TransCanada, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, has run into multiple challenges over the past year with another of its proposed tar sands pipelines, Energy East. The project has been met with throngs of protesters, opposition from First Nations groups, and strict conditions imposed by Quebec and Ontario.
Now the oil company is facing another snag in its plan to build a pipeline across Canada’s eastern provinces: whales. This week, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) found that the population of beluga whales in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River should be considered endangered, prompting TransCanada to halt its studies on a key export terminal in Quebec.
The Cacouna, Quebec marine terminal was proposed for the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence and would serve as a loading point for oil carriers. But COSEWIC’s endangered species classification for the population, which contains about 900 individual whales and is the southernmost population of belugas in the world, could make building the terminal in Cacouna difficult for TransCanada.
“We are standing down on any further work at Cacouna, in order to analyze the recommendation, assess any impacts from Energy East, and review all viable options,” TransCanada spokesman Tim Duboyce told Bloomberg.
The St. Lawrence River beluga population was estimated to be as high as 5,000 around 1900, but whaling drove the population to about 1,200 by the 1950s. Even after beluga hunting was banned in Canada in 1979, high levels of pollution in the river and its tributaries continued to drive the population down, causing cancer, blood poisoning, pneumonia, hepatitis and abscesses in the whales. Low genetic diversity stemming from the whales’ isolated habitat, as well as toxic algal blooms and noise pollution, has also contributed to their low numbers.
According to COSEWIC, the population is more at risk of extinction today than it was when it was last assessed 10 years ago. “Without protection of its critical habitat, this population is expected to shrink further,” COSEWIC stated in a press release.
Protection of the beluga’s St. Lawrence habitat is what some environmentalists, including Canada’s David Suzuki, have been pushing for for the past several months, calling on the Canadian government to say no to a marine terminal along the St Lawrence. They’re worried that building a terminal on the banks of the St. Lawrence, which annually would bring in up to 175 “super tankers” — ships that can carry 1 million barrels of oil — would unnecessarily disturb the belugas’ habitat.
“It’s possibly the worst place we could have chosen to build an oil port in the St. Lawrence River because of the presence of the belugas and its especially rich biodiversity,” scientist Robert Michaud, who has been studying the St. Lawrence belugas for more than 30 years, told the Montreal Gazette in October.
The construction of Energy East would involve converting an existing gas pipeline that stretches across Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario into a tar sands pipeline. It would also involve building two extension pipelines: one that would start in Hardisty, Alberta and connect to the existing pipeline near the Saskatchewan border, and another that would start at the end of the existing pipeline near Ottowa, Ontario and continue to export terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick.
It would be carrying the same tar sands oil that Keystone XL would carry, but Energy East would have a higher capacity: about 1.1 million barrels of tar sands crude each day versus Keystone XL’s 830,000 bpd. Earlier this year, a report from Canada’s Pembina Institute also found that Energy East could create even more greenhouse gas emissions than Keystone XL.
Like Keystone XL, however, Energy East has faced major opposition, both in Canada and in some Northeastern U.S. states. In October, thousands of Canadians marched in Cacouna, Quebec, in opposition of the pipeline and the Cacouna terminal. And in November, the premiers of Quebec and Ontario established a list of conditions that must be met by TransCanada if the project is to proceed, conditions that include taking Energy East’s carbon emissions into account and consulting with tribal leaders.