMX is completed. The last time I checked 620+ is a bigger number than the 540-600 tanker increase associated with the TMX.

Every mariner alive will tell you that Haro Strait is much safer than Rosario Strait but the reduction of travel through Rosario was never considered in the NEB/Federal Court analyses. Unlike the NEB/Federal Court, the southern resident killer whales don’t acknowledge international borders and use both straits. Given the relative sizes of the two straits, Rosario Strait poses a much higher risk of collision and an orders of magnitude higher risk of a spill. Yet in the one-dimensional NEB/Federal Court assessment they only looked at the increase in Haro Strait traffic while ignoring the safety improvements inherent by reducing tanker transits through Rosario Strait.


Everyone knows about the acoustics issues but if acoustics are really a concern then rather than quashing the TMX, the court should be cancelling the Port of Vancouver’s expansion plans. That being said acoustics are a serious concern and so as part of the Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada they will be slowing down the tankers to reduce their noise. But going back to the previous section, the increase in TMX tankers will essentially be offset by the reduction in tankers in American waters. The construction of the pipeline will likely be a wash acoustically.


We all know that the biggest threat to the southern resident killer whales is a shortage of food. The resident whales mostly eat salmon and the reduction in salmon stocks has been pointed to as the likely major source of their recent struggles. One big benefit of the TMX is how it will substantially reduce the likelihood of a oil-by-rail spill. The risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline; the relative risk to salmon is even higher for rail, because most rail lines are situated far closer, for a longer proportion of their length, to the rivers. That means that a rail spill is more likely to affect a salmon river than a pipeline spill would because the pipeline mostly avoids the riversides.

Looking at the project from a risk assessment perspective, if you are a community that depends on the health of our rivers, you will want to get as much of that oil off the rails as is possible. From a salmon perspective a rail spill has the potential to destroy a run or even kill a river. So if you care about the major food source for the southern resident killer whales then getting oil into pipelines and off the rails is something that the courts and the NEB should be looking to do as soon as humanly possible.

What is most frustrating from the perspective of a risk assessor is that reading the NEB report the only time oil-by-rail was considered was with respect to the lower costs associated with the pipeline. The reduction in GHGs associated with pipelines versus rail and the reduction of risk to aquatic and marine ecosystems associated with getting oil off the rails was completely omitted in the analysis. Another one-dimensional analysis.


From my kitchen table in Langley I can’t do a full risk assessment of the TMX project with respect to the southern resident killer whales. But looking at the TMX project, from a holistic perspective, it becomes clear that the original NEB assessment was deficient. The NEB assessment only looked at the negative effects on the Canadian side of the border while ignoring all the benefits associated with the project on the US side of the border. Now we all know that the southern resident killer whales don’t recognize international borders so they will experience both the risks and benefits associated with the project. More ship movements through Haro Strait will be off-set by the reduction of tanker movements through Rosario Strait. More tanker noise on the Canadian side of the marine corridor will be balanced by less tanker noise on the US side of the corridor. From that perspective the TMX seems to be a wash from a risk perspective. However, when we consider that any reduction in oil-by-rail will reduce the risk to the salmon, upon which the southern resident killer whales depend for their food, the project may potentially have a net benefit to the population.

To conclude, I am confident that when a detailed assessment is carried out, the net effect of tanker traffic increases and decreases, associated with the project, will be a wash. Moreover, if the NEB considers the decrease in risk to salmon created by getting oil off the rails, on both sides of the border, that overall the TMX will be shown to be a net benefit to our endangered southern resident killer whales.

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31 Responses to On Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

  1. Alison Malis says:

    There is also a significant issue in the Johnstone Strait, Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait down into Puget Sound with a hugely rebounding seals and seal lion population competing for the salmon that form the basis of the resident orcas’ diet. The Ahousaht band recently approached DFO with a proposal for a cull. If you’re a mariner, it’s not hard to see that there are seals everywhere. Of course, we all know how well a cull is going to go over, even if it’s a necessary one. So add that to the mix of the orca issue. And good for you for pointing out the pollution issues in the Puget Sound. The governor of Washington has done a good job obfuscating any responsibility for industrial and superfund issues down in the sound by mounting “you better stop or we ain’t coming” campaign against Victoria’s sewage practices, even though there is plenty of marine science, including a comprehensive report authored by both Washington state government and BC government scientists that say that the current Victoria sewage “system” is fine, given the nature of the tidal movement in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and that a land-based system, which we Victoria taxpayers will now be forking over 1.5 BILLION dollars for, is arguably more environmentally damaging than the current system. But I digress. Dave Broadland of Focus Magazine has been diligently reporting on the orca, sewage, puget sound pollution issue for years. Here’s one of his latest posts: http://www.focusonvictoria.ca/july-august-2018/vancouvers-role-in-the-chinook-sewage-orca-death-spiral-r10/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wayne Hesse says:

    Nicely done.
    I appreciate your knowledge


  3. Sean says:

    The ruling quashed the NEB’s permit due to failing to consider marine shipping and it’s general effects as part of the project, not specifically because of the adverse effects on resident orcas. Also, the pipeline to puget sound already exists and isn’t part of the expansion, so everything you say about reducing tanker traffic between Vancouver and puget sound is wrong. If you want to present as a scientist, review what you present as facts.


    • Blair says:

      You are wrong on both fronts. The Puget Sound pipeline is underused and has a lot of excess capacity. Also a plan is in place to upgrade the pumping stations to increase its capacity.

      I’m not even bothering to deal with your mis-understanding of the Court decision.


      • Sean says:

        From paragraph 5 of the FCA decision:

        “Applying largely uncontested legal principles established by the Supreme Court of Canada to the factual record, a factual record that is also largely not contested, I conclude that most of the flaws asserted against the Board’s process and findings are without merit. However, the Board made one critical error. The Board unjustifiably defined the scope of the Project under review not to include Project-related tanker traffic. The unjustified exclusion of marine shipping from the scope of the Project led to successive, unacceptable deficiencies in the Board’s report and recommendations. As a result, the Governor in Council could not rely on the Board’s report and recommendations when assessing the Project’s environmental effects and the overall public interest.”

        Available in its entirety here: https://decisions.fca-caf.gc.ca/fca-caf/decisions/en/item/343511/index.do

        This is the court’s first and premier ruling. Killer whales are mentioned as a contributing factor to that decision in paragraph 68.

        Regardless, neither overall impacts of marine shipping, or specific impacts to orcas, as protected under the Species at Risk Act, were considered in the NEB’s approval. As you say, you can’t do a full risk assessment of the TMX project with respect to the southern resident killer whales from your kitchen table, which is in itself reason enough to carry out legally required due diligence and perform a proper risk assessment before moving forward.


      • Blair says:

        I’m not sure what your point is? You present a portion of the summary but not the detailed assessment where the court describes the limitations (in the 400’s). The court has made it clear that the SARA issues are the ones that caused the permit to be quashed. Moreover, when the assessment is done, if it is holistic, then I am confident they will see what I saw.


      • Sean says:

        The point is that the second sentence and basis of this post is incorrect. The SARA issues undoubtedly contributed to the ruling, but the grounds for quashing the approval was the much broader failure to consider marine shipping and all associated effects (one important one being SARA/SRKW) as part of the project’s scope.

        “[411] Had the Project been defined to include Project-related marine shipping, subsection 19(1) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 would have required the Board to consider, and make findings, concerning the factors enumerated in section 19. In the present case, these include:

        – the environmental effects of marine shipping, including the environmental effects of malfunctions or accidents that may occur in connection with the designated project, and any cumulative effects likely to result from the designated project in combination with other physical activities that have or will be carried out;

        – the significance of these effects;”

        By reducing the grounds of the ruling to the assessment of risk to the southern resident killer whales, you’re misguiding discussion of the issue.


  4. Bill L says:

    What about the mass replacement, and sidling of old tankers, to meet the IMO 2020 guidelines on freighter ships bunker fuel reliance?
    “The switch is expected to wallop prices for heavy oil containing high levels of sulphur — exactly the kind of the raw bitumen that makes up about half of Canada’s 4.4 million barrels per day of crude oil production.” says one news report.
    Let alone Europe’s banning in its seas of sulpherous fueled ships.


    • that robert says:

      Low sulphur diesel didn’t just fall off the ‘environmental cherry tree’. The process has been grinding slowly forward for quite some time, worldwide. Tanker corporations have been preparing for the change over for a long, long time. A quick observation or two;
      New and upcoming vessels are fitted with scrubbers. Older vessels will be subject to the owner’s cost/benefit platform for each ship will force some to be age-decommissioned (and they won’t be allowed into the TMX port) while others will have scrubbers added.
      A refinery opened just this year in Alberta which will be producing LS diesel. A second one, under construction, will be opening in 2019 (?).
      BC authorized a port to import avgas (diesel) for the airport.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Willem Namink says:

    Meanwhile,, the Great Lakes have 9,577 miles of fresh water coast line compared to 965 miles of BC’s coast.. 35 million people use the Great Lakes fresh water resource compared to all of BC’s population of 4.2 million . Oil was first discovered in Canada within the Great Lakes Basin in Southwestern Ontario. The Great Lakes have had oil tankers on the great lakes now for almost 150 years without an incident. AND YES, WE HAVE A PIPELINE which runs from Alberta and crosses through the Great Lakes to Sarnia Ont called “Pipeline 5” and it too has been in operation for more than 50 years without a spill. Lake Erie, the most travelled by shipping also produces the best commercial and sports fishing industry compared to all the other upper Great Lakes. So this assessment is not fact based, but hypothetical ideals.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. that robert says:

    Brilliant, Blair. Thank you for doing the research for all of us disinclined pro and agin’ers.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Calvin Browne says:

    Well done people.


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  9. Robert Cochrane says:

    More info re low sulphur diesel scrubbers in detail;
    German visionaries were the first to seize upon the notion of diesel scrubbers on vessels given experiences with scrubbing for coal sulphur…in 2013!
    There is now an est., as of May 31, 2018, 908 vessels with scrubbers…and over 3800 predicted in the ‘future'(?)’. Human nature being what it is, one can easily expect rules will be ignored and the ‘switch enforcement’, to LSF will be pushed a lot further down the road than ‘just a few months ahead’…given the 200% behind the 3800 predictions.
    Opportunists being what they are, have already leased all vessels possible, looking ahead to greater profit(ting).
    For more info/reality on the subject, here’s a link to start;


  10. John Hunter, P. Eng. says:

    In the century plus of oil tankers in BC waters, I cannot find even ONE oil tanker spill except a loading accident with Canola Oil in Vancouver Harbour. And many or most of those years were before radar, GPS, tethered tugs, coastal pilots, double hulls, and so on!. So there is always risk, but it is deminimus. Yet the uninformed or uncaring set their hair on fire!


  11. dusty says:

    good job dont listen to the suzukis


  12. Kelly Gingrich says:

    Very reasonable thoughts on the risks associated and pretty succinctly quashes the arguments against. Thanks


  13. Dave Poole says:

    You present some intriguing lines of argument. I enjoy reading your articles. Although not as encompassing as your article, I wrote an article on LinkedIn regarding tanker safety. You can find it here https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/risk-communication-challenge-what-actual-risks-shipping-dave-poole/.


  14. Andrew Roman says:

    I have written a blog which provides a critique of the court’s decision from a legal perspective. Like you, I conclude that the court got it wrong:



  15. Stanley Bobrow says:

    Good job, well reasoned


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  17. Nelson Wayne W Liston says:

    There is quite a spread in the noise spectrum from different ship types. Tankers appear to be in the middle of the pack (well below container ships for example) especially in the overlap of the frequencies the SRKW use for prey echo location. This would make the greater forecast increase in container ship traffic the logical target for those actually interested in “saving the whales”.
    Reducing the highly profitable harvesting of herring roe to increase the Orca’s food supply might make sense as well.


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  19. The TMP could stop all oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea if the oil was piped to the Washington State refineries. No more CO2 from ships, less noise for whales, reduced risk of oil spills.


  20. Dave Hassan says:

    Thanks Blair. VERY well written.


  21. Neil says:

    How about comparing the impact of tanker traffic to BC Ferries?


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