SEATTLE (AP) — Canada energy regulators on Thursday recommended approval of a pipeline-expansion project that would dramatically increase the number of oil tankers moving through the waters between the U.S. and Canada.
The National Energy Board recommended the federal government conditionally approve Kinder Morgan Canada's plan to nearly triple pipeline capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The $5.4 billion Trans Mountain project would carry oil from Alberta's oil sands to near Vancouver, British Columbia, to be loaded onto tankers for export to Asian and U.S. markets. It would increase vessel traffic through the Salish Sea by seven-fold.
Important benefits of the project, including thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of long-term jobs and increased access to diverse markets for Canadian oil, outweighed the "residual burdens," the board's chief environment officer, Robert Steedman, said during a news conference.
The board concluded that the project was in Canada's public interest, despite finding that it would increase greenhouse gas emissions and that project-related marine vessels would have "significant adverse effects" on southern resident killer whales. The orcas, that spend time in the inland waters of Washington state, are protected as endangered in the U.S. and Canada.
Kinder Morgan has said the pipeline expansion would be done in a way that minimizes impact on the environment, addresses social impacts and provides many economic benefits. It said in a statement Thursday it was "pleased" the board had recommended approval of the project.
But the project has faced fierce opposition from environmental groups and tribes in the U.S. and Canada as well as the British Columbia government.
Several Washington state tribal leaders traveled to Canada to testify against the project, telling regulators that the increased oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea could boost the risk of oil spills and have devastating consequences for tribes' way of life, culture and the environment, as well as their U.S. treaty right to fish.
In a statement Thursday, those U.S. tribal leaders said they were disappointed in the panel's recommendation.
"We are facing the very real threat of an oil spill that puts the Salish Sea at risk," Mel Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip Tribes said in a statement. "The fishing grounds of the Salish Sea are the lifeblood of our peoples. We cannot sit idly by while these waters are threatened by reckless increases in oil tanker traffic and the increased risk of catastrophic oil spills."
State Ecology officials have said they expect an additional 350 loaded oil tankers moving though state waters each year if the project is built.
The vessels would be loaded with oil at a terminal outside Vancouver, British Columbia and generally travel through Haro Strait west of San Juan Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for export to markets in Asia and the U.S.
The energy board found that while the consequences of large spills could be high, it said the likelihood of such events occurring would be very low given the extent of the mitigation and safety measures that would be implemented.
Kinder Morgan will have to address 157 engineering, safety and environmental conditions, including that it offset greenhouse gas emissions from construction of the project. Another condition requires Trans Mountain to develop a marine mammal protection program and undertake or support initiatives that try to understand or lessen project-related effects.
Trans Mountain proposed extended tug escort through the Strait of Georgia and an increase in the existing level of tug escort for loaded oil tankers from the terminal to the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The board said its 533-page report is one of the factors that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet will consider when making its decision, which is expected by the end of the year.