Recently, the Quebec Superior Court dismissed the injunction application from environmental groups who wanted to prohibit TransCanada PipeLines from conducting preliminary drilling in the heart of Cacouna, critical habitat of St. Lawrence belugas. Essentially, the court found that the applicants have not shown that the decision of the Quebec Minister of Environment to authorize drilling was unreasonable.
This drilling aims to verify the condition of the seabed in order to build an oil port in Cacouna, where TransCanada would ship off huge tankers of diluted crude oil from Alberta – up to 1.1 million barrels a day – to lucrative international markets. This project is an extension of the Energy East project, a 4,600km pipeline that would transport this crude oil from Alberta to Quebec and New Brunswick. WWF is extremely disappointed and concerned about this turn of events, because beyond the legal arguments, the fact remains that the decision of both levels of government to allow this work ignores the best available science on whale conservation. It is particularly concerning that the marine mammal experts of Fisheries and Oceans Canada have not been consulted.
Despite the designation of these belugas as “threatened” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, the government has not asked its scientists to comment on the potential impact of drilling work, which is standard in such circumstances. Yet these same scientists expressed their opposition to this project last April, when TransCanada wished to perform seismic surveys in the same area in Cacouna. They wrote – in no uncertain terms – that this work should cease because it would be extremely harmful to the belugas.
Even the highly respected Society for Marine Mammology, the world’s largest group of scientists dedicated to the study of marine mammals, recently expressed concerns about the project in a letter sent directly to Prime Minister Harper and Premiere Couillard. The society’s president, Helen Marsh, implored the two leaders to consult with experts. Unfortunately, this call went unheeded.
The St. Lawrence belugas are the most studied beluga population in the world. Numerous studies conducted on these by top scientists over three decades lead to the adoption in 2012 of an important beluga recovery program, under the Species At Risk Act. Despite these efforts, the St. Lawrence River beluga population has declined in recent years. Currently, the beluga population stands at about 900 individuals.
The proposed oil port in Cacouna and all activities associated with it – including exploratory drilling and seismic surveys – pose huge risks and threaten the recovery of the belugas, particularly in the immediate vicinity of its habitat essential off Cacouna and Rivière-du-Loup. It is clear from the available data and experts opinions that human activity – whether pile driving, drilling or other noisy activity – conducted in this critical habitat would be an obstacle to the unprecedented recovery of the species. More than anything, these preliminary drilling activities are planned to last 70 to 90 days right in the middle of the critical habitat of the beluga and at the most sensitive time of year. During this period, beluga mothers converge in this area to feed. And even though TransCanada has committed to keeping activity at least 540 metres from the whales, these animals are extremely sensitive to noise and we fear they will suffer from these disturbances. It’s troubling that it seems so difficult to have an informed discussion with scientist about these issues, that the best science is not the driving force behind decision-making.
This is a momentous decision, about more than just the terminal. We need to ask ourselves what we’re willing to give up – like belugas in the St. Lawrence – to support more fossil fuel development.